A devastating landslide ravaged part of the Slave River shoreline and a residential section of Fort Smith 45 years ago this month.
It was a natural disaster and monumental tragedy for the small town, sweeping away three houses, a greenhouse, shed and part of the power plant. It also took one life on that shattering evening of Aug. 9, 1968.
Kay Ferguson was a woman beloved by the community for her tireless volunteering and compassionate personality, said Toni Heron, who was a neighbour and 20 years old at the time of the disaster. Ferguson was killed when the earth gave out underneath her home. According to a newspaper article at the time, her body was found under the wreckage 80 hours later.
“It changed a lot of lives,” Heron, the manager at Queen Elizabeth Campground in Fort Smith, said. “It changed the landscape of the community.”
Heron is urging the community and town council to do “something” to honour Ferguson’s memory and commemorate the horrific event that left such a scar.
“It’s still fresh in the minds of those who were here. You still have nightmares of that day. It will never be forgotten and it can’t be forgotten…It should be something that is told to the next generation, because it happened here – it happened to us,” Heron said. “When you go to the river, you know something took place there…I have so many tourists that have questions about the steep edges of the bank and there’s just a little blurb about the landslide at the Lookout. There needs to be more because memory is in the mind and if it’s not spoken it is forever forgotten.”
For Heron, an eyewitness, the landslide is still a poignant memory. She was on her way to the old baseball field to meet her husband and had just turned the corner into her parents’ house when she heard a thunderous noise and turned to see the Ferguson house had disappeared.
“I remember as if it was yesterday. It had stopped raining and was clear that evening; everything seemed so peaceful,” she said. “I suddenly heard a loud thud and turned to see the power lines swaying. Thinking Billy Bourque must have hit a telephone pole, I ran to the corner to check the road and saw nothing but an empty space. I was shocked and began to scream.”
Heron ran to the edge of the hill and all that was left of the Ferguson house were the stairs leading up to the front door. The Ferguson dog was running up and down the stairs in a panic; it’s an image that has stayed with her all these years, Heron said.
“I saw the ground giving way and the trees going down like tooth picks. It was horrible. I felt so helpless as I watched Mr. Ferguson speed into his driveway, getting out, looking, then getting back in and speeding down the road that went towards the bottom of the hill,” she said.
Afterwards, many of the residents along the bank were relocated from the unsafe neighbourhood known as “Indian Village” to elsewhere in town, Heron said.
“Many of us had come from Fort Fitzgerald to the Indian Village…It was a happy place, with gardens and kids running around and many berry bushes,” she said. “It was torn apart – children were removed from a familiar place – and people were forced to move again and start all over.”
There had been a road going directly down to the river, where boats docked and float planes landed.
“You’d never know that all had been there now by looking at it,” Heron said.
Heron’s call for something to be done in memory has not gone unheard, as seen through the Facebook comments on her recent post about the anniversary.
Many shared their own memories of that day, recalling the baseball game that was going on and how the Jones’ garden was sliced in half by the slide. Shannon Coleman was only 4 years old, but said she remembers that day clearly. Wilfred Paulette, who was 8 at the time, and Mary Benwell commented how sad it was to see the end of Indian Village, with neighbours scattered across Fort Smith.
Heron wanted to have a barbecue or a least a small gathering at the Lookout to remember the landslide this Aug. 9, but with so many things going on and people on summer vacations, nothing panned out, she said.
Next year, she wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again, so she’s on the hunt for interested members to start a committee that could brainstorm ideas on the best ways to commemorate the landslide.
“It would be great to have a big rock with a plaque on it to honour Mrs. Ferguson and symbolize strength and foundation. Also a billboard that tells the story of what happened with photos set up at the site would be awesome,” Heron said. “We’d like there to be a full-day event on Aug. 9 with a community feast and incorporate a kind of Fort Smith homecoming into it for everyone who has moved away. There could be a CD with photos and a book that’s a collection of people’s stories and memories from the landslide. But I want to hear more ideas from others, too.”
Mayor Brad Brake said he agrees that something should be done.
“I think that if a group of community members came up with a suggestion such as a monument or a plaque that explains the event and commemorates the loss of life that happened it could be entertained by council in its next round of budget deliberations, which will begin in the next month or so. This would allow us to budget some funds for such a project,” Brake said in an email. “I feel that given the significance of the event we should have some acknowledgement of the landslide as it affected the entire town.”
As to why there was zero activity this year to celebrate the 45th anniversary, Brake said nothing formal was brought before town council within an appropriate time span to plan something.