Mountain Passes: Crowsnest Pass

In 1857 an Irishman named John Palliser led a scientific expedition sponsored by the British Royal Geographical Society. Its mission was to learn about western Canada — about the plants and animals, the rock structures, the climate, and the Indian tribes.The expedition members were also searching for mountain passes through Canada’s southern Rocky Mountains. If good passes could be found, a railroad could be built, connecting the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.

The Palliser Expedition discovered six southern passes previously known only to First Nations people. One of these was the Crowsnest Pass, not far north of the state of Montana. Although Crowsnest pass had been known to First Nations people for thousands of years, it wasn’t shown on Canadian maps until after the Palliser expedition. The area of Crowsnest Pass is the richest archeological zone of the Canadian Rockies, containing stone tools of the Clovis culture, which dates back 11,000 years. The area is also rich in coal deposits.

Even though it’s over 4000 feet in elevation, Crowsnest was one of the lower passes through the Rocky Mountains. This made it a natural choice for the Canadian Pacific Railroad to route the railroad through, and in1897 that’s just what the CPR did, completing the rail lines through Crowsnest Pass in Alberta. 

Because the entire pass area was rich in coal deposits, many small mining towns sprang up alongside the railroad line. In 1900 the Frank Mine opened in the newly-sprung-up town of Frank.

Mountain Range: Livingstone Range of the Canadian Rocky Mountains
Elevation: 4,455 feet (1358 meters)
Location: On the Continental Divide, on the Alberta and British Columbia border of Canada, near the Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve.

Above the town of Frank sat enormous Turtle Mountain. The Blackfoot and Kutenai tribes of the area would not camp near the mountain because it groaned, trembled, and moved. Indians called it “the mountain that walks.” In 1800 members of the David Thompson (see Athabasca Pass) expedition avoided Crowsnest Pass as they trudged westward, most likely because they heeded what First Nations tribes told them about the dangers of “the mountain that walks.”

The intimate knowledge of the land accumulated by First Nations people was disregarded by mine owners and investors panting for profit. The Frank coal mine was dug underneath and into Turtle Mountain. As they worked underground, miners felt the mountain moving. In fact, its movements shook coal loose from the rooms and tunnels the miners had dug. “The mountain that walks” made coal mining cheaper, because there was less digging involved.

The area of Crowsnest Pass would prove to cost hundreds of working-class lives. In 1914 an explosion at the Hillcrest Mine killed 189 miners: Canada’s worst mine disaster. (You can hear Canadian singer James Keeleghan’s version of his song “Hillcrest Mine” on youtube.)  And before the Hillcrest Mine disaster came the one at Frank.

Crowsnest Pass

On the morning of April 29, 1903, at 4:10 am, the east face of Turtle Mountain ripped loose with gigantic force. In 90 seconds more than 100 million tons of rock, ice, and mud thundered down the mountainside. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away: people thought that a volcano had erupted. An immense amount of the landslide is still there today, boulders strewn across the land.

The town of Frank was destroyed. More than 90 of the town’s 600 residents lost their lives. Businesses were wiped out. The railroad tracks were destroyed. Until the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, the Frank Slide was the largest landslide in North American history. (The Mt. St. Helens slide is thus far the largest landslide in world history.)

In the dark morning hours, made darker by huge clouds of dirt and dust, made more dangerous by fires started by rock dust and fueled by wooden buildings, those who survived rushed out of their houses to help rescue others.

When Turtle Mountain fell, it sealed the entrance to the Frank coal mines, covering up the air shafts that allowed miners to breathe fresh air. And it flooded the nearby river, turning it into a lake that poured into the mine.

Seventeen miners were trapped inside. They knew that unless they could dig their way out, they would drown or die from the poisonous mine gas.

Grabbing their picks and shovels, the miners dug straight up. They did not know how far “up” was, but they could not get out any other way. Three men dug frantically for half an hour, then another three took over, then another three. They did not believe they would make it, but they had to try something.

After 14 hours of hard digging, the miners broke through to sunlight and fresh air. They climbed out of their vertical tunnel and looked around. Inside the mine, they had no idea of what had happened. Now they saw the horrible site below. Their town was gone. They climbed over the gigantic rocks and mud and ice and stumbled down the 100 million tons of smashed mountain to help the survivors.

Crowsnest Pass

Grumbling mountain 
strongly suggests 
traveling through
instead of settling.
Humans stop, build, 
dig tunnels.

Mountain shudders 
in disapproval.

————————————

Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Sitgreaves Pass.

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