Many people know about the disastrous avalanche at Rogers Pass that killed 58 railway labourers who were clearing a previous slide. Less well-known is an avalanche that occurred on January 31, 1899, taking out the CPR Station at Rogers Pass and killing seven people. The station was located east of the Rogers Pass National Historic Site Interpretive Centre, and just before the first snowshed, at the base of the Hermit Range. On the afternoon of January 31, 1899, the station agent, William Cator, age 37, was speaking with Frank Vago, the coalman. Cator’s wife, Annie, age 35, and the Chinese cook Ah Hou were busy working in the kitchen.
The Cator’s children, three-year-old Charles and two-year-old Ethel were also in the station house. Upstairs, the 18-year-old night operator Frank Corson was asleep in his bunk. The station waitress and housekeeper Annie Berger was upstairs. James Ridley, age 31, a CPR wiper, was asleep in a nearby shack. Without warning, a dry slide consisting of loose powdery snow roared down the mountain and tore through the station and yards.
The Kootenay Mail of February 4, 1899 described the events. “The express from the east was expected at Rogers Pass, and those there Tuesday afternoon were busy at their various duties, anticipating its arrival, when down the gorge in the northwest came the awful avalanche which was to be the snowy sepulcher for so many. They heard the sound, which filled everything, and that was all; it took them – as did the lava the Pompeiians – where they stood.
The awful slide first encountered two “shacks,” belonging to Maxwell and Newitt, both of whom were absent. These it hardly noticed, but drove with increasing fury on some Chinese boarding cars... It took the cars with it like feathers,…threw them over the round house, which it badly wrecked, and with its gathered debris rushed at the station house and completed its dreadful mission in less time than it takes to tell it.” The entire Cator family was wiped out in the slide, as was Ah Hou and Frank Corson. Frank Vago dived under the table and survived with broken ribs. The waitress Annie Berger survived but suffered a broken leg and other injuries. James Ridley died in the shack near the station. The three Chinese men who were in their boarding car at the time survived without injuries.
Newspaper accounts stated that Mrs. Cato was found with a rolling pin and pastry in her hand. Two dogs and a caged bird managed to survive the slide. Years later, in a recorded interview, CPR Engineer George Williamson said that his mother and sister were also living at Rogers Pass and that his sister had been visiting Mrs. Cato that afternoon and had just left the station before the slide came down. The following quotes are from his interview with Imbert Orchard recorded in the 1960s. “And this particular day that the slide came down, my sister, she was 14 years old at the time. She had just been visiting the Cator family. And she hadn’t only got about three minutes away from the station when she heard this roar and her skirts begin to flop around her – she got the wind of that slide that smashed the station up against the hillside. Well, when that slide came down the first thing it struck was an old pay car on logs alongside of the shop, no trucks or anything, for the wipers to sleep in. And then there was a two-stall roundhouse and the 409 was in there at the time. They were wiped out – 409 just tipped into the pit sideways and the shop was cleaned right clean like the cleanest could be clean. And then it took the station and smashed it just level as this floor.
The first fella to go was this James Ridley, a wiper – he was asleep in this car, and then it went over the station and there was an old Frenchman in there, our coal-up man, old Frank Vago. He told me weeks later that just before the slide struck, he said to William Cator that he thought the station would go. That station was built on piling, about six or eight feet high, because it was all swamp underneath it…” The photograph of the station shown here was taken in the summer of 1898, just six months before the slide wiped it out. The Cator family can be seen in the photograph, along with the waitress Annie Berger, in the white blouse and dark skirt. The other photograph shows the area after the slide had hit. The station and yards were rebuilt where the Rogers Pass National Historic Site Interpretive Centre is now located. Once the Connaught Tunnel was completed in 1916, the summit of Rogers Pass was bypassed by the Canadian Pacific Railway main line and was no longer in use.