Without warning, without any intimation whatever, an enormous mass of rock at the top of the great mountain at the town of Frank, Alberta, broke loose a few minutes after 4 o’clock Wednesday morning, and with the roaring of a volcano came sliding down the steep mountain side with awful velocity, crushing and grinding the life out of all in its way. Within a few seconds time nearly twenty cottages were buried beneath this tidal wave of death, and over sixty people lost to life. A reign of terror broke forth among the surviving people of the town. The air was filled with the dust of the grinding limestone and in one or two cases a cottage was set on fire by being turned over and throwing burning stoves into the debris. The roar of the falling masses of rock, the glare of the flames and the rising of the powdered dust naturally impressed the frightened survivors with the terrifying idea that the town was in the midst of a volcanic eruption. There was no help, there was no knowledge, there was apparently no escape. With blanched faces and quaking limbs some of the terrified people sought to put on enough clothing to protect them from the chilly air of night, while many rushed forth in their nightdresses, frantic with fright and wildly appealing for help and protection.
What had been a peaceful valley of industry and safety was suddenly transformed into a moving mass of rock that swept death and destruction with it. Down the precipitous sides of the mountain towering nearly 5000 feet in the clouds, came the vast masses of rock, the force of gravity producing a speed and power almost inconceivable to the human mind. There was no explosion. There was no throwing of rock and debris in the air. There was no smoke, no convulsions of the mountain or valley, no sulphurous fumes. This great mass of rock, extending nearly a half a mile in length along the mountain side and near the top of the dizzy height, had been forced loose by the action of nature, and with awful, irresistible, deadly force, moved from the base of the mountain across the valley, spreading out in its field of destruction like a fan, until between two and three miles in length had been covered by this divesting mass. Houses that stood close enough were completely engulfed and the sleeping inhabitants were buried beneath a mass of cold, unfeeling rock to the depth of 30 to 50 feet, with the crushed sides of the building for a casket, and the awakening gasp of fright the only earthly farewell. In other cases the buildings were forced along with the tide, to be at last caught and demolished and the inmates crushed by falling rock or collapsing walls. It was only a few seconds from the time the movement started until the end, and yet in that brief period the valley with the mountain on one side, sleeping humanity in their houses along the center, and a rising bench on the other, was filled to the depth of 20 to 100 feet with a solid mass of rock extending in width in places nearly two miles and in length between two and two and one-half miles. To gain some conception of the view presented one can picture a mass of broken rock dumped in a pile for building purposes, and then let his imagination run riot and permit the picture to be enlarged ten thousand fold, and then it will be only a faint idea. Perhaps in the history of the country there has never been such a peculiar rock slide with such disastrous results and such marvellous force and activity displayed, and years may come and years may go but that mountain at Frank, with the gaping, semi-circular hole, will be pointed out by passengers on the trains with feelings of terror and horror.
Although the terror strickened inhabitants were partially calmed down with the appearance of dawn, yet many in the portion of the town that escaped the avalanche of rock hastily gathered some clothing and valuables and sought refuge in the neighbouring town of Blairmore three miles away. This was especially the case with the women, but the men as soon as possible, formed a relief party and hurried to where the cottages had stood. There were anxious hearts and willing hands, but little for them to do. Perhaps in all there were not more than five or six injured. If touched at all, instant death had been the result, and hundreds of tons of rock hid the bodies from view. There was little need of doctors or nurses, and the rescuing party soon completed its work. The dead were past human aid, and it will be possible to recover their bodies only in a few instances.
One of the theories of the disaster was that the coal mine had caved in, loosening a mass of rock above it. If this had been true, the men working in the mine would have been lost also, and during the day a relief party went near the tunnel mouth as it could be located and started to clear away to get at the mines. These people worked in the face of great danger, as there were rocks of different sizes still coming down the mountain side. Thirteen hours after the accident a shout of joy went up from many throats, when a body of worn, weary and haggard men were seen to emerge from the mountain side above the tunnel mouth. There were fifteen of the miners who had by superhuman efforts saved their lives by digging a new opening from the mine through the mountain side. Two others had smothered to death. They felt the jar of the slide while at work, and knew something had happened, but had no idea of the terrible scene that was presented to their view when they came out into the light. Carrying up their timbers they cut a new shaft timbering as they went, until they reached a mass of loose rock at the outside, through which they worked their way. It was a long seige but the men never lost courage and came out of it thanking God for their good fortune.
Alex Leitch, brother of A. Leitch of Cranbrook, lived with his wife and seven children in a cottage that was on the outer edge of the slide, but still far enough in to be totally demolished and the father and mother and four of the boys were killed. The dead children are John, Allan, Wilfred and Athol, and the bodies of the two former are not recovered. The escape of the three girls was a miracle, especially that of the little baby two years old, who was found near a neighbour’s house several yards away, in her night dress and bare feet, without a scratch or bruise. She had been sleeping with her parents, who had been killed in their bed, and how the little one had got to where she was found will never be known. The house had been pushed along with the slide about 30 feet and was badly crushed and demolished. The four boys were sleeping in a bedroom in a lean to at the rear of the building, the father, mother and baby in a back bedroom in the main part of the building, and the two girls in the front room. A rafter breaking from the ceiling fell so as to form a support over the bed in which the two girls slept and leaving a small space into which the bed had been crushed and jammed. The little girls were huddled together in their terror, and aside from a few bruises escaped unhurt. It took nearly two hours to dig them out, as great care had to be exercised to prevent heavy rocks and portions of the crushed building from falling in on them. The bodies of the parents were badly bruised but the remains of the two boys that were found did not show any serious injures. The other two bodies are buried beneath the rock and a party of ten men are searching for them. A. Leitch, who was in Jaffray, went up on Superintendent Taylor’s special and performed the sad task of caring for the dead. The bodies were prepared for burial and brought to Cranbrook on the passenger. The little children were met at Fernie by Miss Jessie Leitch and when the train arrived in Cranbrook taken at once to the Leitch home. Arrangements for the funeral will be made as soon as the wishes of the other two brothers at Oak Lake can be ascertained.
Poupoure & McVeigh’s railroad camp was located about one mile below town, and at the time of the accident there were only five men in camp, but they were all killed and buried beneath fifty feet of rock. One of the men was young McVeigh, who was married about a year ago and leaves a wife and baby. There is not a trace of the camp left and it is not possible to definitely locate its former position.
The coal mine had been sold only a few days before to a French Syndicate for $1,500,000, and was to be delivered on the 15th of May. H.L. Frank is in Paris now to close the deal.
Men who walked over the whole field say that there are places where masses of solid rock as large as freight cars can be seen fully a mile from the mountain. The mass of rock has acted like a snowslide, forcing its way across the valley and pushing up on the hillside to a considerable distance. Two or three ranches across the main line of the CPR were covered with the rock the houses demolished and the inmates killed.
Mrs. W. Colpman and two children of Cranbrook, and Mr. and Mrs. H. Bentley, of Fernie, were on the train going west, that was east of the slide. With the help of some gentlemen who carried the little ones, these two ladies walked the entire distance over that field of rock and rubbish, nearly two miles, and never murmured a word of complaint. When they had gotten through their clothes were torn and bedraggled and their shoes badly cut. Few women would attempt such a feat.
The question of rebuilding the line through the valley is a most serious one to the CPR as the space is filled from the mountain to the bench. A temporary track will be built over the debris along the line of the creek, but when it comes to cutting a grade for permanent road bed, it will cost several hundred thousand dollars.
The news was received in Cranbrook at an early hour and Superintendent Taylor was notified at once. He lost no time in arranging for a special train and notifying the doctors. As a result at 7 A.M. the train was ready with Drs. King and Green, Supt. Taylor and others.
During the forenoon groups of people gathered about the streets and discussed the terrible catastrophe from the meagre information received. Many had friends or relatives in Frank and great anxiety was felt at their fate.
There was sympathy expressed on every side for the family of A. Leitch when it became known that the brother’s family had all been killed except three. The following told the story of their fate:
Frank, Alta, April 29, 1903
We are all safe. Alex. Leitch, wife and four boys are dead. Jessie, May and the baby are badly hurt.
W. C. Hamilton.
Breckenridge & Lund had a camp at Frank where they have been doing some work for the CPR. Mr. Breckenridge, who is in charge, was preparing to move to a new location near the mountain but had been delayed several days. The delay saved them for the place selected for their new camp is now filled with thousands of tons of rock.
Senator King and wife and Dr. King came through just the day before and the Senator now thinks they were very fortunate.
If the west bound train had been on time it would probably have been caught by the slide. Cecil Prest went to Frank last evening with his camera.
At 12 o’clock a special freight left to gather rails and ties to reconstruct a track to take the place of the one covered by the debris.
The excitement at Fernie was intense during the day, as it brought vividly to mind the memorable disaster in that town a short time ago.
The telegraph operator at Frank was flooded with inquiries from relatives and friends of people living in Frank.
Mr. Leitch stated last night on his return from Frank that the death of the six members of his brother’s family made sixteen of his relatives who had died in the last eighteen months.
Mr. and Mrs. C.E. Reid, Dr. and Mrs. O’Hogan, Mr. and Miss Hamilton, E. Orchard and family and J. Murphy, all well known in Cranbrook, were living in the part of town that escaped.
Fears are entertained that the rest of the mountain near the business portion of the town may fall now. If it does it will wipe out the town.
On the station platform at Frank was a leg of a human being. It had been found in the wreck near the cottages.
One of the tipples of the mine was found nearly a mile away.
There was nothing to indicate a volcanic eruption.
A large number of Cranbrook people waited for the passenger train from Frank, which arrived at 3 o’clock this morning.
More on the Frank Slide in Cranbrook Herald of May 7, 1903.