The Berkmans stand outside their backdoor where a massive boulder stopped just before hitting their house.

The Berkmans stand outside their backdoor where a massive boulder stopped just before hitting their house.

A look back at the Hedley rockslide of 1939

Seventy-three years ago this January boulders tore through Hedley, incredibly only killing two people.

Nine-year-old Helen Moore woke up moments before a car-sized boulder plummeted down a towering mountain into her bedroom, tearing off the back of the house and hurling furniture into the yard.

The massive rock came to a rest in the middle of the room, just missing Moore and her older sister who didn’t have enough time to leave their beds.

The thundering sound of boulders catapulting from the nearby-mountain into neighbouring houses also shook Moore’s mother and two brothers awake

Panic-stricken men and women rushed from a community dance to desperately call for loved ones through gaping holes left in the small wooden houses.

Still in her pajamas on that cold, snowy night, Moore was ushered to a nearby hotel  while volunteers searched for two missing people inside a partially flattened houses.

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Twenty-two boulders broke free near the top of Stemwinder Mountain, fiercely crashing into Hedley in the early morning hours of Jan. 24, 1939.

Many of the town’s 800 residents were enjoying a lively dance at the community hall when they heard a loud thunder shortly after 1 a.m.. followed by eerily dead silence.

They hurried to the scene, seeing houses destroyed along the north end of town.

Peter Strand and his housekeeper Johanna Green were the only two killed, despite massive boulders plowing through five houses along their street.

The boulder that instantly killed 57-year-old Strand went straight through his house, stopping 25 feet away in the backyard, the Similkameen Star reported at the time.

Strand was one of many in the bustling town employed by Mascot Gold Mine.

“It roared like thunder, split the house like a bullet,” Neill McLeod told the newspaper reporter.

He watched from his verandah as a 20-tonne boulder flattened Strand’s bedroom.

“I’ve lived here since 1907… and I’ve seen many a bit of rock come down, but not like o’ this.”

He quickly extended electric lights from his house to his neighbour’s to help look for the two missing people.

“The bed was flat on the floor. She was groaning but he never made a sound,” he said.

Green, who had recently left her husband and daughters in Princeton to live with Strand, later died on the steps of the local doctor’s office.

McLeod was later credited as the only person to witness the rockslide.

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No one else was injured except a woman who ventured back into her house to search for her cat.

She broke three ribs before finding her 14-year-old tabby alive and well.

She and Strand had a deal – whoever went first would care for the other’s cat.

Strand’s cat Spark Plug wasn’t immediately found and its fate was never reported.

More people would have died if they had been at home instead of at a dance that night, the newspaper reports.

The rocks, which fell 1,700 feet, narrowly missed people in their houses, sometimes stopping a few feet from where they sat.

“It was little short of a miracle how some of the residents survived,” the Similkameen Star reported.

One woman jumped out of bed when she heard the noise. A moment after rousing her husband, a bolder plowed through their bedroom wall, pushing their “crumpled” bed into the living room.

Another rock stopped only three feet from a couple’s back door after plowing through their woodshed.

In a neighbouring house, a family sat together in the living room as a bolder smashed through the wall of their bedroom.

Moore and her sister slept on opposite sides of the bedroom, leaving enough space for the 25-tonne boulder to stop in the middle.

A metal headboard ripped from its bed and laying in the yard can be seen in an old photo.

Heavy pieces of the roof and walls were scattered throughout the room.

“The houses stood no chance with the boulders. They came so fast, nothing could have stopped them,” said Vern Slater, who helps run the Hedley Museum.

The force of the boulders as they plunged down the mountain was reported in the local newspaper.

“One huge fragment hurtled over fences, in 150-foot hops, churned through the vacant yard between  the Berkman and Heeney places, struck the street and bounded almost 200 feet to come to rest harmlessly in the alley,” the reporter wrote.

“A naked cup-shaped gouge high on the marbled face of the hill clearly tells the story.”

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Houses quickly evacuated

Moore,who now lives in Penticton, can vividly remember that deadly night, even though it was73 years ago.

It’s not only on the rockslide’s anniversary that she thinks about the mysterious thunder that woke her up.

“Even today, when I hear a loud noise like a big truck, it reminds me of that night,” she says.

“It still startles me.”

Moore’s fourteen-year-old sister helped her mother and siblings find their way out of the partially-collapsed house. Her father, foreman of the Mascot Gold Mine, was staying at the mine site overnight.

Most of the people in the town lived there because of the mine.

Mascot Gold Mine, which was in operation from  1936 to 1949, was located on a mountain close to the one with the rockslide.

During its heyday, around 200 people lived in a small town on top of the mountain.

The community was complete with a cookhouse, bunkhouse and a blacksmith shop.

A booming town was built up around the mine as workers moved their families to the area permanently.

They rented houses from the mining company and sent their children to school close by.

Single men often lived on top of the mountain.

Women and children who had their homes destroyed in the rockslide were given rooms at the Hedley Hotel.

“There were three or four girls to a bed,” Moore says.

“I can remember the other girls telling me I was covered in dust. Plaster from the wall was still on my pajamas.”

As the girls rested at the Hedley Hotel, adults rushed to have every resident accounted for.

The section of town that was hit by the rockslide was evacuated in fear more rocks would come tumbling down.

The next day, people from as far away as Penticton came to see the devastation despite difficult roads and a foot of snow.

Reporters from the Vancouver Sun and The Province investigated the area.

Moore’s 13-year-old brother posed for a photo while pointing at the massive rock inside his sisters’ bedroom.

The photographer could see clearly inside the bedroom because the house’s corner had been completely ripped off.

Hedley residents weren’t used to rockslides. The most recent one had happened 40 years earlier, but it was minor and no one was injured, the Similkameen Star reported.

“I don’t remember being worried about a rockslide – it never came to mind,” Moore says.

“I didn’t know what the sound was, but it definitely loud enough to really scare me.”

But adults living in Hedley knew something dangerous was happening.

Many barely survived by rushing to other parts of the house just in time, the newspaper reported.

Lingering memories

Every house near the boulders’ treacherous path was permanently evacuated.

The school was also abandoned after a 500-pound rocks was found laying 70 feet away.

Another boulder weighing in at two tonnes came down within 400 feet of the school the previous winter.

It was stopped by a large fir tree before it could travel into the schoolyard and possibly hit the school itself.

Danger zones were drawn on a map of Hedley by a Mascot Mine engineer soon after the rockslide.

The engineer said homes beyond the boulder location were in real danger but didn’t necessarily have to be evacuated.

“The exact time or place of the next fall cannot be foretold.

“That the last fall was the worst in a generation is a matter of no significance, and the fact that some houses have stood unscathed for so many years is no guarantee for the future,” he wrote.

Moore can remember her family home being moved further away from the mountain, along with many of her neighbours’.

Her memory of the night has anything but faded.

“I was uneasy of similar loud sounds later on, but I don’t remember being very afraid of another rockslide,” she says.

“You can’t tell when another is going to happen, and I was very young then.”

She experienced the disaster as a child, so doesn’t know what adults thought of the danger, she points out.

“I’ve always thought there was a reason why my sister and I survived that night. We weren’t ready to die yet.”

The mine engineer’s report said two boulders in the rockslide travelled farther than any before – 500 feet beyond the base of the mountain.

The official description of the rockslide said that “strong limestonnee withstood the terrific impacts in the trip to the bottom, and broke into slabs and … masses then rolled, ‘cart-wheeled,’ and plunged through the air.”

And Hedley wasn’t safe yet. Several hundred tonnes of badly cracked rock sat 1,500 feet above Hedley, the report said.

The engineer deemed sections of the town unsafe, but said it was impossible to tell what the real danger was because the rocks could fall at anytime.

 

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Unforgotten history

The Hedley rockslide of 1939 hit the town in the middle of a gold mining rush.

During the bustling mining days, the 800-person town had five hotels and numerous restaurants.

Mascot Gold Mine had a short but profitable life. Around seven tonnes of gold worth close to $130 million today were extracted before it shut down in 1949.

The Nickel Plate Mine was built in the same area and was in operation until 1955 before reopening in 1986 for 10 years.

The picture-perfect mine buildings clinging to the side of Nickel Plate Mountain are so high up the mountainside they can only be seen clearly with binoculars.

They have since been repaired by the Upper Similkameen Band and are now used for tours.

Ore was once transported to a mill at the valley floor using a 4,700 foot tram line that ran at a 40-degree angle down the mountain.

Miners used the tram to travel for their daily commute to and from Hedley below.

Gold was first discovered in the mountain in 1898. The ore was rich but had to be extracted by crushing and chemical treatment.

By 1903, men had dug the first 75 miles of tunnel into the mountain.

They climbed the mountain each day until a town was built at the top.

Boulders from the rockslide in Hedley are still visible, but trees and grass surround them as if they have always been there.

The flat land where the houses use to stand has been completely swallowed by the towering mountain.

In its place is a slope formed by mountain  debris  and 70-year-old fir trees.

Large boulders can be seen by people who want to venture into the forest.

But the rockslide’s history hasn’t been lost.

Although no one who survived the disaster still lives in Hedley, residents are still aware of the history their town holds.

Today, around 350 people live in the town – less than half the population that enjoyed the profits of the booming mining  community during the 1930s.

Many of the original houses are still standing, some of them moved from the rockslide site.

The history of the 1939 rockslide hasn’t disappeared – you just have to know where to look.