Friday, July 5, 2019

90 SECONDS OF TERROR by Elizabeth Clements

Have you ever had that moment when you’ve been so captivated by something that time seems to stop? I’ve experienced it a few times, but I’ll share one here as it inspired me to write a love story.
I don’t remember the exact year, but it was back in the 90’s. We were returning from our annual vacation in the mountains and decided to take a side trip to visit the Frank Slide. The Crowsnest Pass of the Rocky Mountains is famous not only for the coal mining town of Frank, Alberta, but also many mining sites, and even a famous ancient tree. Nearby Blairmore had its fair share of excitement during the rum smuggling days of a century ago, keeping the Mounties busy with smugglers, murder and mayhem. The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre is located in Blairmore, 200 km southwest of Calgary and a short jaunt from Frank.
In 1900, the Canadian American Coal and Coke opened a coal mine at the base of Turtle Mountain, “a 7,251-foot-tall limestone peak”. News of work for miners spread across Europe and in no time, immigrants flocked to Frank, seeking a better life from what they’d left behind. Thus, in 1901 the town of Frank was incorporated. The First Nations, Blackfoot and K’tunaxa tribes believed “the mountain that moves” was bad luck and avoided camping near its base. Warnings of the mountain’s instability went unheeded.

Nick Clements Photography - size of boulder in ratio to car
As we approached Frank, we saw huge boulders strewn across the land on both sides of the highway. After looking around and taking pictures, we decided to skip walking the scenic 1.5-km Frank Slide Trail and went inside the visitor center and gift shop. I remember strolling among the many exhibits and displays of mining equipment.

Luckily, my husband kept a watchful eye on the boys because as I stopped before one life-size cardboard cutout of a group of four immigrants, I was drawn to one particular woman’s face. I gazed into her dull eyes, level with mine, and a stillness crept over me. I sensed her sadness, imagined the drudgery and pain she had endured.
Time and place slipped away and there was just her and me in silent communication. I felt her pain, her loneliness upon leaving her homeland behind in search of a better life—and not finding it in the black choking dust of a coal mining town. Someone must have jostled me, or perhaps one of my boys asking a question, and the moment  burst like a bubble. But I’ve never forgotten her face to this very day.
Eventually, we went into the theater and watched an excellent documentary of the Frank Slide—another unforgettable experience undiluted  by time. The screen was dark and silent. Then I heard it—the light clatter of a single rock rolling through the darkness. Then another rock. Then three…a dozen more, building into a roaring crescendo of falling rocks that shook the screen. Shook me.

Nick Clements Photography - view of  mountain slide
In 90 seconds in the still, charcoal pre-dawn of April 29, 1903, at 4:10 a.m., the summit on the east side of Turtle Mountain collapsed and “a section of rock 1,400 feet tall — the height of the Empire State Building — 3,280 feet wide, and 500 feet deep” roared down the mountain. The southeastern part of Frank, home to 100 people, two miles of railroad, and the coal mine, instantly disappeared beneath 50 to 150 feet of rock, An 
estimated 82-90 million tons of limestone rocks and huge boulders spewed for 4 kilometres into the Crowsnest River valley.
Most of the approximately 600 residents of Frank were asleep while the night shift worked deep in the coal mine. It’s estimated 70 or 90 people were killed but only 12 or 18 bodies were recovered (the numbers vary, depending on which research article one reads).
There are many accounts of heroism and people pulling together to help each other. A toddler was thrown from her bed and was found dust-covered but otherwise unhurt on a boulder. Another is of a man who flagged down a train before it would have crashed into the pile of huge boulders strewn across the track. A house was pushed off its foundation but no one inside was killed. 17 miners inside the mine managed to crawl to safety by following a coal seam.

Modern-day satellite coverage of the mountain proves there could be another slide, but not for a long time unless there’s an earthquake. Turtle Mountain moves 1 cm a year. “The primary cause of the Frank Slide was the unstable geological structure of Turtle Mountain. The mountain's once horizontal layers of sedimentary rock had been folded during the mountain building process until almost vertical— the ultimate in mountain instability.
Multiple factors led to the rockslide, but Turtle Mountain's unstable geology was a primary cause. Tectonic shift during the creation of the Rocky Mountains caused structurally stronger rock layers to sit on top of weaker ones. Water seeped into the mountain through surface cracks, eroding the limestone. When it froze and thawed, the cracks widened, breaking apart the rock from the inside. Mining operations may have contributed to the mountain's instability, but they were not the main cause of the slide.”

Nick Clements Photography - close-up view of rock slide
To put this vast rock slide into a visual perspective, a program officer at the interpretive center calculated the enormity of rocks strewn on both sides of the highway:“If you took all the rocks from the slide and made a one-metre wide by six-metre high wall, you could build a wall across Canada from Victoria to Nova Scotia.” Now that boggles my mind as much as some of the house-sized boulders still resting where they’d fallen over a century ago.

A visit to the Frank Slide wouldn’t be complete without looking for Alberta’s most photographed tree—the 700-year Burmis tree. This hardy limber pine is believed to have stood here for centuries, battered by wind and rain and blizzards. The famous landmark died in the late 1970’s, yet remained erect on the rocky mountainside, its branches poking like gnarled fingers into the sky.

Nick Clements Photography - 700-year-old Burmis tree

When a fierce storm finally knocked the tree over, the residents of the area couldn’t bear losing their beloved landmark, banded together and propped the tree up with rods and wires. Thus, the Burmis tree continues to greet visitors passing by on the highway and serenely poses for their cameras. My son took this picture (and all the photos) through the truck windshield. The dark, sullen clouds simply add to the lonely feeling of sadness, devastation and loss that haunt this area.

Soon after we arrived home, I started writing a new historical romance, inspired by what I’d seen and felt at the town of Frank. I finished writing it, then like I had with so many of my other books, put it aside and started a new book. Procrastination has always been my worst vice.
About a dozen years later, on a beautiful Thanksgiving Monday, I took my mom for a little road trip back to Frank. I came prepared with notebook and camera, using both. And I searched for that sad-eyed woman, but in vain. She was gone. But she was far more than just a figment of my imagination.
Thus, this past winter when Cheryl Pearson sent out a call for submissions for a Hot Western Nights anthology set in the western states, I wanted to submit a story. I stalled with two new story ideas…then that dear little sad-eyed woman came to me in the wee, dream-filled hours of the morning and whispered in my ear….
Writing from memory, I condensed that earlier full-length historical into a  novella, changed some of the action and moved the setting to a fictional town in the beautiful Colorado mountains. In some ways it’s different from that earlier book yet retains its essence. I mean, with a hero nicknamed Diamond Jack, how could I possibly change him or his Angel? They’ve lived in my mind for years.

Here is a teaser and an excerpt from my story:

Angela Summers has cared for her grandfather in the mining camp for many years. But when danger strikes, saloon owner Jack Williams must try to protect the woman he loves in DIAMOND JACK’S ANGEL.

Brookstown, Colorado, 1888

“I tell ya, Boss, that crazy old coot’s trouble. Every time it thunders, he says the mountain’s talkin’ to him. And it’s gittin’ worse.”
Sam Brooks sighed and set down his whiskey before looking up at his burly foreman. “All right, Bart, what’s he saying now?”
“He says there’s a fault in the mountain and it’s gonna come down. I tell ya, Boss, that kinda talk’s gonna spook the miners. They’re grumblin’ and talkin’ about goin’ on strike.”
Sam gritted his teeth, fed up with this constant trouble at the mine. Staring into his glass, he sighed like a tired old man and tossed back the rest of the whiskey. “Then take care of it. Make it look like an accident. There’s a bonus in it when the job’s done.”
Bart nodded. “You betcha, Boss. You can count on me.”
“I sure hope so,” Sam muttered, nodding dismissively toward the door.

I hope my little blog has whetted…intrigued you to check out my story, Diamond Jack’s Angel, and the novellas of five other authors in the Hot Western Nights anthology.

Available on Amazon: HOT WESTERN NIGHTS

Some special moments I’ve had is the first time I saw my future husband and he smiled at me…his first unforgettable kiss…walking down the aisle to say I Do…my first airplane ride…the wonder of holding my first child…and last year, holding my first published book. Hmmm, all firsts. I guess that’s why I cherish them to this day.
I would love to hear what moment in time –or moment out of time you have experienced that you’ve never been able to forget. Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comments of your unforgettable first.

Beneath a Horse-Thief Moon
Available on Amazon: Digital | KindleUnlimited | Print


Julie Lence said...

Thank you for joining us today, Elizabeth. Such a touching story the few seconds you connected with the sad lady. Have a great weekend!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your story with us today at Cowboy Kisses. So interesting. And what great photographs!

Elizabeth Clements said...

Thank you, Julie and Patti. Isn't it kind of awesome when one has a moment like I did with that sad-eyed immigrant. It's been 25+ years and still she slips into my mind. I apologize for the changing font. I don't know why that happened because it was all New Times Roman. My son took the pictures on a trip through the Crowsnest Pass a couple of years ago and dug them out for me to use here. I love that Burmis tree. Thank you for having me here. It was my pleasure.

Cheryl Pierson said...

I really enjoyed this post, Elizabeth! So glad you wrote a tale for HOT WESTERN NIGHTS--I always love to have a story based on a piece of history to think about, don't you? Love your son's photographs, too. He is very talented!

Alicia Haney said...

Your book sounds awesome, like a real good page turner! Thank you for sharing your photos and sharing your story with us. God Bless you.

Elizabeth Clements said...

Cheryl, I'm so happy to be part of the Prairie Rose Publications family. What a wonderful group of people/writers. You make my day when you tell me you love my stories--that's soul food that keeps me going. And yes, I'm so blessed to have such a talented son who not only takes great photos, but created my website. Thank you for stopping by.

Elizabeth Clements said...

Alicia Haney, thank you for your kind words. That moment I described when I gazed into that woman's tired eyes is one of those rare moments in life when something magical happens, especially when it hasn't faded in over a couple of decades. I'm so glad a book evolved, and although I'll probably never publish the full-length version, I'm very content with the novella version. My son has an exceptional eye for detail. The photos here were taken through a truck window, but if you pop over to my website, you can see a collection of photos he took for me to help illustrate my first published book, Beneath A Horse Thief Moon. All three books of that trilogy are set in the beautiful Cypress Hills, which are visible on the horizon where I live. Thank you for stopping by, and God Bless you, too, Alicia.