Ghost town trek: Lille, Alberta.

The spookiest part of hiking into Lille isn’t the fact that your destination is a ghost town…it’s that the trailhead keeps shifting around in a sinister manipulation of time and space.  It’s as if the place wants to protect all of its secrets and remain hidden in the dark, quiet* woods.

Either that, or my hubby and I are just terrible route finders.

We did as the guide book said: we parked in the meadow that we easily located after passing by the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre in Frank, Alberta, in the heart of the Crowsnest Pass.  We thought we had it all down pat as we jogged up the cutline past the accoutrements of oil and gas activity and headed towards Goat (also called Bluff) Mountain.  Although we read in the book that we were to hang a left at “any obvious junction,” we thought the gravel road that the people in the SUV were driving down couldn’t possibly be accurate (who hikes along a ROAD?), so we kept ploughing onward until we had to bushwack through a huge grove of wind-stunted aspens and we kinda sorta got the inkling that we might be going the wrong way.

We ended up climbing part of Goat Mountain that day.  After a few hours of being blasted by wind and scraped by trees, we conceded defeat and went to the Interpretive Centre to ask for directions.  (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking).

We made our second attempt to find the unfindable town of Lille the next morning.  Guess which road it was on?  Apparently, most people don’t hike all the way in – they drive in!  If you have a 4×4 or an ATV, you can navigate the numerous creek crossings and not have to hoof any bit of it at all.  We chose to park our truck (she of the delicate constitution) where the road degenerated into a goat path and walked the rest of the way.  And although our efforts were nearly thwarted by The Only Slightly Wobbly Bridge of Doom,

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The Swamp of Skeletal Trees,

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The Red Herrings (I mean Red Crabapples) Designed to Throw Us Off the Trail,

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and the Devilishly Dangerous Free Range Cattle,

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we eventually found the No. 1 Mine Site at Lille, as well as the townsite.

Construction on the town began in 1901 by the British Columbia-based company Gold Fields Ltd..  There had been hope for gold deposits in the clear-running creeks, but the lure of big coal was worth setting up camp for.  One of the founders of the company, J.J. Fleutot, managed to secure funding from financiers in the city of Lille, France, and so formed the West Canadian Collieries Ltd. to manage the burgeoning mines.  A railway was built, which you can still see the spectral impressions of today (unless I’m wrong, and these mounds are instead the work of some insanely large and industrious dew worms):

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One of the interpretive signs indicated that the railway had a mind-boggling 23 trestles over the distance of only 11 kilometres (the area sits near the confluence of three generously sized creeks).  A good chunk of the railroad was damaged during the Frank Slide in 1903, which cut off the town of Lille and crippled its industry until it was rebuilt.

By 1906, Lille was a proper town, with a hotel, a school, and a hospital.  The population peaked somewhere around 400 in its heyday, but by 1912, it was all over when the coke market went into decline.  The mine was closed and everyone living in the town moved on.

Now, Lille is just bits and pieces in a cow pasture, but you can walk (or, apparently, roar* your ATV or dirt bike) among the foundations and wonder about the past.

The Seriously Scary Window (Chute?) in the Wall at the No. 1 Mine site.

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The Guts of the Formerly Three Storey Hotel.

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The Really Creepy Fire Hydrant Out in the Middle of Nowhere.

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And, most impressively, the Decaying Coke Ovens, which were built of bricks manufactured in Belgium.  The bricks were numbered and shipped to Lille, where they were reassembled in what I imagine was sort of like an IKEA build on a massive scale, only without the hex-key wrenches.

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Oh yeah, and because it’s Hallowe’en and this is a story about a ghost town, here is a photo of the bones of something that obviously couldn’t find the trailhead to Lille, either.  Yikes – sure glad we asked for directions!   😉

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Happy Hallowe’en!  Have you ever spent any time in a ghost town?

Link:  The History of Hallowe’en in Alberta – Trick or Treat (Retroactive)

Sentinels at Frank Slide.

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On our recent trip to the Crowsnest Pass, my hubby and I spent a couple of hours walking among the massive ruins of the peak of Turtle Mountain, which slid over the east side of the town of Frank at 4:10 in the morning on April 29, 1903.  The slide lasted just over a minute and a half, and at least seventy people were killed, buried under 82 million tonnes (90 million tons) of limestone.

It is an overwhelmingly surreal experience to spend time in the slide zone and try to comprehend the enormity and horror of it:  an entire mountainside collapsed and spread over three square kilometres.  It is now widely accepted that the mountain was geologically unstable and unseasonably warm weather as well as mining activity at the base of the mountain may have contributed to the slide; while no mining has taken place there since 1917, Turtle Mountain remains on “slide alert” and is monitored by the Alberta Geological Survey via radar and laser mapping systems.  (You can watch a short video about some of the technology being used here).

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The fall colours weren’t as rich as they must be now, three weeks later, but the trees were still incredibly beautiful.

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If you’re interested in reading more about the Frank Slide, please click here and here.  There are some amazing stories of acts of heroism and survival, as well as a few persistent legends (the town’s bank and the $500,000.00 inside of it weren’t really buried under all that rock, as many have claimed).

Related articles

  • Lime kilns. (therelight.wordpress.com) – taking advantage of all of that fallen limestone, lime kilns were built in 1912 by the Winnipeg Fuel and Supply Company.

Photo credit – Photo #1 was taken by R. Normandeau.

ADDENDUM: 

After I published this post yesterday, my Grandpa sent me a photograph that he took a few years ago as he flew over the slide zone in his sailplane.  It is an incredible perspective of the magnitude of the disaster.  (Photo credit – W. Mueller)

Frank Slide