The Night Turtle Mountain Moved
by Donna MacNaughton
(Reprinted from West Magazine, Spring 2007)
Tuesday, April 28, 1903, was a particularly balmy day in the Crowsnest Pass, a relief after the long dark
Most of the workers in the small towns along the CPR track toiled in the coal mines or for the railroad. Life
was hard—busy but hard—and people tended to go to bed early, unless they worked the night shift. As
darkness fell on this particular evening, the residents of Frank, one of the pass’s small towns, couldn’t know
that their mountain was about to fall on them. Turtle Mountain, on the south side of the pass, had been
named by a Pincher Creek rancher who thought it looked like a turtle. The local Cree had another name for
it - The Mountain That Moves – and they wouldn’t sleep anywhere near it.
Just two years old in 1903, Frank’s “founding fathers” were Sam Gebo and Henry Frank of the Canadian
American Coal and Coke Company.
By then the mine at Frank extended deep into massive coal deposits beneath the north slope of the
mountain. In the huge chambers above the main tunnel, miners, wielding picks and shovels, extracted coal
and then slid it down chutes into railroad cars. In the spring of 1903, miners began noticing increasing
tremors and they sometimes found piles of coal that had apparently mined itself.
Near midnight, the night crew entered the mine. Halfway through their shift, Alfred Clark and Fred Farrington
came out of the mine to eat with Alex Tashigan at the weigh scale. Train engineer Ben Murgatroyd prepared
to pick up loaded coal cars and then wait for a passenger train delayed by a snowstorm. Brakemen Sid
Choquette and Bill Lowes connected a car and then ran alongside the engine.
Suddenly, high above the mine entrance and the freight train, huge chunks of limestone broke away from the
peak of Turtle Mountain. Murgatroyd yelled to the brakemen to jump aboard and he poured on speed.
Behind them, an estimated 86 to 100 million tons of rock slid down Turtle Mountain and ripped across the
valley 2.5 miles from the summit where it began. A minute and a half later, the white rock covered 1.2 square
miles - 100 feet deep in places. It had crushed everything in its path, including the mine entrance, two
ranches, scattered houses, the shoe repair shop, livery stable, construction camp, a row of seven miners’
houses on the edge of town and the railroad tracks.
Frank residents were startled awake by what they would describe as cannon fire, an explosion or steam
escaping under high pressure. Most of the town’s populace lived just outside the path of destruction, and
rescuers mobilized to help those caught by the slide. The men on Murgatroyd’s freight train looked back at
the devastation and knew that the crew of the incoming passenger train wouldn’t know what lay ahead of
them. In the darkness, dust, and continuing rock falls, Sid Choquette scrambled over unstable debris and
boulders the size of rail cars to reach the far side of the slide where he flagged down the train, saving the
lives of the passengers and crew. The CPR later awarded him with a letter of commendation and $25 for his
In that row of seven miners’ homes along Gold Creek, the first house was shoved off its foundation but Mrs.
Carl Bansemer and seven children survived, as did her husband and two oldest sons who were at the
family’s new homestead down the road near Lundbreck.
Alexander and Rosemary Leitch lived next door. They and four sons died, buried in the debris. Rescuers
discovered daughters Jessie and Rosemary alive with a roof beam tucked neatly in bed between them.
Baby Marion was thrown through a window but survived.
In the next house, Charles and Nancy Ackroyd and their young child were killed. Lester Johnson, Mrs.
Ackroyd’s son by a previous marriage, dug out of the rubble despite a wooden lath embedded in his side.
When it was later removed, feathers from his quilt were found in the wound.
In the Ennis home, Sam, Lucy, and their four children survived. Lucy’s brother, Jim Warrington, pulled from
the debris, told rescuers that something had moved below him and they found Mrs. Watkins from next door,
miraculously alive. At her home, all three children survived and her husband John, at work in the mine, also
survived. The house next to them was vacant.
Alfred and Millie Clark lived in the last house with their six children. Oldest daughter, Lillian, worked at the
boardinghouse in town and had stayed there overnight. Mrs. Clark and the remaining five children were
killed. Alfred Clark, along with Fred Farrington and Alex Tashigan, died instantly at the mine’s weigh scale.
A 130-foot deep wall of rock at the mine entrance entombed the rest of the crew, including Foreman Joseph
Chapman, Dan McKenzie, and 15 others. They tried to escape through a ventilation shaft but it had
collapsed and was rapidly filling with water. They began digging at the entrance but made little progress. .
Air was running out and with ventilation shafts blocked, the miners knew that methane gas could eventually
kill them. Then they realized they could dig their way to the surface by mining a vertical coal seam. Working
in relays of two or three, they mined for their lives and, 13 hours after the slide, McKenzie broke through to
precious air and sunlight.
The sight that greeted them was a nightmarish lunar landscape of rock, rubble and huge boulders. Broken
and burning houses lay scattered and rising water from the now dammed river flooded the lowlands. As the
men descended the slope, they met a crew at the mine entrance digging desperately to rescue them.
It’s estimated that 70 people died in Canada’s most famous rockslide. It was a miracle that anyone in the
path of the slide survived. Of the close to 100 people caught in the devastation, 23 lived. Fewer than 20
bodies were ever recovered. The death toll has never been accurately determined because transients often
camped in the wild and there was no way to track them.
Several other disasters have plagued the Crowsnest Pass over the years, including the Bellevue Mine
Explosion in 1910. The 31 miners survived the methane gas blast but the explosion consumed the oxygen
in the mine. The men used a leaky compressed air line to stay alive but suffocated when someone
aboveground shut off the power.
In Canada’s worst mine disaster, the 1914 Hillcrest Mine Explosion, a rock fall generated sparks and
ignited methane gas, leading to a coal dust explosion. Between that and the deadly gases that resulted, 189
men died. One of the dead, Charlie Elick, had been in the mine at Frank when the slide roared down Turtle
Following the 1903 slide, occasional fires plagued the Frank mine. A large fire in 1910 in some of the older
workings continued to smolder until 1917 when it caused a collapse down into the new workings. The
small explosion left two men with no facial hair. The company struggled to get back into business afterward,
but by 1918, it closed for good.
Geologists say that many factors contributed to the Frank slide. Hard limestone at the peak of Turtle
Mountain was poorly supported and unstable. An earthquake off the Aleutian Islands in 1901 may have
added stress to the mountain, as did the coal mining operation that had removed an estimated quarter
million tons of coal. (The slide path is roughly right above and the same width as the mine chambers
underground.) Heavy snowfalls in March of 1903 were followed by high temperatures in April which caused
melted water to drain into fissures in the limestone peak. When temperatures dropped below zero in the
early hours of April 29th, the water froze and that may have expanded the cracks, causing the final break.
According to Corey Froese of the Alberta Geological Survey, approximately 40 sensors now monitor subtle
tremors, regional seismic activity, tilting, and weather conditions. At regular intervals, geotechnical
personnel access the data but the system itself can send out alerts when necessary.
The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre showcases the history of the slide and of coal mining in the Crowsnest
Pass. Monica Field, Facility Manager, has worked at the Centre since it opened in 1986, and wants the dead
remembered. On the night of the slide, her great-uncle was a passenger on the train that Sid Choquette
Will South Peak ever come down in one big mass? Maybe not, but according to Corey Froese, the best
projection says that the South Peak of Turtle Mountain will fail. All he can do is present his data to the public
and let them decide.
Turtle Mountain is moving, by fractions at the moment, but the people of Frank know that it can move with