The Frank Slide

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Lillian Clarke, a 15-year-old girl, had spent the evening working at a boarding house.

It was busy that night as Canadian Pacific Railway work crews had rented many of the rooms.

For the past few weeks, she had been working the day shift but not tonight..

Overall, the night shift was nice. Work was slow, but the pay was good, especially with the town booming thanks to its coal mine operating on Turtle Mountain on the edge of the Canadian Rockies.

The only difficult part of this new shift was she had never spent a night away from her family.

Tonight, would be the first time.

And as she worked, suddenly, the ground shook.

Perhaps Lillian thought it was an earthquake, or an explosion, but the next thing she knew, the building she was in began to groan and creak as a deafening  roar enveloped everything around her.

Almost as soon as it happened, it was over

What followed was a haunting silence.

Lillian didn’t know it at the time, but the night shift had just saved her life.

I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!

To understand what happened to Lillian on April 29, 1903 and how her mother and six siblings all died when rubble covered their home while her father, working up on the mine on the mountain, never returned.

I need to take you back 300 million years,

Turtle Mountain and the town of Frank, in what is now Alberta was at the bottom of a shallow ocean.

Sea creatures lived and died there, leaving their calcium-carbonite-rich shells and skeletons on the ocean floor.

This created a thick layer of calcium carbonate that compressed into limestone.

After the ocean receded, wetlands and rivers took over the land.

New vegetation grew and died. That vegetation, over the eons, created layers of organic material that compressed into coal deposits.

Classified as an anticline of Paleozoic Rundle Group carbonates, Turtle Mountain formed 70 to 80 million years ago, along with the rest of the Rocky Mountains.

As it rose, those layers of coal and limestone created a mountain that was far from stable as each layer had a weak grip on each other.

At the summit of the mountain, fissures formed, and water from rain and snow began infiltrating into the mountain.

That water crept into the crevices for eons.

Eventually, an inverted V cracked into the mountain’s peak, creating an even better conduit for water. A natural funnel if you will.

As the days turned to months, which turned to years and centuries, the warm summers and cold winters expanded and contracted the cracks in the mountain, creating internal pressure that was waiting to burst out.

Down at its base, the Crowsnest River slowly caused erosion of the mountain.

Eventually, Turtle Mountain loomed over the Crowsnest River, rising to a height of 2,210 metres, or 7,250 feet.

The Indigenous people, specifically the Blackfoot, occupied this region for thousands of years and they gave Turtle Mountain a name to reflect its behaviour.

They called it, the Mountain That Moves.

They also never camped at the base of the mountain.

(foreshadowing – small pause music transition)

In 1880, Louis Garnett arrived in the area, and he saw this mountain and the unique shape inspired its name.

He felt he could see a turtle’s face in the mountain, and its peak was the shell.

So, he called it Turtle Mountain.

More settlers arrived in the late-19th century, and none listened to the warnings by the Indigenous people.

That’s because there was something in that mountain that superseded all other concerns, coal.

In 1901, Sam Gebo and Henry Frank, two American entrepreneurs, drilled right into Turtle Mountain.

Within a few weeks, buildings were erected at the base near the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

On Sept. 3, 1901, Frank was incorporated as a village, bearing the last name of Henry Frank.

The incorporation of the town was a big event.

On Sept. 10, an all-day celebration was held.

There were sporting competitions, tours of the mine, a banquet, and a dance.

Premier Frederick Haultain even showed up, as did federal Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton.

With steady work and a thriving mine, Frank quickly grew and by 1903, there were 600 people living there,

Little did they know they were beneath a ticking time bomb.

During the winter of 1902-03,  more snow than usual created a large snowpack  atop of Turtle Mountain.

That winter was followed by an unusually warm spring that caused the snow to melt quickly.

That melt, along with rain, poured into the mountain fissures that had grown over the centuries due to the warming and cooling cycle of the region.

Throughout April 1903, the miners heard the rumblings of the mountain.

The pressure of the shifting rock even began to crack and splinter the supporting timbers of the mine shaft.

Still, the mining continued.

On April 28, 1903, a sudden wave of cold air caused the water in the mountain to freeze.

This trapped air and liquid within the mountain.

With that extra pressure of the expanding ice in its fissures, Turtle Mountain had reached its breaking point.

Across the Crowsnest River , Thomas Delap was working the night shift at the electric plant.

He had arrived in Frank from Red Lodge, Montana the previous month with his wife.

His wife was back at the hotel in town, while the couple waited for a home to be built.

Brothers Charles and Robert Chestnut had arrived in town that night.

Originally, they were going to sleep in the log cabin beside the stable in town, but their purchase of the building had been delayed.

They chose to get a room at the hotel, which a group of Welshmen had vacated earlier that day.

They were excited for the next day when they would move into their cabin.

Stable boss Robert Watthad had finished his chores for the evening and decided to go uptown to the Imperial Hotel.

After spending a few hours there playing blackjack, he walked out into the cool evening to stretch out his legs.

Les Ferguson, a close friend, asked Robert if he was going to stay in the hotel that night.

Robert thought about it, and decided that for tonight, he would sleep in his stable instead and save some money.

At the foot of Turtle Mountain, James Graham was living with his wife and that night, their friend Ned Morgan came by for a visit.

After dinner and some drinks, James walked Ned out and looked out over his land.

In the distance, he saw the familiar sight of  Andy Grissack’ tent with a small plume of smoke rising from it. Up on the mountain, two of his sons were working in the mine that night.

Outside of town, Andy Grissack sat in his tent making a meal.

He had been in Frank longer than most and lived in his tent throughout the year.

He had no nearby neighbours around him, but he was known to be a friendly man in the community.

Many children came by to listen to his stories about his adventures.

He told them of the Lost Lemon Mine full of gold, and the many hidden paths he had found through the mountains.

he town of Frank slept peacefully that night, until  4:10 a.m., when the Mountain That Moves…moved.

An engineer on a CPR train, whose name is lost to history, was pulling the train out of the mine, and slowly making his way away from the town of Frank.

As he began to move the train, a deafening sound suddenly emerged from behind.

Working on instinct alone, the engineer pushed the train to full speed and got over the Crowsnest River Bridge.

He didn’t look back.

Once  he crossed the bridge he turned around and saw the Town of Frank was no longer there.

At 4:10 a.m. on April 29, 1903,  30 million cubic metres of limestone rock, weighing 82 million tons, broke off Turtle Mountain.

The section of mountain that barreled down to Frank was one kilometre wide, 425 metres high and 150 metres deep.

Moving at 112 kilometres an hour down the mountain, it took 100 seconds for the slide to slam into Frank.

The crash was so loud, it was said that it could be heard 200 kilometres away in the Town of Cochrane.

Many people who survived and were close to the disaster said it sounded like cannons going off next to their heads.

The reason the slide moved so fast was that an air cushion developed between the rockslide debris and the mountain from the compressed air.

Remember what I said about a can of pop freezing in winter?

Well here this compressed air allowed the rock to travel faster on that cushion.

There is also the theory of acoustic fluidization, which theorizes that a huge mass of moving material creates enough seismic energy that it reduces the friction between two materials, allowing it to move faster and farther.

As the landslide fell down the mountain, it destroyed the entrance to the coal mine, two kilometres of railway, two ranches and a section of Frank.

Thankfully, it only hit the eastern edge of town, which was more sparsely populated than the other areas of Frank.

At the mine, 20 men were on shift with three standing outside the entrance.

Those three, one of whom was Lillian Clarke’s father, were all killed in the slide but the 17 inside the mine were still alive.

The problem was they were trapped.

Unbeknownst to them, things were much, much worse outside.

The massive amount of rock that broke off the mountain had destroyed nearly every building on the east side of town.

Many homes and businesses, the cemetery and seven cottages were destroyed.

Most of those buildings were under dozens of feet of rock.

The dead numbered at least 100, but the exact number will never be known.

A camp of transients on the east side of town and may have had as many as 50 people in it.

They weren’t  included in the final count of victims.

Thomas Delap who was working the night shift at the electric plant was killed instantly in the slide.

His body was found several days later a short distance from where he worked.

The two brothers, Charles and Robert Chestnut, who had chosen to sleep in the hotel for the night rather than their cabin, emerged from their temporary home to find their cabin long gone and their lives saved by the simple decision of where to sleep.

The same could not be said for the stable boss Robert Watthad.

He died in his stable when it was crushed by rocks from the slide. Robert’s body was never found.

Andy Grissack, the old trapper who delighted children with his tales of adventure, died in his tent that night.

He was later found, wrapped in his tent, with an iron frying pan still in his hand.

James Graham, who had bid farewell to his friend Ned Morgan after the dinner visit, died in the disaster.

The log house he lived in with his wife was buried under 100 feet of rock, killing him, his wife, and two hired men who lived in the bunkhouse next to their home.

For rescuers, the scene was, at times, grisly.

In one case, the leg and hip of a man was found lying 150 feet away from the rest of his body.

Of all the dead, only 12 bodies were ever found after the disaster, at least initially.

Amid the stories of death and destruction, there were stories of survival for many.

Lucy Ennis lived with her husband Sam and their four children. When the slide hit, it rolled their home three times.

Sam was able to free himself and he began to dig Lucy out of the rubble. Lucy had been pinned by a beam and was in pain but when she saw mud blocking the mouth of her baby Gladys, she freed the obstruction and saved her child’s life.

Sam was able to free his entire family, as well as his brother-in-law James from the rubble.

When Sam freed James, he discovered his next-door neighbour Mrs. Watkins underneath him, alive but injured.

She had been thrown into the house as the slide hit.

As for Lucy, she had suffered a broken collarbone. Overall, the entire family had escaped without any major injuries.

Nearby, Lestern Johnson was laying in his bed when he felt a sudden wind hit his house.

The wind, which was the air being pushed by the huge amount of rock falling down the mountain, lifted his house several feet off its foundation.

The house suddenly began to crash and splinter and the last thing he remembered was the screams of his parents Charlee and Nancy.

When he awoke, he could see light through cracks in front of him.

As he looked around, he discovered two huge boulders had crashed together over top of him.

They had not crushed him but had saved his life by forming a roof over him and protecting him from further debris.

He attempted to crawl out from the rocks, but a lath had driven into his right side.

As he moved, it caught on a rock and the pain caused him to pass out again.

After he woke up again, he pulled the lath out of his body with his bare hands and crawled out into the open.

As he stood out in the cold spring air, he saw the destruction of his home and then noticed that all his clothes had been torn away.

Now naked and cold, he swam across the creek and found the Williams family.

At their home, as he dressed himself, he noticed feathers in his side wound because the lath had gone through his pillow and embedded the feathers into him.

He was taken to the home of Dr. Malcolmson where he passed out once more.

When he awoke, he saw the feathers were gone and his wound was stitched up.

Sadly, his parents had died in the slide.

An Italian man named Frank had been away from town to give evidence at a trial in Fort MacLeod.

When he returned home, only rocks were found where his home once stood.

There was also no sign of the fir tree that he had buried $700 under.

An unnamed man who had been drinking in town blamed the noise and shaking ground on his alcohol consumption.

He went home to bed and woke up sober in the morning to discover that portions of Frank were now under 100 feet of rock.

Katherine Bansemer was four years old when the slide hit.

She woke up terrified as plaster from the walls and roof fell around her.

The entire house had been pushed off its foundation and along the ground. In 1953, x many years after the disaster, she said,

“When a catastrophe like that happens, no matter how young you are, you remember it.”

Meanwhile the 17 miner trapped inside the mine began to work to dig out the rocks that blocked the entrance.

With each passing moment, the air was becoming toxic as no fresh air was coming into the mine.

By the afternoon, they broke through to the surface and fresh air streamed into the mine.

They weren’t able  to go out the entrance due to falling rocks, so the miners had to cut a shaft through an outcropping of rock to protect them as they emerged.

After 13 straight hours trapped in the mountain, all 17 emerged alive.

That’s when they saw that many of their homes were gone.

One miner later learned his family was alive but injured at the hospital, while another received the news that he had lost his wife and all his children.

Over at the CPR work camp, not to be confused with the transient camp, 12 workers died in the slide.

It could have been far worse though.

 Another 128 men were scheduled to arrive the day before, but their train failed to pick them up.

That missed train saved their lives.

Amid the destruction, Sid Choquette, a brakeman with the CPR emerged as a hero.

As soon as the slide happened and buried the track, he rushed towards an approaching train as rocks fell around him and dust impaired his visibility.

He ran two kilometres to warn the Spokane Flyer that the track was gone, thereby saving an unknown number of passengers on that train.

For his heroics, he was given a commendation and $25 from the CPR, amounting to about $800 today.

The Victoria Daily Times wrote,

“What happened is variously described, from a volcanic eruption to a tremendous slide. So terrific were its effects that it is little wonder that the first version of the affair received this morning ascribed the cause of the trouble to the most extraordinary causes.”

The Calgary Herald reported that the disaster was caused by a mine explosion, which left 60 men trapped in the mountain and destroyed several cottages.

As soon as news of the disaster reached the outside world, police officers and doctors began to arrive in Frank.

They had to walk for several kilometres across rocks and boulders to access the town.

On May 1, then Premier Frederick Haultain arrived to survey the damage.

He immediately ordered the entire town evacuated until a survey of the mountain was completed.

Residents could not return home for another nine days.

The CPR also got down to work clearing the track.

The track was damaged so badly that it had to be completely rebuilt, and the process took three weeks.

As for the mine, it was back up and running by May 30, one month after the slide.

While it was determined that mining activities on Turtle Mountain played a part in the slide and likely caused it. Coal continued to be mined at Frank, peaking in production in 1910.

Then mining slowed down until 1917, when the mine closed for good.

Then In 1923, a construction crew was working on a road near the town.

As they dug through the rock, they came upon the skeletons of seven people. While there was no way to confirm who they were, the consensus was they were the family of Lillian Clarke, the girl who was working her first night shift at the hotel x many years earlier.

The last survivor of the disaster was Gladys Ennis, the little baby who was choking on mud that fateful morning.

She passed away in 1995.

As for the town, it grew to a peak of 1,178 people in 1910.

Once the mine closed, the population slowly dwindled and today it has 200 residents.

The entire site is now a National Historic Site, and thousands visitors each year.

For decades after the slide, town residents used paint markings and tape measures to monitor the movements of the mountain in the hopes of  some sort of warning for another possible slide.

Today, the mine is monitored by the Alberta Geological Survey on a regular basis to determine if another slide could happen.

Geologists believe that there will be another slide, it is only a matter of time.

Currently, the mountain moves a few millimetres per year and scientists believe the slide will come from the south peak and be one-sixth the size of the Frank Slide.

Thankfully, it’s not expected to happen for several centuries.

But, each year, 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of rock continue to fall down various parts of the mountain.

After the Frank Slide, legends sprang about the disaster.

One legend stated that the Union Bank of Canada, with $500,000 inside, was buried completely in the slide.

This legend was prevalent enough that in 1924, when work crews were digging a new road, police guards stood by in case they found the buried money.

In fact, the Union Bank was not hit by the slide and the legend only sprang up after 1911 when the bank was torn down. The other issue with this story is that a miner made $22 per week, and $25,000 was enough to pay for 1,100 miners

So, there was no way the bank would have $500,000 in its vault..

The most common legend from the slide is the tale of a young girl who survived in a miraculous way.

The story says she was found either on rocks, on a bale of hay, under a roof or in the arms of her dead mother.

The legend actually came from the story of Marion Leitch, who was thrown from her home and landed in a pile of hay when the slide hit her house.

Sadly, her parents and four brothers died, but her sisters survived.

She eventually moved to Cranbrook, where she passed away in 1977.

Throughout her life, she hated her association with the legend and being called Frankie Slide


After Turtle Mountain collapsed onto Frank, and the miners escaped, one worker was left behind.

Charlie The Horse was one of three horses that worked in the mine.

All the miners who escaped assumed the horses had died, but Charlie the Horse had not.

In fact, as the days turned into weeks down in Frank, Charlie continued to walk around the mine.

He ate bark off timber supports for food and drank pools of water in the mine to quench his thirst.

As the miners began to work to reopen the mine, they were surprised to find Charlie the Horse looking back at them.

He had survived an entire month, forgotten by the outside world.

Now, Charlie’s fate is a sad one so brace yourselves…

The miners, so excited to see him wanted to help the horse and reward him for surviving so long in the mine.

They gave him oats and brandy as a treat.

But after eating only timber for a month his body wasn’t used to the food

Which sadly led to the death of Charlie the Horse.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Alberta Geological Survey, Wikipedia, University of Calgary, Victoria Daily Times, Calgary Herald,

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