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  • Canada's deadliest rock slide a popular roadside attraction

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    Published 11/05/2012 11:45:59
    Canada's deadliest rock slide a popular roadside attraction
    A small boy plays among the rubble of the Frank Slide in Alberta's Crowsnest Pass while his father takes pictures in this photo taken August 9, 2012. Over 90 people died when part of Turtle Mountain buried part of the town in 1903. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland

    FRANK, Alta. - The site of Canada's deadliest rock slide in the Crowsnest Pass of southwestern Alberta is impossible to miss.

    In fact, it's about as subtle as a slap in the face.

    Highway 3, which connects Alberta with southeastern B.C., weaves its way through giant grey limestone boulders like a dark ribbon. Some of the boulders are as big as school buses — others the size of small houses.

    It was 109 years ago that 82 million tonnes of rock fell from the summit of Turtle Mountain into the Crowsnest River valley below. The slide lasted a mere 90 seconds but in that short time at least 90 people were killed and the southeastern corner of the coal mining town of Frank, Alta., disappeared.

    "It's such an unusual landscape. It's awe-inspiring with all of this rock. You drive through and you're not expecting it and you think, 'What happened here?'" said Monica Field, the area manager for the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre.

    The rock slide buried the eastern outskirts of the town. It also obliterated a two kilometre stretch of the Canadian Pacific Railway, surface buildings of the Canadian American Coal and Coke Company, two ranches, a portion of the Frank and Grassy Mountain Railway line to the historic coal mining town of Lille, a construction camp and livery stables.

    About 100 of the tiny community's population were in the path of the slide, most of whom were buried deep within the rubble.

    "In a sense it never goes away physically because the rocks look almost as fresh as they did 109 years ago," said Field.

    "In terms of emotion there are still people in the Pass who lost family long ago and for us, the people who live here, it's quite a spiritual place — a little bit like a cemetery."

    The Crowsnest Pass has seen its share of hardship and tragedy.

    An explosion in the Bellevue Mine during a partial afternoon shift on Dec. 9, 1910 killed 30 miners. Four years later came the 1914 Hillcrest mine disaster.

    Hillcrest is the worst coal mining disaster in Canadian history. A total of 189 workers died, about half of the mine's total workforce, which left 130 women widowed and about 400 children fatherless. Many of the victims were buried in a mass grave at the Hillcrest Cemetery.

    "So many people still work in the mines over in B.C. and no one ever saw the Alberta-B.C. border as any kind of barrier," said Field.

    There are also legends that have cropped up about the Frank Slide, said Field.

    "One of the myths was Main Street was buried, including the bank. And if you could only dig it up you'd be rich because it was full of gold," she said.

    In reality, the bank was relocated to the nearby town of Blairmore.

    The most enduring and powerful myth is the story of Frankie Slide.

    "Anyone who has heard of the Frank Slide thinks they know that the whole town was buried except for one little baby girl and they didn't know who she was so they named her Frankie Slide," Field added with a chuckle.

    "That is the story that has been told and it is what people are still saying."

    Despite the tragedy, there haven't been any reports of ghostly hauntings or supernatural activities.

    "I have been along the railway tracks where the row of miners cottages was hit and it's a strange feeling to think you're right above the place where so many people died and they're still under there," she said.

    "It's not threatening at all but you feel some sort of emotional tie to them."

    ———

    If you go:

    — Visit the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, open year round.

    — Visit the monument to the Hillcrest mine disaster and the lives lost at the Hillcrest cemetery. In 1990, Canadian folk-singer James Keelaghan recorded "Hillcrest Mine," one of his best-known songs.

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