23 February 2010
The Deadly Avalanche of 1910
Railway workers dig out a train following the 4 Mar 1910 avalanche.
Rogers Pass British Columbia - It was approaching midnight on 4 Mar 1910. Road master John
Anderson and his crew spent the bulk of the day in Rogers Pass clearing the track following an avalanche that came down off Mt. Cheops near shed 17. It was
the first slide to come down in that area in many years.
Their work was nearly done so Anderson got on the phone to report the track was nearly open. As he walked back to the work crews, the rotary snow plow was
silent and he couldn't hear any of his men. They were buried, 58 of them in total, underneath a massive slide 200 metres wide and 10 metres deep, that came
down from the top of Mt. Avalanche.
"I heard the wind but didn't think of a slide," Anderson said.
4 Mar 1910 was another stormy day at Rogers Pass. A huge system had been moving through the area for the past eight days, dumping more than 200 cm of snow on
the pass. On top of that, the temperature was rising and the wind was howling, creating perfect conditions for big avalanches.
The newspapers were filled with stories of the Wellington Slide, a massive avalanche that came down 1 Mar 1910 in Stevens Pass, in the Cascade Mountains of
Washington state, killing 96 people. It remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history.
In total, avalanches took 180 lives in the Pacific Northwest over a ten-day period, including the 58 workers that died in Rogers Pass on 4 Mar 1910.
Building a railway line through Rogers Pass was always considered risky. The pass was discovered in 1881 by Major A.B. Rogers, one of the great surveyors of
his day. He travelled to the headwaters of the Illecillewaet River from Revelstoke that summer, where he spotted the pass. The next year he reached the area
from the east and a pass was found.
The discovery of Rogers Pass meant that Canadian Pacific could avoid looping their railway around the big bend of the Columbia River and proceed on a more
direct route through the Selkirk Range of the Columbia Mountains.
The route was frought with peril. Local First Nations people would not travel to the area in winter because of the many avalanches that came down.
In February 1885, during construction of the rail line, James Ross, CPR's manager of construction wrote to William Van Horne, general manager of CPR, about
the dangers of Rogers Pass.
"The men are frightened," Ross wrote. "I find that the snowslides on the Selkirks are much more serious than I had anticipated and I think are
quite beyond your ideas of their magnitude and danger to the line."
Regardless, construction of the railway went on, despite the deaths of two men in avalanches, and the first train went through in November of 1885. That
winter, the railway was closed because of the avalanche danger and a series of snow sheds were built to protect the line, at a cost of more than $1 million.
Keeping the line open during winter required an army of men to shovel snow and clear away avalanches. Deaths were not uncommon. On 30 Jan 1899 a slide from
Mt. Tupper killed eight people and demolished Rogers Pass station. Between 1885 and 1910, avalanches killed around 100 people, according to Rogers Pass
historian John Woods.
On 24 Feb 1910 a storm system moved in from the Pacific Ocean. Coming in three waves, it dumped more than 200 cm of snow on Rogers Pass, including 56 cm on
4 Mar 1910.
"Snow had been falling steadily for several days on the higher slopes of the mountains but none had fallen on the lower altitudes so that no further
danger of a recurrence of the slides was anticipated as the tops of the hills would not be affected by the thaw," stated a 5 Mar 1910 article in the
Revelstoke Mail Herald.
A slide came down from Mt. Cheops during the day on 4 Mar 1910 near shed 17. The shed was built in 1886 and partly rebuilt since then but a slide had never
come down in that area, according to testimony given by superintendent Thomas Kilpatrick to a coroner's inquest held on 11 Mar 1910.
"It was considered that there was no great risk for men working at that place as slides were not known at that place," he said.
A crew was dispatched to clean it up. They worked through the night in a blizzard clearing the railway.
Bill LaChance, the only person to survive the direct impact of the avalanche, was driving the rotary plow that night.
"We bucked right into the snowslides. It had run down and filled the cut, oh, I'd say, maybe 14 feet high," he recalled many years later. "That
had just smoothed over and it was a messy place because it was full of timbers. It had cleaned the hill right off, and it must of run for over a mile down the
The trees brought down in the slide made the rotary plow useless, so the rail workers had to go in and shovel. Despite the conditions, there was no thought
of refusing to work. Road master Anderson told the inquest that it was not compulsory for men to go out at night and clear a slide but he did not know of any
cases of refusal.
"The men understood that the road has to be kept clear at all times," he said.
Torches and lamps were used to light the way and work progressed well so at around 11 p.m., Anderson went to the nearest phone to report they were almost done.
Suddenly, a second slide hit, this time from the other side of the pass, off Mt. Avalanche.
"I was working with the rest and was making toward the late end of the first slide towards Rogers Pass station when above the roar of the storm and the
noise of the rotary I heard the awful reverberation of the slide coming down the long slopes of Mt. Avalanche," a worker told the Mail Herald.
He ran as fast as he could over the snow and debris to get out of the slide path.
"The force was tremendous and literally mowed all before it. I made a leap for the snow shed and as as I got clear of the cutting, the gale caught me
and hurled me into the shed where I lay half-stunned, but safe. My comrades were not to be seen, no sign of anything, except an enormous mass of ice and snow,
trees, and debris."
Duncan McRae, a bridge carpenter was also part of the clean up crew. He told his story to coroner's inquest, which was reported in the Mail Herald.
"Suddenly, I heard a deep rumbling, then timbers cracking. I got out of the snow cut and called look out. The wind then caught me and swept me out of
the cut on top of shed 17, half-covered in snow," he said. "I thought the men near me heard the slide coming, but the men in the ditch didn't.
Those in the cut had no chance to get out. Look outs would not have been much use on a night like that."
LaChance was stoking the engines of the rotary plow when the slide hit.
"Of course, it was only a fraction of a second until the snow came in across the gangway, and I was right there. Well, it hit me, and how!" he
said. "It took me right out of the gangway and up through the top of that tunnel we had made."
He knew right away it was an avalanche, so he grabbed his head while he got tossed around in the snow. The snow stopped and LaChance found himself buried. He
dug through the snow and was able to free himself.
"After I got out I couldn't hear the engine. The engine should have been blowing a lot of steam, but there was no sound there. Everything was just
Fifty-eight of his co-workers were dead, buried underneath 10 metres of snow.
On 4 Mar 2010, a memorial is being held in Revelstoke to remember the 58 people killed in an avalanche in Rogers Pass 100 years ago. This is the first of a
two-part story of that tragic incident.