On the afternoon of Aug. 13, 1905 a landslide swept down the side of Arthur’s Seat—also known as Shawniken Mountain—just south of Spences Bridge. The townsite was threatened by the rising waters of the Thompson River, which was dammed by a wall of rock and debris, but after four hours the dam was breached and the town was spared.
The same could not be said for the First Nations village of nearly 100 people directly across the river from the slide. It took the brunt of the cascade of sand, silt, mud, rocks, and debris that swept into and across the river, and Spences Bridge resident Jessie Ann Smith wrote that “People in the first houses never had a chance to escape.”
She also noted that what probably saved numerous people from the village was that many had been at church, and they were strolling back towards their homes, had stopped to chat with friends, or were watching their children play by the river when the slide hit, all of which kept them out of the slide’s path and able to reach higher ground and safety.
In its Aug. 19, 1905 issue, The Ashcroft Journal had a vivid account of the destruction:
“The most disastrous landslide in the history of British Columbia occurred about a quarter of a mile below Spences Bridge on Sunday afternoon last at 3:30 p.m. when a large bank of gravel broke away from the mountain on the north side of the Thompson River, hurtling itself into the river and on to the Indian reservation on the south side, completely demolishing every building and killing 16 people [the number of people killed varies; 18 seems to be the consensus].
“The dead, who are all Indians, include five women, four children, and seven men.
“The new annex to the Clemes House has been converted into a hospital where eleven of the injured are now lying. At last reports they were all recovering slowly. Drs. Sanson, of Ashcroft, and Ker, of Spences Bridge, were attending to the injured.”
It was pure chance that Dr. Ker—a surgeon with Loss and McDonnell, the firm building the Nicola Valley Railway between Spences Bridge and Merritt—was in Spences Bridge that day. Nurse Chambers—another employee of Loss and McDonnell—and a Mrs. Maxwell (wife of the CPR agent in Spences Bridge) also tended to the injured, some of whom were taken by train to the hospital in Ashcroft.
Smith wrote that the town’s people also did what they could to help. “All the medicine, ointments, and medical supplies that we had on hand were quickly produced to try to ease the suffering. Food was urgently needed for the homeless.” The Journal noted that “Mr. James Macdonell [sic] of Loss & Macdonnell … is doing all he can for the stricken natives, and in addition to the food with which he has supplied them from the company’s stores, he donated the lumber for the coffins.
“Among the killed was the old Chief Lillooet. He recently came here to visit friends. As he is a very old man—some say of ninety years—he was probably among the first killed. His body can hardly be taken to Lillooet on account of its condition and the distance, and will be buried at Spences Bridge.”
As the debris raced down the mountainside, an east-bound Canadian Pacific passenger train came around the bend and could be seen by people in the town heading straight towards the slide. The conductor saw the slide, and managed to stop the train, thus preventing the loss of more lives.
The passengers could see people struggling in the water, but were unable to help them. One male passenger wrote of the experience that “The slide … gave the passengers the site of a lifetime. The towering bluff on the north side of the Thompson River about 200 feet high suddenly became detached and swept down into the river. The river is a quarter of a mile wide at this point, and the banks are about 40 feet high, but the channel was completely filled up with the mass of earth and debris that came down.
“The Indians had not a moment of warning and many were buried with the buildings. The force of the water was so terrific that the railway track although nearly 100 feet above the bed of the river and 400 feet from the channel was covered with mud and debris. There are watermarks high up on the hill above the track.
“Some of the Indians when rescued were found to have been badly injured, being cut about the head and covered with bruises… . Horses, cattle, and other livestock were caught up by the water and were rescued before the river got too deep.”
The Journal report notes that at least one animal got out of the river on its own. “A strange escape was that of a horse, which was tied to a hitching post at the rancherie [reservation]. The tie rope was broken when the water struck the place, and the horse started swimming on the crest of the advancing wave. The animal was carried upstream three hundred yards, and finally thrown ashore on the northern bank of the river. There it managed to get its forefeet in the gravel bank and hold on till the waters receded.”
In the aftermath of the slide came speculation about what had caused it. The Journal noted that many theories had been advanced, adding “One that is credited by a great many people [and which was advanced by H.J. Cambie, consulting engineer to the CPR] is that the loose sands underlying the high gravel bank had been washed out gradually as a result of irrigation carried out on the top of the bank. The soils are very loose lying, and it is thought that water from the irrigation ditches gradually worked out the loose lower sands and the heavier material then slid away.”
The Spences Bridge Slide of 1905 remains the deadliest in B.C.’s recorded history. A “Stop of Interest” sign titled “A Great Landslide” used to mark the site, but was removed so that the text could be updated. It read “Suddenly, on the afternoon of August 13, 1905, the lower side of the mountain slid away. Rumbling across the valley in seconds, the slide buried alive five Indians and dammed the Thompson River for over four hours. The trapped waters spread over the nearby Indian village drowning thirteen persons.”