The landscape of Gold Country is marked by the signs of a violent past; events which shaped the features of the country, but which happened so long ago that there is no record of their happening at all, apart from the scars they left.
The section of the Thompson River below Ashcroft containing Black Canyon has its share of scars, and the cause of one of them was well documented. On October 14th 1880 a massive landslide—known as the Great, or North, slide—occurred on the east side of the river, just north of Black Canyon. Bishop Acton Windeyer Sillitoe, of the diocese of New Westminster, was traveling through the area with his wife, and Mrs. Sillitoe recorded the following:
“Whilst we were sitting in the drawing-room one evening during our stay in Ashcroft, an extraordinary noise was heard. Some supposed it to be an earthquake . . . The next morning, however, we heard that the sound had been caused by a tremendous landslip three miles distant from where we were, and which had dammed up the river until it should have forced its way through this immense dam.”
The Bishop and his wife were not alone in traveling to the site, and what they saw was nothing short of incredible:
“We found that the dam was half a mile long and eighty feet high. The river above [to the north] had already risen forty feet over its usual level, and was almost dry below.”
The Colonist newspaper reported that the obstruction was as high as 120 feet in places. The river eventually rose to sixty feet on the north side of the dam, and the site where Ashcroft is now located was more than a foot deep in water. The newly erected Harper’s Mill, at the junction of the Bonaparte and Thompson Rivers north of Ashcroft, was in danger of being floated away by the backed-up water, which was rising three feet an hour. Two farmsteads were covered in water, and J.C. Barnes lost his home and several outbuildings. There was widespread fear that if the fine gravel and loam which made up the slide broke suddenly, the rush of water through the breach at the head of Black Canyon—a deep and narrow gorge carved out of bedrock—would cause massive damage as far downstream as Spences Bridge, 20 miles south. However, locals rushed to cut a channel through the top of the slide, which allowed the water through gradually, and within forty-eight hours the river was down to its usual level.
A smaller slide—known (fittingly) as the South Slide—occurred to the south of the Great Slide sometime prior to 1880. A ridge immediately east of Black Canyon separates the sites of the two slides, which can be seen clearly from the west side of the river. Both the Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) lines run through the narrow confines of Black Canyon, with the CP carving its way through a 1,366 ft. tunnel in the canyon’s west side, and the CP line running along the toe of the Great Slide site. It’s an ideal place for trainspotting, and for reflecting on the forces which shaped our land.