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 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).|
|Enjoying lollipops while hiking on the Frank Slide Trail (photo: personal collection).|
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).|
|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 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).|
|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).
|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).|
One of the centre’s many panels depicting “voices” from the past (photo: personal collection).
|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).
|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).|
The centre’s bookshop includes the following titles on the Frank Slide and Crowsnest Pass region:
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).