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May 31st, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 22
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
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Looking Back
Photo: Sue Lium
Water pours over the Coleman school fence from Nez Perce
Creek in 1942.
Many years ago my father told me this: “If we get two or more days of warm rain at the wrong time in spring, all hell will break loose.” He was right. I was living in Fernie on June 9th, 1995 when all hell broke loose. Warm rain and high snowpack’s combined in an astonishing show of nature’s power. That event took out stretches of Highway 3, several railway bridges and Coal Creek ran wild out of its banks and into the Airport Subdivision. I’ll never forget watching Coal Creek waters running down Mt. Minton Street towards the James White Park and being stopped by the Elk River flood berm which was designed to keep water from going the opposite direction.

I recall that the combined waters from dozens of creeks and overwhelmed topography in the Alberta side of the Pass took many days to make its way east and imperil downstream communities like Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. Who could forget the video of them shooting at a large propane tank as it bobbed wildly down the South Saskatchewan River heading for downtown Medicine Hat. Don’t think they ever succeeded in blowing it up and I am really not sure why they considered it a risk.

At any rate the memories of this catastrophic event were still fresh in my mind in 2013 when once again, in mid-June, warm rains reinforced Dad’s prophecy. I recognized very early that morning that it was pretty serious and spent the day travelling the Crowsnest Pass photographing the unbelievable power of water in volumes we hopefully will never see again. I got some spectacular pictures including an unprecedented seven waterfalls running at once off of Sentry Peak at Crowsnest Lake.
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Of course the main street and railway bridges in Blairmore got hammered and CPR found itself shut down as Lyon Creek eroded away the crossing supports and jammed the place up with dozens of logs. Incidentally, Lyon, not Lyons, is the correct spelling for the creek as Ian McKenzie pointed out to me last year.

So being the curious historian that I am I thought I would look back at two other catastrophic flood events similar to 1995 that happened in the Pass and see what they looked like. What triggered this interest was that I was recently given some historic shots of the Pass 1942 flood by a retired nurse from Juneau, Alaska whose father, John Robinson was witness to. I was astounded at the damage and the amount of water that showed in the West Coleman pictures so I did a little research just to see what water courses looked like back then. The Peel’s Prairie Provinces website (peel.library.ualberta.ca) has a collection of map images that includes a detailed 1915 map of the Crowsnest Pass Forest area. Zooming into the waterways in the Coleman area I found that McGillivray Creek, on the west side of Coleman, showed two courses back then. The present day straight line to Crowsnest River and another that ran east along the north side of the CPR tracks to a concrete culvert under the tracks and then south through the old coal company property. The map clearly shows the creek running behind the most southerly row of houses in West Coleman.
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That 1942 event started quite early, on May 9th, a Saturday, and it didn’t stop raining until the following Wednesday. The whole Pass felt the brunt of this deluge and once again Blairmore main street bridge collapsed. The May 15th issue of the Blairmore Enterprise talked of homes and buildings moved off of their foundations, telephone and light poles carried away, train service interrupted for days, the Greenhills Mine shut down and it went on to say that store basements on Main Street lost thousands of dollars in stock. Boats were used in Frank and in Coleman to rescue families from their homes which were surrounded by: “water to a depth of from four to ten feet.”

The Robinson 1942 pictures of the massive flooding in West Coleman and Italian town present an amazing view of the chaos there. One can discern people floating in boats or rafts and the water, jammed with logs and debris piled up at that culvert under the CPR tracks. I recall that my father, who was a mine surveyor and privy to the underground mine plans of the area, saying he felt that West Coleman has actually sunk a few feet in elevation. This he said was due to almost all the town being undermined by the International Coal Mine. The Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board coal mine atlas clearly shows that most of West Coleman was undermined although it is not clear just how deep under that part of town the mine was. So Dad’s suggestion of subtle surface subsidence may have exacerbated the flooding issue to some extent, making the area lower than usual.

The 1942 flood images are pretty well known but it wasn’t until I contemplated the map that I realized that McGillivray Creek was the culprit that year not the Crowsnest River. As it backed up at the culvert it filled up the lower areas in West Coleman and then flowed along the tracks eastward into Italian Town. I can’t imagine the damage that all this dirty water caused.

Backing up even further flood history-wise we find that in 1923 the creeks and rivers in the Pass ran wild in early June of that year.
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The June 7th issue of the Blairmore Enterprise reported that on the previous Friday when Lyon Creek was at its peak 11 year old Harold Evan Joyce fell into the creek and was swiftly carried away to his death. Once again the stream courses in the Coleman area also broke free of their banks and tore through East and West Coleman. In East Coleman the Nez Perce swept through and around houses in Bushtown (East Coleman) and the Crowsnest River, before it was finally moved off to the south channel-wise, cut into the CPR right-of-way and box cars toppled over at the eroded mine siding.

The Enterprise described it thusly: “All through the Crows Nest Pass, from Fernie to Pincher, great damage was wrought. Besides the washing out of railway tracks and bridges, auto roads and bridges, houses have been bereft of their foundations, gardens swept of their roots, and damage beyond estimation done to contents of basements.” Damage estimates ran around a quarter million dollars which was a lot of money in 1923.

Schools were shut down, buildings knocked off their foundations and twisted beyond repair and the always vulnerable Lyon Creek Bridge over Victoria Avenue (now main street Blairmore) was toast.

You would have thought that by 1995 we would have been more prepared for an event like this but when 280mm of rain (10 inches) landed on snow packed mountains here in a 36 hour period it very nearly overwhelmed the place. Travelers were stranded, campgrounds flooded, CPR washouts all over the place, the hospital was evacuated (which was no small feat), miners in the Elk Valley were trapped with no way to get home and the sewage treatment plant and lagoons in Frank were overwhelmed resulting in a release of raw sewage into the Crowsnest River. It was chaos for a time but a lot of expertise and quick work was brought to bear during and after this surge of nature that showed what the Pass is made of.

So if you live on a flood plain or close to a waterway just remember this. It only takes a couple days of the right equation of rain and snowpack and: “all hell will break loose”.

Author's Note: The on-line version will have a lot more images of maps showing old water courses, the extent of the International Mine under West Coleman and other related flood imagery. Any comments to the on-line version are most welcome. Share your personal memories of any of the floods.
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May 31st, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 22
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