Landslides on the Fraser River

Location of HBC Fort Alexandria

The fort that Anderson arrived at in winter 1842 was on the west bank of the Fraser River, to the left; a few years later, in 18…, he moved Fort Alexandria onto the point of land that sticks out into the river. from the east.

Landslides were a common occurrence on the Fraser River, it seems. In my book, The Pathfinder, I mentioned two landslides that Anderson had experienced while he was at Fort Alexandria:

In early December 1844, the Fraser River choked with ice below the fort, as it did every year. The Dakelh made snowshoes for the winter hunt, and the Thleuz-cuz employees rode into Fort Alexandria with a good supply of furs. However, missing and water-damaged pages in the Fort Alexandria journals suggest that autumn 1844 was a season of mishaps. A great part of the disorder was probably caused by the first of two landslides that occurred in the area during Anderson’s years there. He had an opportunity to view one of the slides soon after it fell and described it as having a “vertical depth approaching 500 feet at the time of rupture and a complete bouleversement like an ill-ploughed field gigantically magnified.” The second slide occurred in 1845, and on that occasion Anderson reported his party narrowly escaped destruction, but gave no other details. No landslide in mentioned in the surviving pages of the post journals, but Anderson’s oldest son described one of them many years later:

“The landslide whereof mention is made, occurred below the fort where the bank was carried bodily into the river completely blocking its course and flooding all the lands adjacent to the river. So sudden was the occurrence that an Indian village was swept away entirely. My recollection is that it occurred at night as I remember my father coming into my room in the early morning wet and his coat, a cotton one, torn beyond recognition, he having torn bandages from it to bind up the wounds of those natives most badly hurt. I do not remember that there was any great loss of life, one or two only I think, but I do remember the story told by my father to the effect that a child who was missing was found after the subsidence of the water, suspended by its clothes in a tree, safe and sound. These land slides called by the French Canadian Les Eboulis were not infrequent on the high banks of the Fraser, but luckily not often of such a serious nature as that I have recorded.” [The Pathfinder, pp. 95-96] [Original source: James Robert Anderson, “Notes and Comments on Early Days and Events in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon,” copy in my possession but two copies in BCA].

Now, we have to remember that when young James experienced the landslide he was very young, having been born at Fort Nisqually in July 1841. In the early 1900’s, when he wrote his Memoirs, he had all the papers and letters that had belonged to his now-deceased father. Much of James’s writing is based on A.C. Anderson’s letters and manuscripts, and in fact he cribbed from his father’s work on a fairly regular basis. James’s recollection of one of the two landslides that occurred would have been triggered by his reading of Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s letter to Thomas Rupert Jones, Esq., Professor of Geology at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, England, in December 1870. This is what A.C. Anderson wrote to Rupert Jones on that subject, after speaking about the area around Walla Walla:

But there is perhaps no part of the world where the grand natural changes constantly operating through very simple causes are better exemplified than in some parts of the Upper Fraser, in British Columbia. Flowing for a long distance through deep woody banks of deluvial origin, beneath which in places, there is exposed a thin stratum of lignite, the river bursts about twenty miles below Alexandria (Alexandria is in Lat. 52 degrees, 33 minutes about midway between the mouth of the Fraser river and its sources in the Rocky Mountains [he meant Wood River here]) through a chasm in a lofty volcanic barrier. Above this are evidences of an ancient lake-bed, drained suddenly at successive intervals, as indicated by the corresponding terraces along the banks — much though from the hilly nature of the country on a comparatively inexpansive scale, as the similar process indicated at Walla Walla under the description I have given [not included here]. Along the banks, for more than 100 miles above this point, land-slides of greater or less magnitude are constantly occurring. The fall of one of these I had the good fortune — if to have narrowly escape[d] destruction with the whole of my command may so be termed — to witness when in charge of Alexandria in 1845. Another upon a still grander scale I had examined shortly after it fell, some time before. In this last case, with a vertical depth approaching 500 feet at the time of rupture and an area of perhaps a thousand acres or more, the surface exhibited a complete bouleversement like an ill-ploughed field gigantically magnified. Under similar processes the river with an impetuous current is constantly shifting portions of its channel and the … stupendous effects of water thus temporarily arrested are exemplified in a degree of rare magnificence. To my conception these minor effects were typical of the grand cataclysms of which the geological evidences are apparent…. [Mss 559, volume 1, folder 5, BCA]

Young James had something else to say of landslides that I had not noticed before now. On page 50 of his Memoirs, he says this:

Fort Alexandria, as I first have a dim recollection of it, was situated on the flat or bench nearest the Fraser, this is firmly impressed on my memory by the fact that during a summer freshet (or was it on the occasion of a landslide of which I will speak later), that the water rose to such a height, that the fort yard was inundated and therefore in case of further cases of the kind and which might result in loss of life and property, the fort was removed to the upper bench and well I remember getting hold of an axe and proceeding to demolish the apology for a mantelpiece in one of the rooms, in the belief that I was assisting in the general removal.

At the time of both slides, Fort Alexandria was located on the west bank of the Fraser River. I can tell you when the fort was moved, presumably after being flooded over the late summer of 1845, perhaps, or during the winter of 1845-46. Young James would have been five or six years old at the time. In The Pathfinder I say this:

The fort’s regular routine continued through the winter months. Anderson gave the local Dakehl chiefs their usual present of tobacco, and his men enjoyed a holiday and their regale on Christmas Day, as well as drams of liquor on New Year’s Day. As spring [1846] approached, Anderson decided to move Fort Alexandria from its old location on the west bank of the Fraser River, where it was prone to blooding, to a new site on the river’s east side, atop the hill overlooking the Fraser.

On May 20th, 1845, Anderson reported in the Fort Alexandria journals — the page before is missing and the report begins in the middle of a sentence: “and is still rising. Today it broke in from below, up the coulee that intersects the wheat field & all that portion of the field is now inundated. The Indians [agreed] in stating that the water never yet to their knowledge attained its [present] height.” Then ten days go by without a report: for Anderson this is quite unusual. His next entry is on Monday June 2nd:

Thunder showers occasionally. The water attained its height last night, & today has been falling rapidly. About 3 acres of our wheat have been inundated, but if the water withdraws soon we shall perhaps still [save the crop] of [that] portion. Certainly the water has risen higher than many years past, having reached within 3 feet of the fort gate.

So the fort was not inundated on this occasion, but sometime later, it seems. By July the water was again rising, and remained so high that the Natives could not set up their weirs. The journal ends halfway through a sentence on July 19th, and the next section begins in the middle of a sentence on September 12. There is no mention of a flood. However, Pere Nobili arrived at Fort Alexandria with the brigade in late August, when he baptized Anderson’s two children, with Donald Manson and Peter Skene Ogden as witnesses. Though James said that the child caught in the tree branches lived through his experience, Nobili said it did not. He must have been at the fort when the landslide occurred, and now I am frantically trying to locate that piece of information. When I do, I will post it here.

Updated: In his manuscript History of the Northwest Coast, Alexander Anderson says this: “In 1845 Father Nobili of the Society of Jesuits passed the winter at Alexandria in my company; and the following year he formed an establishment at Talles d’ Epinettes, on the Great Lakes of Okinagan.” (It wasn’t at Talles d’Epinettes, but that doesn’t matter). This means that Nobili could have seen the landslide that occurred anytime in the winter of 1845-46.” He arrived at Fort Alexandria with the incoming brigade, and was here on August 31st, 1845, when he baptized Anderson’s children: see page 98 of The Pathfinder.

So, it seems, this is when he saw the landslide near Fort Alexandria. There is more information to add in the Fort Alexandria journals, I think, and he might have traveled upriver to Fort St. James with the brigade before returning to Fort Alexandria — which you can find out in the Fort St. James post journals. I think he did, in fact. But at least I have part of the answer, and can find out the rest. I don’t know if you know the feeling of despair and panic, when you know you know something and you cannot find and confirm the information. I am going through every piece of paper I own, and every file, in the hopes I will find this. I will, sooner or later. When I do, I will update this post. In the meantime, I have work to do.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016, All rights reserved.