April 1st, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 13
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
The Winter of the Century
Looking Back
courtesy of Drain Brothers
biline
It has been a fairly light winter snow-wise this year in the Pass. Probably not a good thing for the snowpack and for the much needed recharge of our subsurface waters that carry us through the summer.

I haven’t seen any really big snow years since I moved here in 2005 but having spent 25 years in Fernie perhaps my perspective is a bit skewed. When I moved there I was told that they averaged 30 feet a year!

I recall being in Fernie in the winter of 1995/96, after the big flood, when we got 13 feet of snow by Christmas and 25 feet in total by spring. It was a sight to behold. I could not throw the snow any higher and did not own a snow blower. Picture this. I am in a panic with five feet of wet snow on my roof so I start shoveling it off. A passerby hollers up at me; “Why are you doing that?” I explain my concern to which he said; “You ought to check out your roof rafters” which I did. I was shocked to find they were 12 inches on center instead of the typical 16. They were designed for 100 pounds per square foot snow load. So I got off the roof.

I like to periodically check out what they call the Morrissey Ridge Snow Pack monitoring site (MORQ2), south of Fernie, just to see how the snowpack is doing out that way each year. This year the parabolic graph is showing just below normal, so far. The graph’s layout shows this year, an average year and the highest and lowest ever years by snow-water equivalent in inches. So 10 inches of snow roughly equals one inch of water. The top of the parabola shows the highest ever to be 40 plus inches which translates to about 33 feet of snow. I am going to guess that I know what year that may have happened and here is the story that I think goes with it.
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While I was absolutely amazed at the amount of precipitation that the 1995/96 season had, the old timers in town scoffed at me and claimed that was nothing. The sages from Fernie’s early years all carry memories of the year that Fernie was buried by an unrelenting, almost continuous, series of snowstorms that turned that town into a frozen white prison. Their stories of the winter of 1928/29 left me shaking my head in disbelief but the statistics and news reports I had access to from the old Fernie Free Press files and the weather records from the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company backed up their claims.

That winter started very early and never gave up, even when the strong suns of May came around. September 10, 1928 the citizens of Fernie were caught off guard by a whopping 55 inches of fresh snow and a cold snap that wiped out all the unharvested gardens in town. Tree branches, still bedecked in greenery, broke in record numbers, knocking out most of the city’s power and throwing places like the hospital and the Coal Creek Mine into chaos. (sound familiar- Sept 11th, 2005 snow event here!). There were 3 fatalities from this first storm and when this deadly winter was finally run its 8-month-course in late May an incredible 29 people had died from snowstorm related injuries. I found the newspaper articles that year nothing short of astounding.
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The first September fatality was Homer McPherson, a diminutive, retired CPR train engineer who was crushed to death by his legendary clematis trellis, which collapsed on him from the massive weight of snow it carried that day. Passers-by spotted his old tobacco pipe sticking out of the snow. The second fatality was Mrs. Aprile Pazzo, a midwife who was buried by snow sliding off the steep metal roof of George Arnhem’s house. It was a prudent thing back then to have this type of roof which would shed its snow quickly but violently and prevent roof collapse from the accumulated weight of snow.

Mrs. Pazzo, who had just delivered the Arnhem’s third baby, was not discovered for 36 hours while the whole town searched for her. Incidentally there was another roof slide fatality later that winter, a Bulgarian immigrant bachelor known locally by the odd name of Loof Von Lirpa. He was not found until mid-May the next year when his body emerged from the melting roof snow slides around his shack. It was always assumed he had moved off to another job in another town.

The third fatality came when Harry Popovich’s son Michael was run over early in November of that year by the Spokane Flyer, the daily train that ran through town. That’s the same train, by the way, that Sid Choquette saved in 1903 when he ran over the fresh rocks of the Frank Slide to warn its engineer. While wading through the deep snows on the tracks near the Morrissey, Fernie and Michel Railway (MF&M) switch house young eight-year-old Fredrick was not able to get out of the way in time. The MF&M passenger cars were rescued in the 1970’s and brought to Heritage Park in Calgary where they were restored and are used to this day. They were used to transport the coal miners from Fernie up to the Coal Creek Mine 7 miles away.

Throughout the fall months the snow continued in a series of storms that paralyzed the town and eventually forced Fernieites to travel from building to building through a series of hazardous tunnels that periodically collapsed on unsuspecting citizens. The Free Press reported on November 19th of that year that a mother and her baby, who was being pushed about in a ski equipped pram, were caught in a section of tunnel by collapses on either side of them. It required a, “herculean effort by a dozen miners coming off shift to extricate the hapless pair.”
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That period from the first crushing snows in September to the Yuletide saw all manner of bizarre fatalities. They ranged from a hobo chewed up by the CPR snowplow to the grocery delivery boy, who went by the unusual name of Huntigowk Day, who was impaled by a giant icicle that broke free from the west eve of the Catholic Church.

By Christmas time the townsfolk were so fed up and exhausted by the continual fight to keep walkways and roadways open that tempers began to flare. That’s when fatality number 18 occurred, a bizarre incident in which an argument over who should be shoveling what turned deadly. Frank Pearson, a hardware clerk, apparently became incensed at the Royal Hotel owner’s indifference to his share of walkways and struck him over the head with a coal miner’s #14 shovel. The court-case held later that dreadful winter was itself the scene of a small riot in which families of the two sides attacked each other on the steps of the magnificent chateau Fernie courthouse.

Nerves were frayed and limits were pushed daily as this winter to end all winters wore on. No one had ever seen the likes of what went on that year. CPR track-cleaning crews worked round the clock for six months straight to try and keep rail traffic through this embattled town. Pipes froze over and over again, roofs collapsed on a regular basis and starving wildlife roamed the streets at night desperately looking for anything to eat.
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The last 5 of the 29 victims of this unforgettable winter were the Andrews family from McEvoy Street. Their Model-A roadster was swept into the Elk River on the first day of April at the big rock cut just north of town by a small spring snowslide. The car apparently flipped over and they were trapped.

Incredibly, the last snowstorm of 1929 came on May 13th, a Black Friday that saw the final 14 inches blanket the newly budding foliage in town. The damage was horrendous. The spring sun dissolved it days later and brought the river level close to the bottom of the west Fernie Bridge. Mercifully there were no warm spring rains that year at peak runoff. If there had been, like 1995, the enormous snowpack on the high mountains that surround Fernie would have swept down on its inhabitants in one final punishing insult, to end what the old-timers there called, the winter of the century.
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April 1st, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 13
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