Frank

Frank is a ghost town that illustrates environmental disaster destroying a vital centre of commerce in the West. Today, the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre offers a wealth of information on the tragedy, including personal accounts from survivors and geological analysis of the slide itself.
Legend:
Red: Original Townsite 
 
Purple: New Townsite
 
Black: Frank Slide

 
 
          First of all, contrary to popular belief, the town of Frank is not a “classic” ghost town with abandoned buildings and no population, and the Frank Slide that killed approximately 90 poor souls did not engulf the original townsite. With that being said, Frank does fit in my definition of a ghost town. From promising beginnings, to a devastating environmental event, Frank experienced one of the most dramatic boom-bust events of all the towns I have covered. As of 2011, Frank has a population of 112 individuals living in 50 of its 62 dwellings. The original townsite is now an industrial park, with not much activity occurring in it. The original townsite is actually more of a junkyard than anything else, with few businesses actually running. As you will see, the settlers of the townsite had every reason to believe that Frank was going to be the center of commerce in the Crowsnest, rather than the sleepy community it is today.
          The beginnings of Frank, Alberta is almost identical to its neighbouring counterparts, with entrepreneurial characters looking for riches in the Canadian Rockies. In 1900 Sam Gibeau (Gebo) came to the North West Territories (now Alberta) looking to make a living off of the coal industry. As he moved west he came across a man named Henry S. Pelletier, a young entrepreneur prospecting the coal seams in Turtle Mountain north of the railway, who sold Gebo shares on the property to develop the mining operation (CPHS, 1979, pg. 47). As Gebo developed the first tunnel in the mountain he saw the endless economic possibilities that could come from this prospect. In search of more capital to fund the development of the seams he entreated Henry Frank, a prominent Montana businessman, to join him in his venture. In 1901, Gebo and Frank formed the Canadian-American Coal and Coke Company, and Henry Frank visited the area where the townsite would be. The company immediately paid just over $30,000 ($927,924 in 2015 dollars) to acquire the land needed to build a company town (CPHS, 1979, pg. 47). Plans were laid, construction commenced, and mining was in full swing with different crews focusing on each task. By the summer there was a mess house, 25 cottages for miners, and a giant boarding house. The townsite’s development was like clockwork. In 1901 the CPR added a spur line where a train station and tipple were built. Frank’s coal was the first to reach market from the Crowsnest Pass (CPHS, 1979, pg. 47).
          In the summer of 1901 the town of Frank was established, with Gebo as the “overseer” of the village. With all of the dominoes in place, Sam Gebo and Henry Frank organized a boosterish campaign for an official opening of the Frank townsite, with an invitation being accepted by none other than Frederick Haultain, the first premier of the Northwest Territories. The gala was held on September 10, 1901, being witnessed by 3,000 people from all over the west, including Cranbrook and Medicine Hat (Clarke, 1979, pg. 47). The event was free, and the CPR had especially low train rates for the occasion. Visitors arrived to a picturesque townsite with brand new cottages that were spaced almost 50 feet away from each other, a gourmet dinner cooked by a prestigious French chef, and a new hotel welcoming guests to stay the night. To reinforce the prosperity of the townsite, visitors were taken into the mine in coal cars covered in white canvas, revealing a 14-foot wide coal seam that grew out to 20-feet in maximum width (Clarke, 1979, pg. 47). Despite the lavish meals and tours, the real centerpieces of the event were the lacrosse and soccer games being held between teams such as Blairmore and Pincher Creek. This exhibition of boosterism was very much different than those of the prairie towns that failed. Frank was one of the few municipalities that had tangible (and not exaggerated) resource-based assets that can generate true value for the community. There was every reason to believe that Frank, North West Territories was going to be the center of commerce in the Crowsnest Pass.
          The gala’s overwhelming success generated rapid growth within the community. On October 15th, 1901, a month after the Gala, the building of the business section of town commenced with Alex Leitch having the first business in the town erected – a mercantile store. In November 1901, the Canadian-American Coal and Coke Company began developing their mine at Frank with favourable results (Clarke, 1979, pg. 48). By 1902 business was booming and Dominion Avenue was lit up as the main street of town. By 1903 the Company was seeing a daily production rate of 1,000 tons per day of coal, and the town had a total population of 600 people (Clarke, 1979, pg. 48). In almost 2 years the town was roaring with success and prosperity. It was at this point in Frank’s development that tragedy struck.
          On April 29th, 1903, at 4:10 am when most of the town was fast asleep, a colossal rock mass of 400 to 500 feet thick broke loose on the east face of Turtle Mountain and barrelled towards the townsite. The tsunami of limestone destroyed the tipple, processing plant, company barns, seven cottages, six houses, and the CPR Crowsnest railway for a distance of 2 kilometers (Frank Slide Interative Centre, 2015). Karl Cornelianson, who was awakened by the monstrous noise, rushed to the door of his house, which was overlooking the terrace below. He at first saw nothing – then like lighting the rock threw itself as close as a quarter of a mile from his home (Kerr, 1979, pg. 57). Another man named Mr. MacLean, an owner of a boarding house in Frank, found the slide only a few feet in front of him, believing an explosion occurred. Both of these men were a couple of the survivors that witnessed the Frank Slide unscathed (Kerr, 1979, pg. 57). Lester Ackroyd Johnson, another survivor of the Frank Slide, was not as lucky. While fast asleep, his house was hit by the slide killing his mother and father in the process. He woke up under the floor of his house and escaped through a small passageway between his house and the slide rock. He searched high and low for his neighbours’ houses to only find the unforgiving limestone silencing the innocent victims of the tragedy. Johnson managed to survive, but he was severely injured by a wood splinter that pierced him in the abdomen (Kerr, 1979, pg. 57).  Oddly enough, the miners working in Turtle Mountain at the time had a higher survival rate, with 17 out of the 19 workers on site to make it out of the mine alive. This was owed to the sturdiness of the main passageways that allowed the workers to come in and out of the mine to complete the evacuation. By the time the men escaped, 12 hours elapsed since the slide occurred (Kerr, 1979, pg. 58).
          Of course this was big news across Canada, being to this day the deadliest landslide our country ever witnessed. Newspapers speculated if an earthquake, gas explosion, or an eruption triggered the event. There were pre-imperialist signs that a major landslide was going to happen at Turtle Mountain, such as the Blackfoot mysteriously referring to it as the “mountain that moves” and refusing to camp around the mountain (Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, 2015). In 1915 James Kerr believed that the slide came from exploiting the coal seam, which was 8 degrees past vertical and was tapered rather than uniform throughout the formation. By exploiting it he believed that the mountain had insufficient support in the walls and thus collapsed. According to the Geological Survey of Canada, Turtle Mountain was already unstable due to its geological structure, and mining was only the straw that broke the camels back. Essentially the Turtle Mountain Thrust Fault separated the older Palaeozoic limestones of the Mount Head, Banff, and Livingstone formations contained in the Rundle Group from the underlying younger Mesozoic formation that contained a weaker sedimentary structure. As the mountain formed the Palaeozoic formations were deformed into the Turtle Mountain Fold, which was antiformal in nature (Frank Slide Interpretice Centre, 2015). Weather, water, and pressure affected the younger sedimentary base of the mountain, causing the layer underneath the surface of the mountain to give way. Information plaques at the Frank Slide Interpretive Center describe the slide to flow like liquid, with moss still on top of the slide rock – as if the rocks themselves did not move.
          The Frank slide was an extremely devastating event to the townsite, but the town of Frank was not completely destroyed. In fact, the Frank slide did not even touch the main townsite but only the homes of those that lived east of the town. Today the original townsite is actually the industrial area of Frank while the new residential area is north of the railway line. This change occurred in 1904 when the Canadian-American Coal Company installed a water system and sold lots, leading many residents to abandon the original townsite (Clarke, 1979, pg. 47). Regardless of the modern activity of the original townsite, you can still find some relics of a time of promise for the residents of Frank. The government in 1911 for fears of another slide in Turtle Mountain officially closed the original townsite (Clarke, 1979, pg. 47). Despite the tragedy, the company attempted to continue mining in Turtle Mountain, but after a temporary closing in 1912 and many other delays in operations it was officially closed in 1917, when the population of the town was 700 people.
          The town of Frank lost their industry, and with it any hope for a future in the municipality. Some of the residents that chose to make a life in Frank found some employment in the Pass, but most residents packed up and left to find the next promising venture. Today many 4th generation families of the original settlers still live there, with the community being no more than a residential area. You can visit the Frank Slide Interpretive Center that has a wealth of information on stories of the survivors, updated counts of the casualties of the event, and continued research on the event that occurred over a century ago.
    
        
Photos
  1. Frank Townsite
    Frank Townsite
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  2. Frank Slide
    Frank Slide
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  3. Frank Slide
    Frank Slide
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  4. Frank Ruins
    Frank Ruins
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  5. Frank Ruins
    Frank Ruins
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  6. Turtle Mountain
    Turtle Mountain
    Photo by Jason Ferris
References
Clarke, T. "Frank's One and Only Celebration." Crowsnest and Its People.
Coleman, Alta.: Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 1979. Print. Pg. 47 - 56.
 
Crowsnest Pass Historical Society (CPHS). "Frank Village." Crowsnest and Its
People. Coleman, Alta.: Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 1979. Print. Pg. 47.
 
Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. "The Frank Slide Story." Frank Slide Interpretive
Centre Frank Slide Story. 2015. Web. 16 Aug. 2015.
 
Kerr, James R. "The Great Landslide at Frank, N.W.T.." Crowsnest and Its
People. Coleman, Alta.: Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 1979. Print. Pg. 57 - 66.
 
Photos taken by:
Deadwood Imaging (Jason Ferris)