by Glenda Emerson and Brian Wilson, Okanagan Archive Trust Society
It was a terrifying ordeal for the residents of the small mining village of Hedley, B.C., when on the night of January 24, 1939, huge boulders plummeted 1,200 feet down the side of Stemwinder Mountain.
Hedley and the mines of Nickel Plate and Mascot were dependent on a loyal workforce. The companies provided housing for their workers during the resource boom of the war years. The Mascot company owned a series of tiny houses nestled at the base of the mountain where the men who ran the machines lived with their families.
Stemwinder, or Striped Mountain, rises abruptly from the canyon created by Hedley Creek and towers 1700 feet above.
The horrific rock slide occurred at approximately 1:30 a.m. It was thought to have been the result of ice pressure following a thaw, which loosened the boulders from the cliff of the precipice, and sent approximately 10,000 tons of rock hurtling onto the homes below. The rocks caused the death of two citizens.
The Penticton Herald puts a poignant spin on the story. “At the mangled Strand cabin…two cats are wondering when their master…will call them for another meal.” Tragically, their owner would never call them again. Peter Strand, the owner of the cabin, was originally from Norway, and had been employed at Mascot Mine for three years. Although apparently well thought of, there was a bit of a mystery; a hint of a scandal, that inspired the suggestion of God’s retribution, when the body of Mrs. Johanna Green was discovered lying next to his. She was also from Norway, and had only recently started working as Peter’s housekeeper.
It was also suggested by the community that Mrs. Green heard the roar of the slide and ran into the bedroom to roust Strand at just the instant that the rock hit the bed.
There are several iconic pictures of this event taken by Hedley photographer Walter Ring, along with a rather graphic description in the Vancouver Sun, of the injuries sustained by the two who died. Peter Strand, killed instantly, was “nearly decapitated,” and Mrs. Green, who died shortly thereafter, “had her neck nearly severed” by the massive rock that crashed through the bedroom where the pair were found.
The surprising part, (and perhaps one of the reasons for the rumours of God’s involvement), was that these were the only fatalities, despite four other homes being smashed by the twenty to sixty-ton boulders that catapulted down the mountain. A logical reason for this may have been that a dance was taking place in town at the time of the slide. Thus, many of the residents, who would otherwise have been in their beds, were either safely out of the way or not yet asleep.
Five homes were damaged with most of the damage occurring on only one side of the road, despite the fact that several of the massive rocks jumped the road, coming to rest in a small valley between the towering hills. In the case of the Berkman and Tremaine families, rocks landed just feet from their doors. The Penitcton Herald reported, “Had the [boulders] been only slightly deflected from their course down Stemwinder Mountain, [they] would have gone into the centre of town, instead of …the outskirts.”
Witnesses said there was a roar like thunder as enormous rocks shot through the air. Mr. and Mrs. Jack Moore’s two daughters were asleep downstairs when they were awakened by the rumble of rushing rock. As they went upstairs to rouse their brother, a huge boulder splintered their room.
The Randolphs were asleep in their bedroom when a chunk of rock shattered their living room. Mrs. Randolph suffered three cracked ribs, scrambling about the wreckage for her pet cat. (No word on whether the cat survived!) Mrs. Floyd Turner awakened by the noise, woke her husband… in the nick of time. Minutes later, their bed was a crumpled mess. Yet all of these people survived.
Whether you believe God played a hand or not in this tragedy, there is no doubt that nature is a powerful and at times, terrible force. Even something as seemingly solid as a mountain, can crumble, leaving devastation in its wake.
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