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Pitt River tidal wave claimed three men after blast at old Government quarry in 1915

October 26, 2015

On Saturday, January 23, 1915, at 10:20 at night, a controlled explosion of 4 tons of Giant powder was set off at the old Dominion government stone quarry on Pitt River, where once worked and lived Brownsville boatbuilder Alf Benoist. Up to 10 acres of rock and earth fell or slid into the river causing a massive wave 10 to 20 feet in height and a quarter of a mile in length that swept back into the camp and carried off bunkhouses, men and equipment. The site of the camp was left beneath 25 feet of water. Men, women and children scrambled in complete darkness to gather their wits and search for survivors. In the aftermath, after heroic rescue efforts, 3 men were unaccounted for.

Through a complicated arrangement of leases and contracts connected with the construction of the North Arm jetty, a number of firms had an interest in the quarry. The nominal owner was TF Sinclair, who had held the original contract to build the jetty opposite Musqueam at the mouth of the Fraser River. The “Sinclair quarry” was the source of rip-rap rock for the project.

A portion of the North Arm jetty at mouth of Fraser River showing rip-rap rock - detail from a panorama by WJ Moore, 1916 - Vancouver Archives

A portion of the North Arm jetty at mouth of Fraser River showing rip-rap rock – detail from a panorama by WJ Moore, 1916 – (Clicking photo links to original at Vancouver Archives.)

Temple Frederick Sinclair had a wealth of experience in large construction projects. (He was also, incidentally, the brother-in-law of JW Burr, they both having married Loring girls.)

British Columbia Transport Company - EJ FaderBy 1915 Sinclair had let the quarry to EJ Fader, who included it within the assets of the British Columbia Transport Company Ltd., an enterprise Fader had promoted with English investors, and of which he remained Manager. BC Transport built the quarry plant.

Elias J Fader began his career on this coast as a master mariner. It was he who rescued the crew of the historic steamer Beaver when it foundered on the rocks at Prospect Point in 1888. He subsequently developed extensive business interests in the Lower Mainland. EJ Fader was the promoter and first president of the Fraser River Tannery at South Westminster, on the site of which is now Tannery Park. He also built the Russell Hotel at New Westminster. The BC Transport Co was a large presence on the New Westminster waterfront, with docks and a fleet of vessels.

By 1914 construction of the North Arm Jetty had been taken over by the Marsh Hutton Power Company, which then leased the quarry from Fader and the BCTCo, thereby securing the supply of rock.

In December 1914, the quarry was sub-let to Moore & Pithick of Victoria.

JW Moore of that firm was on-site supervising operations when the charge of 343 cases of powder and 3 cases of dynamite was exploded on Jan 23.

The earth sank beneath his feet and the wave of water swept over him, but he survived.

Louis Gasparin - Hero of the Pitt River quarry slide

Louis Gasparin – Hero of the Pitt River quarry slide

The three men who perished in the Pitt quarry slide of January 1915 were John H Chisholm and Richard Evans of New Westminster and Joseph Lounds, or Lowinge, said to have a wife and two small children in Duluth, Minnesota.

Chisholm, one of the missing, had lived with his wife “in a scow house near the work.” His wife had left for a few days to visit relatives in the city. The house was dismantled by the wave.

A number of men were rescued by Louie Gasparin (Gasperin), of the neighboring Gilley quarry, who was hailed as the hero of the night. He launched a boat single-handed, and paddling with a board, managed to pick up 5 survivors clinging to debris in the icy waters. Injured were Dan, or Stan Mathews,Joe Gibson,Sam Baird,Frank Monteith and Ole Matson.

“Matson was standing near the office when the wave came and was carried into the swirling waters and swept almost across the river.”

Equipment losses included bunkhouses, a locomotive and cars, the rock-crusher, the lighting plant, compressors, conveyors, trestle work, etc. The tug Lottie N, owned by Marsh Hutton Power and used to tow scows of rock to their North Arm jetty project, was cast up and damaged, with an outhouse tossed onboard. The dredge Robson was overturned.

News of the disaster was telephoned to New Westminster. A rescue boat, the Evergreen, became lost in dense fog and was grounded,  arriving only after daylight. EJ Fader and VL Marsh also arrived Sunday morning.

As their boat drifted slowly on the calm waters where once was located the thriving mine camp, they beheld an eerie sight:

“Standing against the face of the cliff and about twenty-five feet from the waters’ edge, like a grim and lone survivor of some awful battle, is a thirty-five ton steam shovel, which is some miraculous manner escaped the avalanche…”

Forty men were transported to New Westminster Sunday night on the tug Evergreen, with the rest brought down on a gasoline boat.

We are uncertain as to the exact location of the quarry. Described as being on the Pitt River, at the lower end of Pitt Lake, it was stated to be 4 miles below “Silver Creek” on Pitt Lake, where the impact of the wave violently rocked a tug, and it was 500 yards south of a Gilley Bros. quarry.

The explosive powder had been placed by excavating a tunnel,  about 50 feet into the cliff face, large enough for a man, at the end of which, side tunnels extended about 60 feet.

The devastating effect of the blast was unexpected. EJ Fader speculated that frost had created “a large fissure in the mountainside which the shock of the blast turned into a destructive avalanche.”

18-ton Blast set Lower Mainland record (1950)

In December 1950, an explosive charge claimed to be “the greatest planned blast in the history of the lower mainland” was detonated at Gilley Bros Pitt Lake quarries.

Eighteen tons of dynamite loosened 100,000 tons of rock needed for construction of “the new south jetty at the mouth of the Fraser River.”

Press reports noted that the previous biggest charge, of 4 tons, was detonated several decades ago.

This time, all traffic on the Pitt River was halted, and spectators, including government officials, watched from a safe vantage point on a knoll, 500 yards away.

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