Avalanche kills 62 in Rogers Pass railway disaster

Rescuers dig to uncover 62 workers buried in the 1910 Avalanche at Rogers Pass, B.C. Revelstoke Museum and Archives, photograph #268. Wikimedia Commons.

On March 4, 1910, a work crew of 63 men, a 91-ton locomotive with a rotary snowplow, and railway cars to house the workers, were dispatched from Revelstoke to clear deep snow from an avalanche that buried a section of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. A second, sudden, unexpected avalanche killed 62 of the workers in one of Canada’s worst railway disasters.

Rogers Pass, the highest and steepest on CPR’s line through the Selkirks already had a deadly history. More than 100 people had been killed in earlier avalanches in the 26 years since the line opened but never had so many been killed by one avalanche.

Four avalanches in five days had buried sections of the CPR line in and near Rogers Pass. It was to clear the snow from the fourth avalanche that the work party left Revelstoke early that Friday morning.

The rail tracks where the fatal disaster came were more than 100 feet above Bear Creek, in a narrow valley flanked by tall and steep mountains to the north and south.

No one expected an avalanche from the south. The south mountain slope was heavily timbered with tall pines that were thought to have been there for at least 50 years. The workers had nearly completed clearing the track by late evening. Then, out of the darkness at 11:30 that night, the avalanche from the south came roaring down the mountain, sweeping away all the tall pines like broken matchsticks, across the rail track to Bear Creek and 700 feet up the side of the opposite mountain. Six hundred feet of a snowshed, built for protection from avalanches, was demolished. The locomotive and its rotary snowplow were hurled 500 feet, and landed upside down. The railway cars were smashed. The workers in its path were buried under 30 feet of snow, ice, rock and broken trees. All except one.

A wind that came in front of the avalanche with the force of a tornado saved the locomotive fireman, Billy Lachance. He was standing on the north bank, several hundred feet above Bear Creek, and opposite the path of the avalanche. The wind, reported the Toronto Globe, March 7, “whisked him a hundred feet through the air into the bush” beyond the path of the avalanche.

A rescue train rushed 40 miles from Revelstoke, with 200 workers and every available doctor and nurse. Another train with a rescue team of 125 left from Calgary. The Revelstoke rescue train safely passed a danger point before a third blizzard buried the track. There were two more avalanches in the next two days. One, two miles from the disaster, buried the track under 60 feet of snow.

Rescue workers were hampered by a fierce blizzard, heavy snowfall, and the other avalanches that delayed the arrival of more help. But within days, there were 800 workers digging out the track at Rogers Pass and uncovering the bodies of the 62 workers, some of whom still stood upright, frozen in snow and ice.

The CPR eliminated the steep, costly, and deadly Rogers Pass section of its line by building what was then the longest railway tunnel in North America. The Connaught Tunnel, five miles long and 9,492 feet under Mount Macdonald, was completed in December 1916, after three years of construction. It eliminated the steepest part of the climb over the Selkirk Mountains, and shortened the distance by more than four miles. In 1988, the CPR completed a second, longer tunnel at Rogers Pass, the 10-mile Mount Macdonald Tunnel, the longest railway tunnel in the Americas. West-bound CPR trains now go through the Mount Macdonald Tunnel, and east-bound trains through the Connaught tunnel.

While trains no longer climb across the top of the Rogers Pass, cars and trucks on the Trans-Canada highway do. Across the pass, more miles of strong, steel and concrete snowsheds offer much greater protection than the wooden snowsheds of the railway era. Even so, there are times when avalanches close sections of the Trans-Canada highway across the Selkirk Mountains at Rogers Pass.

— Canada @ 150—

From my book, About Canada, Toronto, Civil Sector Prsess 2012.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *