Places

The 1903 Frank Slide: In the shadow of the mountain

The story of Frank, Alta., the deadliest landslide in Canadian history and a town that endures

  • Nov 13, 2023
  • 706 words
  • 3 minutes
Turtle Mountain, adorned with the first snow of the season, towers above the town of Frank, which nestles to the right of the landslide. (Photo: Lisa Kinnear)
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In the early hours of April 29, 1903, 110 million tonnes of rock slipped off the eastern side of Turtle Mountain and onto the sleeping town of Frank, Alta. Those woken by the chaos heard what sounded like steam howling under high pressure, resonating 200 kilometres away to Cochrane, Alta. When the slide came to a halt just two minutes later, it had buried three square kilometres of the valley some 14 metres under — in some places as deep as 45 metres — homes, cottages, work camps, farms and businesses.

From above, the slide altered the skyline forever, splitting Turtle Mountain into two peaks. From below, it became the deadliest landslide in Canadian history. The death toll remains uncertain — estimates range between 70 and more than 90 — and only 18 bodies were recovered. Those cacophonous two minutes have defined Frank for 120 years, the coal town becoming colloquially known as Frank Slide.

Today, giant chunks of limestone line the highway built amid the rubble, above the bodies. Pull-outs along the road allow tourists to stop and take in nature’s disaster.

Residents survey the damage in the days after the slide. (Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta, PR1974.0003.1-3)
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The site of the slide is now a designated burial ground and a provincial historical landmark, with the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre to educate visitors — more than 50,000 stopped by in 2022 — on the disaster. Each year, Frank also sees ambitious rock climbers partake in the Tour de Frank bouldering festival, tackling the shedded mountain blanketing part of the old townsite. And a challenging trail run called Run the Rocks was created in honour of Sid Choquette, a brakeman for the Canadian Pacific Railway who scrambled across the debris on the night of the slide to prevent an oncoming train from colliding with the limestone blocking the tracks. 

Turtle Mountain has always been unstable — the Blackfoot and Kutenai Peoples knew the peak as “the mountain that moves” and wouldn’t camp near it. Since the 1930s, geologists from the Alberta Geological Survey have constantly monitored the mountain, measuring fissure growth, tracking shifts in the rock and identifying potential danger zones. Geologists say the next landslide isn’t an if; it’s a when, as the fractured forces holding up the top of the mountain surrender to gravity. And while they believe a slide is coming, they predict it will be much smaller than the 1903 Frank Slide and it won’t happen any time soon — unless, they caution, an earthquake shakes things up.

Bruce Kutcher has called Frank home for more than seven decades — his grandparents immigrated to the area around 1920. He remembers scrambling across the rocks as a child, playing tag and jumping from boulder to boulder to see how far his legs would take him. The baseball diamonds he played on were shaded by Turtle Mountain, towering over like a watchful umpire. The rubble was Kutcher’s playground, his backyard, the backdrop to his childhood. “Instead of a sandbox to play in, we had Frank Slide,” he says.

A view down Frank’s main street, shows the slide’s devastating path through the town. (Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A15596)
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Many Frank residents stayed despite the catastrophe. The coal mine was reopened within weeks, and with the urgent need for construction and repair workers, the town’s population doubled to almost 1,200 by 1906. But five years later, a study determined Turtle Mountain still presented a landslide risk to Frank, and the provincial government ordered all buildings in the potential impact zone to be moved to a new townsite across the CPR tracks or destroyed. The Imperial Hotel, built in 1902 and the heart of Frank, was moved more than 100 kilometres away to Vulcan, Alta., and remains to this day. Eventually, the town’s mine closed, its population dwindled, and it was forced to amalgamate with four nearby towns, forming the Crowsnest Pass municipality — a small region known for its stunning sierras, boom-bust towns and human resilience. Today, the Frank Industrial Park occupies the original 1901 townsite at the base of the mountain.

As Frank has moved on from its disastrous past, Turtle Mountain stands still — for now.

But each spring, as the rains flow down its peaks and through the town, the mountain drops a small amount of rock. A reminder that Frank still stands in the shadow of the mountain that moves.

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This story is from the November/December 2023 Issue

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