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Canada’s Worst Avalanche Disaster

The 1910 Rogers Pass Avalanche killed 58 men clearing a railroad line near the summit of Rogers Pass across the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia on March 4, 1910. It is Canada’s worst avalanche disaster.

Photo of workers recovering bodies from the avalanche

Workers recover bodies and clear the tracks on March 5, 1910.

The winter of 1909–1910 provided conditions particularly conducive to avalanches; many slides experienced during January and February. On March 1, 96 people were killed further south into the Wellington avalanche in Washington State.

Three days later, on the evening of March 4, work crews were dispatched to clear a big slide which had fallen from Cheops Mountain, and buried the tracks just south of Shed 17. The crew consisted of a locomotive-driven rotary snowplow and 59 men. Time was critical as westbound CPR Train Number 97 was just entering the Rocky Mountains, bound for Vancouver.

Half an hour before midnight as the track was nearly clear, an unexpected avalanche swept down the opposite side of the track to the first fall. Around 400 metres of track were buried. The 91-ton locomotive and plow were hurled 15 metres to land upside-down. The wooden cars behind the locomotive were crushed and all but one of the workmen were instantly buried into the deep snow.

The only survivor was Billy Lachance, the locomotive fireman, who had been knocked over by the wind accompanying the fall but otherwise remained unscathed.

When news of the disaster reached nearby Revelstoke, a relief train consisting of 200 railmen, physicians and nurses was sent to the scene. They found no casualties to take care of; it became a mission to clear the tracks and recover the bodies beneath 10 metres of snow. Several of the dead were found standing upright, frozen in place. Among the dead were 32 Japanese workers.

The disaster was not the first to befall the pass; in all over 200 people had been killed by avalanches there since the line was opened 26 years before. The CPR finally accepted defeat and in 1913 began boring the five-mile long Connaught Tunnel through Mount Macdonald, at the time Canada’s longest tunnel, so bypassing the hazard of Rogers Pass. It was opened on December 13, 1916, and the railway abandoned the pass.

To read a wonderfully written article, with photos and a map, I suggest clicking your way to the Weather Doctor.

Stay warm and safe everyone!

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