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2 March 2010

1910 Avalanche:  Town Mourns as Victims Are Dug Out of the Snow

Workers clearing an avalanche on the Canadian Pacific line in Rogers Pass.

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Rogers Pass British Columbia - Friday, 4 Mar 1910, was a balmy winter day in Revelstoke.
That night, 16-year-old Donald G. Scott Calder was at a high school party at a home on Mackenzie Avenue with 30 of his fellow students.
"Rooms in the home of the Lawrence family were quite spacious and the students had a very enjoyable evening with games and dancing," he wrote in a 1974 account of his night.
The party ended at midnight and he escorted Miss May Manning home. The temperature had risen over the past week to the point where Calder wasn't wearing a coat that night.
After dropping Manning off, he ran into his his friend Charles Procunier. As they headed home, they talked about the party and the unseasonably warm weather.
Suddenly, "all of the steam whistles in the CPR shops and roundhouse started to sound simultaneously. At the same time the fire gong and the fire hall on Mackenzie Avenue started to ring," wrote Calder.
Calder and Procunier rushed to the firehall where they learned that several snow clearing crews, locomotives, and snow plows were buried in a slide off Avalanche Mountain.
At Rogers Pass, road master John Anderson, who had been notifying officials of the clean-up progress, returned to the site of the avalanche to the sound of silence.
Out of the blizzard, he heard the hoarse cries of Bill LaChance, the only man to survive the direct impact of the slide.
LaChance was buried waist deep in the snow. He lost his hat and gloves and he was spitting out blood.
"I thought I'd been hurt inside and I was afraid to put my hands inside of my overalls for fear I'd find my guts laying there," he said many years later.
His left leg was injured and he lay on the snow crying for help until Anderson heard him. "It seemed like it was going to be pretty tough that night. I pulled through it," he said. However, I had to sit there and say my prayers. That's all there was to do."
In Revelstoke, a rescue crew was being assempled. Calder and Procunier, despite their age and their lack of winter gear, volunteered with 150 others, to go dig people out.
Their train pulled out of Revelstoke at 1 a.m. on 5 Mar 1910. Dressed in their party clothes, they had no idea what they were in for.
When they arrived at Rogers Pass they were met with a devastating sight.
"The whole side of the mountain had been swept clear of timber, no signs of snowsheds anywhere," Calder wrote. "The snow from high above had formed a huge mass at which our railway guides and supervisors told us that they hoped to find the bodies of their comrades. It would be a miracle if any of them were alive.
"Charles (Procunier) and I, looking into the stern faces of these men trained in the hazardous work in the mountain sections of the railway prepared for what was to be perhaps our first brush with death."
Calder and Procunier were outfitted with proper winter gear and the crews were handed heavy picks to begin the work. They quickly uncovered the snowplows and work trains.
"The unfortunate locomotive engineers and fireman were brought out partially scalded and partially frozen solid," wrote Calder. "They were known to us but in a few short hours Charles Procunier and I had forgotten about boyhood and there were no tears."
The two friends worked away in the midst of a blizzard for several days. They slept on board the rescue train and ate in the dining hall.
Conditions at Rogers Pass were harsh. A blizzard raged and the threat of further avalanches loomed. On 5 Mar 1910, another slide came down, this time damaging Shed 14. Fortunately, no one was caught in it.
Some workers were treated worse than others. After spending six nights at the pass, sleeping without blankets, Mehar Singh, the boss of a Hindu work crew wrote a letter complaining of physical abuse by the road master, the lack of blankets to stay warm at night, and the favourable treatment being received by the Italian work gang.
"We never frightened and been working all the time in the slides in such dangerous places, where a man would never work for $5 a day, and we been working heartily, whether it was day or night, whether we hungry or thirsty, thinking it was a bad time on the company and it was a bad time on us too," he wrote.
By 9 Mar 1910, 42 bodies were recovered and some were found buried standing up as they had been before the slide.
Calder and Procunier spent several nights at Rogers Pass before being replaced by experienced workers. They returned to school as the only students to be part of the rescue operation.
"As the lone volunteers from our school, we felt that having worked with men under trying circumstances we had in some measure reached manhood status," wrote Calder.
In Revelstoke, a coroner's inquest was held to determine the cause of death. After hearing evidence from railway managers, workers, and doctors, the cause of death was determined accidental, though it was added that Canadian Pacific Railway "should refrain from working its men in snowslides on stormy nights."
The town mourned the loss of so many friends and family. The deaths were reported as "26 [white] men and 32 Japs."
A public funeral was held on 18 Mar 1910 and mayor Dr. J.H. Hamilton granted the city a half-day off to attend.
Two days later, about 900 people attended a memorial service at the Opera House, "In honour of the memory of the men who were overwhelmed while on duty by the avalanche at Rogers Pass, B.C., on the night of 4 Mar 1910."
Reverend C.A. Procunier addressed the gathering.
"These men were true heroes, not like the soldier, but in... the faithful performance of personal duty," he said. "All were heroes because they fought well for their families and those dependent on them."
The final body wasn't recovered until 18 Apr 1910.
Alex Cooper.

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