By Erika Mathieu
Westwind Weekly News
It wasn’t until I travelled to Iceland that I reflected on my home country’s own unusual topography. The stretch of highway along the Crowsnest Pass parts the sea of heather-hued limestone and provides a liminal divide of the otherworldly remains of the Frank Slide disaster as tourists and travellers observe a literal mountain of boulders which edge up on the precipice of the emerald treeline.
Since moving to Southern Alberta, I have driven Highway 3 through Frank slide, dozens of times, but the frequency of my trips through Canada’s deadliest rockslide seemed typical, or at least commonplace. When I was younger, my grade four class actually spent the night in the interpretive centre as part of a two-day field trip through the Crowsnest Pass, but reflecting back, it occurred to me I didn’t really know all that much about the slide beyond the basics and what I could remember from a field trip 20 years ago.
In researching for this column I learned that at the time of the slide, Alberta didn’t exist yet, and at the time of the disaster, the small mining town of Frank, was under the territorial boundaries of the Northwest Territories.
According to historical documentation, Indigenous groups including the Blackfoot and Kutenai First Nations had long-alluded to the slow-moving turtle mountain. Foreshadowing the disaster that would take place in 1903, the respective nations avoided the immediate surrounding area of the mountain.
As a result of the mountain’s geological disadvantage known as an anticline, tremors and shifts in the mine and surrounding areas were frequently reported in the months leading up to the disaster. Miner’s accounts outline the occasional ease with which coal was mined near the Town, as it was commonplace for tremors within the mountain to dislodge coal into piles.
In addition to the anticline, a warm winter in 1903 catalyzed a deeper seepage of water into the mountain, and when a cold snap took place, the freezing water expanded, setting off the catastrophic chain of events which result in at least 70 lives lost as the tidal wave of 110 million tonnes of limestone blanketed the sleeping town on the morning of April 29.
The interpretive centre, sits on top of a hill overlooking the rubble below, and although countless people travel past the remains on Highway 3, around 100,000 people pull off to to the information centre every year to learn more about the circumstances of the mountain that moved, and the lost souls who to this day, are buried below. So while our proximity to the site may blunt the impact of the landscape, the fragmented remains of turtle mountain are unmovable in their enormity. To climb upon the vast ocean of limestone where entombed remains of families are pinned down below is both eerie and odd.