Looking down on Black Canyon from Sundance Guest Ranch.

Looking down on Black Canyon from Sundance Guest Ranch.

The rolling hills of the Black Canyon

The canyon changed the course of the Thompson River - and possibly history.

Before the village of Ashcroft was conceived in the eyes of an American sheepherder, Oliver Evans, as he looked over the mesas and the Thompson River,  before the railroads were  built on either side of the Thompson River, the silence of those vast river mesas was shattered by a thunderous explosion.  It was an explosion that could be heard for miles in every direction.

That handful of  early settlers at Ashcroft Manor, and their nearby neighbors, the natives now known as the Nlkapamux, or Thompson people, must have been harshly awakened the night of Oct. 14, 1880.

“What in God’s name was that?” might have been just one of the exclamations heard.

What occasioned the explosion, one never heard before in that sparsely settled region, was a landslide of gigantic proportions. Many thousands of tons of clay and gravel had shaken the walls of the Thompson River canyon and came crashing down into the River.

What happened next was a phenomenon that greatly startled and mystified  travellers on the wagon road between Spences Bridge and Savona. The Thompson River had been reduced to a mere trickle.

The river was completely blocked. The barrier was created a short three miles from what was to become the village of Ashcroft. For over 40 hours, the barrier held the river’s course and from the barrier to the mouth of the Nicola River the dry riverbed of the Thompson was laid bare. Above the barrier, the river rose in height with deadly swiftness. The Thompson has always been a swiftly flowing river. The flat upon which the village of Ashcroft was built was covered with water to a depth of 16 inches. The flour mill that stood at the mouth of the Bonaparte River where it enters the Thompson was completely submerged. The mill had been built three years earlier by Jerome and Thaddeus Harper. The backwater reached as far up river as Walhachin. At Yale, then a thriving town on the Fraser River, it was noted with alarm that the river had dropped between four and five feet.

When the slide barrier finally began to be released on Sunday, Oct. 17, and the silt laden Fraser became even murkier as the river’s tributory began to resurge into its former swifly flowing current, debris of every kind, swept passed Yale, the tsunami picking up every fence post, juniper tree, sage brush and tumbleweed, every stick and log of the humble dwellings alongside the river. The river at Yale rose again, flooding past its usual depth.

Meanwhile, a channel at the slide location, had been dug by furiously working residents near Ashcroft. But once the river began to flow again, there was a dramatic erosion of glacial sediments left from the Miocene era. Great masses of the river canyon began to wash away, creating a deeper channel, scouring the rocks and boulders of the river bed. Within what amounted to a few hours, the Thompson River resumed its mighty course, and the land became as silent and motionless, apparently, as it had been before the slide.

Spences Bridge in 1905, on a bright warm summers day on Aug. 13, became the scene of another, equally dramatic landslide. The banks of the Thompson creating such havoc that an entire village was destroyed and lives were lost.  The canoe of a native family fishing for salmon was engulfed in another tsunami like flooding. Everyone in the boat lost their lives.

Black Canyon today is a tourist attraction. Mentioned in holiday brochures and on line, the great shallow hole in the corridor of the Thompson River, attracts visitors from all over the world. Inland gulls fly against the charcoal colored cliff face, white specks against a backdrop of purplish, dark grey-blue slate colored cliffs. The stuff of painters’ motiffs. With the yellow ochre grassy plains above and around the orfice left by inexplicable forces, some might think. But are those forces so mysterious?

Could the run off from the fields above, cultivated by the Cornwall family, have caused, after a time lapse of over 20 years since the land was being cultivated, have something to do with the avalanche of 1880? Glacial clay is notoriously mobile. It may lie for many thousands of years, eons, in fact, harmless. But water, that everlasting necessity for any kind of cultivation, can move what seems unmovable. Ashcroft itself has had a taste of landsliding. A slide from the Mesa Vista area once actually covered the streets below and ran across the bridge. Cache Creek too, in more recent times, has experiences slides that created significant destruction.

We live in a country blessed with a climate that is not extreme.  But occurrences as described in this article are very real possibilities.

Esther Darlington MacDonald