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The Worst Avalanches in Canadian History

A new museum exhibit opens in Revelstoke to document avalanche history in North America

Over 10 days in February and March 1910, storm after storm hammered the mountains from Oregon to British Columbia, the coast to Montana. Today, the 1910 superstorm sounds like a dream. At the time, it was a nightmare.

In Rogers Pass, more than seven feet of snow fell and then slid off the mountains. In all 180 people died on both sides of the U.S./Canada border in nine total avalanche accidents, though two in particular amassed the most casualties.

The Rogers Pass accident is the deadliest avalanche accident in Canada and a defining moment in the nearby town of Revelstoke.

On day six, slides destroyed buildings in Wellington, Washington, on the west side of Stevens Pass, killing 98 people. The event remains the deadliest avalanche in North American history. Four days later, at the end of the storm, 58 men died in Rogers Pass, British Columbia, buried by a huge slide while digging out the rail line.

The Rogers Pass accident is the deadliest avalanche accident in Canada and a defining moment in the nearby town of Revelstoke. An epicenter of helicopter, backcountry, and resort skiing—and regularly isolated when avalanche danger closes the highway—Revy is the natural home for Land of Thundering Snow, a new online and physical exhibit curated by the Revelstoke Museum. The exhibit shares Canada’s long and evolving relationship with avalanches in graphics, historic photos, words, videos, and interviews.

“Avalanches and snow define our area,” says Cathy English, curator of the museum. “It’s part of who we are and why people have come here. It made a lot of sense for our museum and region to do this project.”

The exhibit was born out of the 100th anniversary of the 1910 disaster. Realizing there was plenty more avalanche history to uncover, the museum applied for funding from the Virtual Museum of Canada. With $220,000, English tasked Dr. John Wood, a local historian and naturalist, to research and write the project. Three years later, the physical exhibit launched in March 2015 and the web version in October. Exploring the website, the first stop is an interactive map of Canada, polka dotted with avalanche related fatalities.

“The surprising thing is that not all of these events are in what we think as avalanche country,” says English. “There were many in eastern Canada.” The oldest incident Woods uncovered was in 1782 in Nain, a tiny aboriginal community on the East Coast. Against the advice of local Inuit people, a mission built a church at the bottom of a slope. An avalanche knocked the building down killing 22.

As miners and pioneers moved west, more accidents followed as settlers continued to ignore the advice of the First Nations. On April 3, 1898, at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, aboriginal packers warned the miners not to climb the Golden Staircase to Chilkoot Pass. Most ignored them and a series of avalanches killed 68 people.

“In doing the research for this project, I was surprised by the number of avalanche incidents associated with pioneer mining,” says Woods. It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that recreation came to dominate the accidents. That’s where the rest of the site picks up, including latest research, advice form snow professionals, and the ecological impact of avalanche paths. Grizzly bears, in particular, depend on the slides, chowing on the flower bulbs and ground squirrels that live in the open meadows and, in the spring, scavenging animals killed by slides.

The final section, Only the Beginning, is a nod to English’s longterm hopes for the exhibit, which will stay live for seven years. Eventually, she hopes to take the physical exhibit on the road. But she also recognizes, like snow, history is never static.

“There’s a lot of missing information,” she says. “We don’t know very much about Canada’s first people’s relation with avalanches, for instance.” She hopes visitors will share undocumented accidents and that the exhibit will update to stay current as new accidents occur.

Overall, she says the museum is proud of the product. “We like that we pushed the boundaries of what a small museum like this can do.”