The 425m Landslide that Engulfed an Albertan Town
One hundred and nine years ago, the lively little mining community of Frank, Alberta was home to 600 people. Established only two years earlier in 1901, the settlement nestled in the rugged shadow of Turtle Mountain and was built to provide the Canadian-American Coal and Coke Company’s productive new mine with workers, rail and communication links throughout the coal-rich Crowsnest Pass. Named after Henry Luplin Frank, one of the company’s founders, the town enjoyed a grand opening with much fanfare, banqueting and the attendance of notable regional figures. But the peace and prosperity would not last long.
Local legend maintained that the native Crow Indians had long avoided Turtle Mountain. The peak’s testudine epithet came from their belief that the mountain ‘moved slowly’ like a turtle as in the past a landslide had killed some two hundred of their number during a belligerent encounter with the Blackfoot Indians (although other sources indicate that it was named Turtle Mountain by Louis Garnett, a local rancher, who thought that the peak resembled a turtle’s face with the shell rising behind). From then on Turtle Mountain had been peaceful, a silent sentinel watching over Crowsnest Pass. But it was a serenity that was to be shattered significantly on April 29th, 1903 when at 4:10 a.m. the east face of the mountain gave way.
30 million cubic metres of limestone broke free from the mountain and crashed down towards the sleeping populace of Frank. In a mere minute and a half a landslide one kilometre wide and 425 meters deep obliterated a large portion of the town and killed an estimated 76 of the 100 people that lived in its path. A further 23 were injured and some 17 unfortunate miners trapped inside the mine.
The massive rock fall covered the Crowsnest River that runs through the valley, damming it completely and destroyed 2 kilometres of the Canadian Pacific Railway and road. Almost all of the lucrative mine’s surface infrastructure was annihilated. A construction camp, dairy farm, shoe store, houses, a ranch, stables and even the cemetery were all buried beneath the huge weight of the slide.
The daily herald was fast to publish news of the event and rolled out a headline later that day describing the cause of the slide as “Some volcanic disturbance or earthquake” and saying that “The explosion was followed by a serious outbreak of flames, and whole rows of cottages, belonging to private families, have been destroyed. The debris of earth, rock and other matter thrown up, has entirely dammed up the river. It is said that between fifty and sixty men are imprisoned in the mines, and about 75 people killed.”
In fact, no explosion or earthquake was to blame. The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre gives the reason: “The primary cause of the Frank slide was the unstable structure of Turtle Mountain. A thrust fault runs through it, and eroding sandstone and shale beneath older limestone plus deeply eroded cracks in the limestone on the top would have caused the rock to fall eventually. Secondary causes include coal mining inside the mountain and dramatic changes in weather conditions – a quick freeze – that night.”
Twelve bodies were recovered from the debris at the time of the slide with a further seven unearthed by road construction workers almost nineteen years later. Miraculously, several people survived despite being in the direct path of the deadly rock fall, including three young girls. Fernie Watkins was recovered from amid the debris; a fifteen month old Marion Leitch was somehow flung from her house to land safely on a bale of hay that had itself been thrown a kilometre from where the livery stables had once stood; Gladys Ennis, two years old, was plucked from a puddle of mud by her mother, Lucy. Indeed, Gladys would be the last survivor of the Frank Slide, dying in 1995 aged 94.
The seventeen men trapped in the Frank mine decided that tunnelling to the surface through the coal would be easier than trying to clear the harder, limestone debris that blocked the entrance. Hastened by rising waters from the newly dammed Old Man River flooding into the mine and a dwindling oxygen supply, they collected what tools they could and set to work. Their difficult journey took them fourteen desperate and gruelling hours. What thoughts ran through their minds when they re-emerged into the Alberta sunlight and saw the devastation around them can only be imagined.
Despite an initial evacuation, both the mine and the railway were back in operation within a month, and even though some people feared another slide and chose to move away from the mountain’s shadow, the town put the tragedy behind it and continued to grow (at one point even housing a zoo) until a Royal Commission report on the mountain’s stability resulted in the government ordering the closure of the southern area of the town in 1911. People moved to other areas of the Crowsnest Pass, and many settled in New Frank, the present location of Frank.
The Frank Slide as it came to be known became an immediate sensation in 1903, capturing media attention and, as the largest landslide in Canada, even becoming a regional tourist attraction.
Today, Frank is a quiet residential town of 263. The studies and monitoring of Turtle Mountain continue today with the building of the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre and a permanent monitoring station with sensors installed on the mountain. The Alberta Geological Survey states: “The first priority is to provide early warning to residents of the potential for a second catastrophic rock avalanche. The secondary priority is to create a field laboratory for the research community to test and develop instruments and monitoring technologies to better understand the mechanics of slowly moving rock masses.”
Tales of ghosts and myths surround the landslide, some even persisting to the present day. One of the most famous states that millions of dollars in gold or silver is still buried beneath the rubble within the old town’s submerged bank. This is unlikely to be true as subsequent photographs show the bank clearly standing in Frank’s high street. What is certain is that the Frank Slide remains a silent memorial to those that were killed by the massive and sometimes unpredictably destructive power of nature.