I almost did not write what has become a six-part series about the Hope Slide, which claimed four lives when 47 million cubic metres of debris swept down the slope of Johnson Peak east of Hope in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 1965. Although it was not the deadliest slide in Canadian history, it was the largest, and buried three kilometres of the Hope-Princeton Highway in a debris field measuring up to 70 metres deep.
The reasons for almost not writing about the Hope Slide were two-fold. First, there was the fact that it happened fairly recently, at least relative to the events this column normally deals with, which usually took place 100, 150, or even 200 years ago. No one now alive was an eyewitness to them, or personally knew any of the people involved, and in many cases the events are somewhat obscure, so are unknown to a lot of readers. The Hope Slide, by contrast, occurred within the living memory or lifetime of many people; I had just turned one year old when it happened.
The second reason I almost didn’t write about it was because I felt it was perhaps too well-known a story. After all, it took place only 54 years ago, along a stretch of major highway that many people drive through. How many people would want to read about it?
Looking at it again, however, I reflected that I have been fascinated by the Hope Slide story for several decades. My maternal grandparents used to live in Okanagan Falls, so several times each year until they sold the property in the early 1970s my family would make the journey from Richmond to OK Falls. Our route took us along the Hope-Princeton, and as soon as I was old enough to notice the dramatic change in landscape at the slide site, and hear the story about what had happened, I anticipated our arrival at the spot with a mixture of fascination and something like unease. It was not that I expected another landslide, but in my young mind the possibility was always there.
As for how well others might know the story: well, I’ve found it’s often a mistake to assume that something you know very well is equally well-known to others. Yes, many people still drive the Hope-Princeton, but since the construction of the Coquihalla Highway I have seen at first-hand how much vehicle traffic has dropped off along the Fraser Canyon route. I thought it likely that the Hope-Princeton would have suffered in the same way, as traffic that in the past would have taken that route to the Okanagan took the new highway instead.
So I decided to start writing about the Hope Slide, uncertain about how many instalments I would end up writing. Sometimes these stories take on a life of their own, and what I first thought might be a three-part series extended to five. I wanted to make sure not only that I did the story, and those involved, justice; I wanted to explore new information about what caused the slide.
Many people, I think, look on history as being static and unchanging. It happened in the past, after all; how can it change? But history is always changing, as new discoveries come to light and new research gives us different answers to old questions. As the previous piece noted, for many years it was accepted wisdom that seismograph readings on the morning of Jan. 9, 1965 indicated two earthquakes that (it was thought) triggered the two parts of the slide. New research, however, concludes that there were no earthquakes: the seismograph readings were recording the impacts of the two landslides on the floor of the Nicolum Valley.
With the permission of the site managers, links to these pieces (once the stories are up on the Journal’s website) get posted online at www.travelthecanyon.com and the Facebook pages Cariboo Country Historical and Legends and Forgotten BC. I posted the link to the first Hope Slide article shortly after it was published in September, and the reaction was immediate. Many people responded with reactions similar to mine: describing how foreboding they always found the Hope Slide site, and how fascinated they were by the story. Others did not know the story at all, and more than one person asked where they could find the next piece (which hadn’t yet been written at that point), and when it would be published.
A number of people commented that they had known Thomas Starchuk, the hay truck driver who died in the slide, and had as children been friends with Starchuk’s children. One reader noted that his family had lived near Starchuk in the Fraser Valley, and that the driver had asked the reader’s younger brother—who was 13 at the time—to accompany him on that trip to Vernon and back. The boys’ father, however, said that the brother had to stay on the farm and do his chores, so he ended up not making the trip.
By one of those strange coincidences that life sometimes throws at you, the day after the first piece was published a visitor to Ashcroft dropped by the museum. He began speaking with curator Kathy Paulos and somehow the topic of landslides came up, and Kathy mentioned that an article about the Hope Slide had just appeared in the paper.
The man, who is now 76-years-old and lives in Ontario, dropped by the Journal office. I wasn’t in, but he called me, and said that on the morning of Jan. 9, 1965, he and three friends were travelling from Trail—where the man worked at the Bank of Montreal—and that they encountered Bernie Lloyd Beck, Dennis Arlitt, and Mary Kalmakoff, who were the other three people killed, in Princeton shortly before the slide.
Another person called me to say that Beck’s widow had moved to Ashcroft after the tragedy, and worked here as a nurse. Someone else noted that David Hughes—driver of the Greyhound bus that arrived at the first slide site not long after the road was blocked—had lived in Clinton for several years before his death in 2014, and that his widow still lived in the area.
I hope to recount some of their stories in a future instalment, because history isn’t dead; it’s very much alive.