In the pre-dawn hours of April 29, 1903, a huge landslide broke loose from Turtle Mountain in Alberta, Canada. Residents in the town of Frank heard rumbling and wondered if there had been an explosion in a nearby coal mine. Within minutes, approximately 90 million tons of limestone crashed down, entombing more than 90 of the town’s residents under 150 feet of boulders.
Turtle Mountain is located in a picturesque section of Crowsnest Pass in southwest Alberta. In the 1880s, settlers discovered a seam of coal in the area. In 1901, American entrepreneurs Henry Frank and Sam Gebo opened a coal mine, and shortly after the town of Frank became the first incorporated village in the Pass. By 1903, 1000 people lived in Frank and a dozen nearby coal mines were operating.
Coal miners honeycombed tunnels through Turtle Mountain without realizing that they were further weakening the already unstable geological structure of the mountain. Layers of sedimentary rock had been tilted to almost vertical over time and erosion in the lower part of the mountain created a dangerous overhang of rock on top. For millennia, water seeped into cracks in the rock. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles caused the cracks to widen, creating more instability.
When the residents of Frank went to bed the night of April 28, 1903, they had no idea of the power of nature about to be unleashed in their town. At 4:10 a.m. on the morning of April 29th, a loud rumbling awakened them. The sound was reportedly heard by residents living nearly 100 miles away. An avalanche of rock broke free from the mountain and careened down, traveling over 180 miles per hour. It reached the valley floor in just 100 seconds.
George Hie was a miner in Frank and recalled hearing a cracking noise coming from the mine about two weeks before the slide. “The pressure was so great at this place that a six-inch timber was broken,” he said. The morning the Frank Slide broke loose, Hie was sleeping in his bunk. “I was thrown violently out by pressure. I ran outside and was startled to see a gigantic mountain passing down only twenty-five feet away from me.” After the dust settled, Hie saw the corner of a house protruding from the rocks. He heard a cry for help and frantically helped dig out a trapped woman. Her two children died. Later, Hie found the bodies of two boys about 200 feet from their cabin. “They were clad in pajamas. Their bodies never had a mark on them.” Hie wondered if they had time to run or if the force of the blast carried them there.
Three young girls were among the survivors, dug out alive hours after the slide. Sadly, their parents and brothers perished in the disaster. The three sisters were adopted by separate families and reunited for the first time in 41 years in 1944. The bodies of most of those killed remain buried under tons of rock in Frank, and the scar from the rockslide serves as a visible reminder of the tragedy that occurred 117 years ago this month.
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