In Sad Places: Exploring the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre

“The people killed, all but a few…are still under all that rock in the valley. That was their graveyard.” Robert Chestnut, Frank Slide rescuer, 1903

           An acquaintance of mine once said that he enjoyed the sound of children playing in sad places. For him, playfulness and youth conveys hope amid tragedy. Canada has a relatively peaceful past and our experience with commemorating large-scale tragic events is limited, but we are not immune to historic moments where loss of innocent life has occurred. Canada suffered the worst rock slide in North American history in 1903 when Turtle Mountain obliterated Frank, a bedroom town for miners and their families in the Canadian Rockies. Although the Frank Slide had always been a subject of curiosity, the Alberta government declared it an official historic site in 1977. An interpretive centre was added in 1985, and a renovated centre was reopened in 2008. Canada’s historical monuments are mainly situated in public spaces, and therefore should be accessible to anyone wanting to discover local history or to simply enjoy the area. Yet the reality of what the Frank Slide represents and its significance as a “graveyard,” as Chestnut suggested, resonated with me as I embarked on my own journey through the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. Is children’s laughter welcome here, and could the centre fulfil the seemingly competing goals of remembrance, education and entertainment?

The Power of Nature and Reflections on “Big Rocks:” Experiences Outside the Centre

An aerial view of the Frank Slide site as it exists today. The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre is situated to the left of Highway #3 just below Frank, and the yellow area shows the unstable portion of Turtle Mountain (photo: Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Government of Alberta).

A promotional video for the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre shows the debris field at the base of Turtle Mountain (source: You Tube).
Interpreting the Frank Slide begins long before reaching the centre. The Turtle Mountain valley stretches out westward like a moonscape on southern Alberta’s Highway #3. Eerily, the scene appears much as it would have to survivors and onlookers on the morning of April 29, 1903, as the light of dawn revealed to them what had happened. Earlier that morning, at 4:10 am, 74 million tonnes of rock dislodged from the eastern slope of southern Alberta’s Turtle Mountain, mowing down a significant portion of Frank, a tiny mining community of 600 residents established just two years before. In under 100 seconds, dozens of men, women and children were buried as they slept. A total of 23 emerged from the rubble the next day but approximately 70 more were killed. The east entrance of the local Frank mine was also buried, entombing 17 miners who managed to build a new shaft and escape. The town was evacuated, but residents soon returned in 1905 to a new site on the northwest part of the mountain’s base. The remnants of “Old” Frank are simply a few basement depressions, a fire hydrant and a small path leading to the base of the slide. “New” Frank is currently a small village of 200, safely out of the way, but ever watchful of a mountain that still moves.

The town of Frank as it appeared just following the slide in April 1903, and the same site today. Over 100 years later the landscape is largely unchanged (photos: Glenbow Archives; Terry Boake). 

Vegetation is still absent from the debris field over 100 years later, and the only rubble cleared since the slide has been around the site of the railway line, Highway #3, the riverbed and two small trails. The turnoff to the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre leads up the mountain, and a short path following the curve of the valley leads  to the centre. Visitors, children in particular, are particularly impressed by the sheer size of the boulders strewn across the valley, the largest reaching the size of a small house. Once at the centre’s site, visitors can interpret the area in a series of outdoor activities. Two trails, the Frank Slide Trail and the North Rim Trail, offer hikers unique experiences. The Frank Slide Trail, a self-guided walking tour that begins and ends at the centre, follows an old wagon route around the far margin of the slide. The more challenging North Peak Trail is 6.2 km round trip and extends to nearly 900 m of elevation. The intrepid souls who chose this route are rewarded with majestic views atop the Frank Slide site, but with two sets of little feet in tow we opted for the former.

Enjoying lollipops while hiking on the Frank Slide Trail (photo: personal collection).

The trails around the centre are typically open from May to October, but a third trail, a short perimeter walk, offers visitors a chance to experience the outdoor site year round.  Largely a self-guided tour, the centre still schedules interpretive outdoor talks periodically during the day in the summer months. Here, the magnitude of the slide’s 3 km debris field was evident as our interpreter discussed the many geological factors that came together to cause the slide at that particular moment in 1903.   
  An interpreter discusses the Frank Slide’s debris field and the location of “Old” Frank (photo: personal collection).

One of the many interpretive panels along the perimeter walk (photo: personal collection).

              One particular lookout suspends outward and includes a set of binoculars where viewers can see the “Old” Frank site up close. Coincidentally, my children happened to be playing in the background, looking at flowers and marvelling at the big rocks. As we looked down at the “Old” Frank town sight, now quiet and serene, we were at once able to reflect on the power of nature and the tragedy that befell those in Frank, families much like ours, while at the same time witnessing the kind of solace in the sound of children playing that my acquaintance had found comforting in other sad places.

The centre’s perimeter walkway offers majestic views, and a set of binoculars gives visitors a close-up view of the slide (photo: personal collection).
The “Living Boulder,” Voices of the Past and Reflections on Community Spirit: Experiences Inside the Centre
The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, with its distinct boulder-like appearance, is nestled in the valley adjacent to Turtle Mountain (photo: Alberta Culture).

The sign at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre’s entrance simply reads: “Welcome. We have stories to tell you” (photo: personal collection).
A large mural at the centre’s entrance gives visitors a simple yet poignant introduction to the disaster (photo: personal collection).
While the centre’s outside is devoted to interpretive walks and experiencing the slide's massive debris field, its interior brings the Frank Slide to life. The building itself looks much like an unobtrusive boulder nestled in the valley across from Turtle Mountain. The four phases of the centre educate and entertain visitors using a series of historic photographs, re-enactments, 3-D scientific models and textual interpretation. The exhibits also places the Frank Slide within the greater context of the Crowsnest Pass region’s history, briefly explaining the evolution of mining in the area and other nearby tragedies such as the 1914 Hillcrest Mine Disaster. Here, the centre faces an enormous task. Many parents are rightfully apprehensive about exposing children to the Frank Slide tragedy, and the terrible idea of house-sized boulders obliterating people in their sleep are not appropriate topics for young children. While I did have faith that the centre would be mindful of these issues, I went ahead of my children nonetheless. I needn’t have worried. The centre caters to younger viewers, and as I later learned, offers programs tailored to their interests, including the Sleepover Program that involves an educational night of games, movies, and a sleepover at the centre.
The centre’s Sleepover Program offers children from school programs the chance to sleep in the centre (photo: Frank Slide Interpretive Centre).
Children enjoy the centre’s play area while parents experience the stories of the slide in the adjacent room (photo: personal collection).

               Once inside, a ramp akin to a mine tunnel takes visitors to the first of four areas. As interpreter Christopher Weber explained, each area intends to give viewers a visceral experience, beginning with confusion and ending with resolution. In fact, creating this experience was one of the goals of the 2008 renovation. In part one, visitors are greeted by a replica of a house as it may have appeared in the aftermath, and in the foreground a one-minute video clip re-enacts the confusion in Frank.  At this point the centre’s play area discretely diverts younger visitors from the tragedy while allowing adults to continue on the journey. As children continue to draw numerous images of miners and mountains, those inclined can experience that confusion, illustrated not only by the demolished house and its contents but also by scanning the erratic headlines from major papers published at the time. One particular headline from Ottawa’s Evening Citizen claimed that Frank had been swallowed by a giant fissure resulting from a volcanic eruption.
A replica of one of the demolished Frank homes (photo: personal collection).

An interactive screen shows visitors many of the numerous headlines that appeared in the days and weeks following the slide, most containing erroneous details, such as this one from Ottawa’s Evening Citizen (photo: personal collection).

The centre’s second area illustrates “voices” from the past. Accompanying the visual displays are several phone receivers that, when picked up, contain “voices” (re-enactors) reading diary entries and letters. One panel in particular contains a map and descriptions of the buildings destroyed. Another includes the names of those who perished and references to several unnamed causalities. Simple yet chilling descriptions include: “Leitch residence - Alexander and his wife Rosemary had seven children, Jessie, John, May, Allen, Athol, Wilfred and Marion. All died except Jessie, May and Marion.” Particularly striking are the many nameless victims also acknowledged in the panel: “Park - fifty men were rumoured to be camped at the park looking for work. If they were, they died.” The centre has also compiled a large book of letters written by Frank residents in the days and weeks following the slide, situated in the corner of the room and overlooking the debris field.
Letters from “Old” Frank residents, c. 1903-04. Here, visitors have the opportunity to look down at the old town sight while reading the excerpts (photo: private collection).

Several myths surrounding the slide are also debunked in the centre’s second area. In particular, one set of panel texts discusses the story of a baby girl dubbed “Frankie Slide” by her rescuers, who was thought to have been the only survivor in Frank. In fact, many were pulled alive from the rocks, along with over 500 Frank residents who houses were untouched.

One of the centre’s many panels depicting “voices” from the past (photo: personal collection).

The centre’s second area also features two documentary-dramas entitled On the Edge of Destruction: The Frank Slide Story and In the Mountain’s Shadow. Ensconced in the centre’s theatre, visitors can experience the slide through graphic re-enactments and subsequent scientific discussion.
All visitors, including children, eventually funnel upward to the centre’s third area, a place full of the scientific and hands-on discovery children enjoy. Here, adults can also read and learn about the geological conditions that would cause a mountain to fall in mere seconds. For years mining was thought to have caused the slide, but as our interpreter explained, Turtle Mountain had an unstable structure consisting of soft shale and limestone under much heavier limestone. The weather in the spring of 1903 had also been unseasonably warm, and a quick freeze in April may have caused cracks in a mountain already weakened by mining and its own geological instability. A particularly popular panel includes an interactive set of three monitoring sensors, similar to those installed on Turtle Mountain. Children enjoy the chance to lift, push and jump and test their own strength on blocks connected to the sensors.
In the centre's third area children get a chance to test their strength on the “crack” and “tilt” meters and seismic sensors (photo: Frank Slide Interpretive Centre).

A description of Turtle Mountain’s geological composition (photo: personal collection).

Villages tend to have strong bonds, particularly if they share a tragic past. The centre’s fourth area illustrates the Crowsnest Pass region’s long history. Peigan and Kutenai groups were the first to occupy the area nearly 1500 years ago but left after an outbreak of smallpox in the early 1700s. European explorers then mapped the area and were followed by a small number of hunters and ranches. Coal deposits were discovered in the 1890s, leading to the establishment of mining towns like Frank. One of the more curious displays in this area is a replica of “Black Beauty,” a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull discovered in the Crowsnest Pass by local school boys in 1981. Visitors are also treated to a final symbol of community solidarity in the form of a quilt, created by local ladies in 2008 to commemorate the centre’s re-opening. I had the chance to talk to one of the ladies who contributed to the quilt, who also happened to be the centre’s cashier. In her words, “we tried to create something that would give people an idea of what we’re all about. Everyone from the Girl Guides to local churches contributed!” I left the centre’s fourth area feeling that the Frank Slide tragedy was just a small part of this vibrant community’s long history.

A replica of “Black Beauty,” the Tyrannosaurs Rex skull discovered by local school boys in 1981 (photo: Frank Slide Interpretive Centre).

The Crowsnest community’s commemorative quilt (photo: personal collection).

Reflections and Lasting Impressions
Rescuer Robert Chestnut’s sentiments that the Frank Slide site was in fact a “graveyard,” deserving of the appropriate respect afforded to truly sad places, is just as applicable 100 years later. The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre acknowledges its dual role in preserving human memory in a place of historic significance. The centre also realizes its inherent psychological responsibility to its younger visitors. Its mandate is to educate those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of the Frank Slide, but it also manages to both commemorate and entertain while not inundating its visitors with inescapable images of tragedy and death. Rather, it welcomes the playfulness of children, whose laughter gives the area a sense of peace, alongside those who wish to reflect. The centre also illustrates that historic sites commemorating tragedy can achieve seemingly conflicting goals. Today, we have little connection to those who lived in Frank in 1903. Yet, the power of nature symbolized by the Frank Slide draws thousands to the site each year to enjoy the valley and learn about its early inhabitants, a fitting tribute to those lost.
The centre’s guest book attests to the many positive experiences people have had here. One family from Pennsylvania wrote “beautiful, awesome, and terrible!” and said they hoped to return. My own children were now pulling me away, their “history lesson” over for the day. They were anxious to get on with the next adventure which they hoped would involve seeing the bear our interpreter said was in the area. Still, I took the time to write a simple but heartfelt message of my own to the centre and its staff: “Very respectful and well done. Thank you for the experience.”

Sources of Interest and Further Reading:
Stompin’ Tom Connors recorded a song about the Frank Slide tragedy entitled “How the Mountain Came Down” in his album Stompin’ Tom Sings Canadian History.

The centre’s bookshop includes the following titles on the Frank Slide and Crowsnest Pass region:
Field, Monica and McIntyre, David. On the Edge of Destruction: Canada’s Deadliest Rock Slide. Mitchell Press: Vancouver, 2003.
Kerr, J. William. Frank Slide. Toronto: Barker Publishing, 1990.

McConnell, R.G. and Brock, R.W. Reporton the Great Landslide at Frank, Alta, 1903. (This is part of a 1903 report by McConnell and Brock for the Department of the Interior, republished in 2003).


  1. While visiting the slide and observing the sections focused on younger visitors and the feed back from your children about their experience compared to the “adult experience” did you find that there was an “adult” and “children” version of explaining the event of slide and the destruction? Or did the experience for younger visitors skirt the whole issue of the event of the slide and deaths, focusing instead on other aspects possibly like mining, geology, and rock formations?

    From your perspective as a mother and class participant could you explain what you feel and think about the origins, elements and focus of the Museum’s “ inherent psychological responsibility to its younger visitors.”

  2. I actually didn't have to explain too much about the slide itself to my own children (2 and 5 - my 11 year old wasn't there), so I can only imagine that children get a "watered down" version depending on their developmental level. At 5, my son was more interested in the rocks and trees and he didn't ask any questions about the slide. He did ask about the destroyed houses, to which we explained simply that the "rocks fell on them a long time ago." That was all the explanation he seems to need. He did not connect the idea of death with the destruction he saw in pictures, and we didn't want to make the connection for him. Fortunately, audio commentary throughout the centre is limited to the short video at the beginning (near the demolished replica), so parents of children who may likely inquire about such things can choose how best to approach the issue(s) based on their own parenting style. (It has been my experience that some parents are very open and proactive, and others like myself and my husband prefer to wait for the questions to come to us first). Thankfully, the centre's displays are such that children, like mine who aren't reading yet, would have no way of knowing what went on unless they heard it. Thus, parents can choose how much or how little they want to expose their kids to base on the kids' developmental level. At the same time, parents can gain their own knowledge and insight into the tragedy by reading and hearing things that they feel are not suitable, away from their children who are either colouring pictures or looking at the old photos.

    Historic sites are created by historians, and based on my conversation with the interpreter, they realize that they have a responsibility not to “traumatize kids." At the same time they want to educate kids at various developmental levels. For instance, 2-5 year olds are more interested in the "big rocks," the mountains, or the flowers and animals in the area. The outdoor walks and the geological displays give them some information on those concepts. Older children, perhaps like my 11-year old (had he been there), would have been more interested in the slide and the tragedy itself. The fact that they openly acknowledge that they juggle these concepts proves that, thankfully, they acknowledge this inherent psychological responsibility. Had they not done so, I doubt we would have continued on through the centre, and I think most parents would agree. Some of what they discuss is the stuff of nightmares even for me, lol!!

  3. First of all, very interesting read. I had no idea that this rockslide had even occured, and the story of how a town can get destroyed like this in Canada seems hard to fathom today. Events like this seem to just be a blurb in the news from countries distant to our own in modern times.

    Obviously in lieu of the horrible tragedy, sites such as this really are appealing to me when visiting new places. Probably seeing something in which the destuctive power of nature interacting with humans is interesting as we try to put ourselves in the place of those who had experienced such a disaster.

    My question to you is what do people gain by having an interpretitive centre constructed and having this history preserved? What benefits are there to the town itself today, and outsiders visiting? Similarly, what is lost if this story is no longer told going into the future?

  4. Thanks Jason!

    In addition to sharing their history with a broader audience and the sense of community pride they gain from doing so, establishing the tourist centre has allowed locals to profit by gaining a share of the tourist market as well. For instance, the cashier I spoke to was from the area, as was the main interpreter. I can only assume that those who staff the gift shop and maintain the building live in the Crowsnest region as well. Since mining and ranching are largely industries of the past, tourist industries and businesses such as restaurants, hotels and stores would give residents the means to continue to live in a place they love.

    Much of Turtle Mountain’s volatility can be traced to this one event, and as such history has merged with scientific and, more specifically, geological discovery to give important insight into the current state of this mountain and others like it. Because of the involvement of other disciplines into the ongoing stability of the area, I don’t believe that Frank’s history will ever be truly lost. Yet thinking about what would happen if it was brings to mind two important considerations. First, the Frank Slide event is so closely tied to the history of mining in the area. If we lose important details about Frank, a quintessential little mining town, we would be unable to gain a true understanding of the broader history of the Crowsnest Pass region and how it evolved into what it is today. Also, I also believe that the general public has both a right and a responsibility to commemorate lives lost. The Frank Slide site acts as a pseudo graveyard, an important symbol in the lives of families and future decedents. Hence, losing the area’s history would be tragic on a few levels.

  5. Hello, I am inquiring to learn if a documentary or movie has ever been made in relation to this terrible ordeal? My grandfather William Heward was part of the CPR crew who worked their that fateful date. A picture from a newspaper shows him and two others sitting atop an old shack, with an enormous boulder - nearly six feet or greater looming above them. Reportedly they were playing cards when the mountain blew. The boulder stopped, blocked their only door. They escaped through a window at the back of the shack. I am interested in writing a screenplay or documentary on this event. Before I proceed, I would like to know if any films have ever been made, or whom I could/should inquire about same.
    Thank-you, god-bless you all - surviving families and interested parties alike.
    Larry C. Heward lheward61@gmail.com