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Encounters in Avalanche Country: A History of Survival in the Mountain West, 1820-1920

By Diana L. Di Stefano

Review By Heather Longworth

June 3, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 212-13

Winter in the western mountains of Canada and the United States is a challenging time of year. Encounters in Avalanche Country provides insight into the experiences of trappers, miners, railway employees, and their communities in coping with avalanches. Studying a period of time when various industries brought settlers to the mountains, Diana L. Di Stefano examines the relationships between these people and the environment around them, specifically through their participation in the fur trade, mining, and the railways.

The threat of avalanches compelled workers and mountain communities to develop knowledge about how and where slides occur, share strategies of avoiding avalanches with newcomers, and band together when tragedy struck, argues Di Stefano. Using a vast array of personal accounts, newspapers, and court cases, Di Stefano also shows that ideas of risk and responsibility changed as mines and railways increasingly industrialized the mountain regions. When victims of slides challenged the claims of corporations that they had no legal liability, they demonstrated that the law lagged behind changing industrial relationships. Though the early court cases ultimately ruled in favour of railway companies, they eventually led to workmen’s compensation laws.

For much of this book, the Canadian side of the story is an afterthought. There are brief mentions of British Columbia in the chapters on the fur trade and mining, but not until the experiences of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) near Revelstoke does Di Stefano incorporate an in-depth analysis of primary sources from north of the border. Di Stefano expertly analyzes the 1889 and 1910 avalanches in Rogers Pass and their aftermath but barely mentions the poor choice of Rogers Pass in the first place — a costly decision that plagued the CPR with avalanches for the first thirty years of operation.

Surveyors like Sanford Fleming proposed the Yellowhead Pass through the Rocky Mountains, a route that had moderate curves and grades. Both the Canadian Northern Railway and Grand Trunk Pacific later took this pass. Major Rogers knew of the problems of avalanches in the pass that bears his name when he investigated the route and even suggested a tunnel under the pass. However, the CPR opted for Rogers’ route because it was 100 miles shorter, near the American border (to cut off American competition), and could be built quickly at low cost. The CPR paid the price for taking this shortcut with costly avalanches, expensive snowsheds, and eventually the very costly Connaught Tunnel under the pass, completed in 1916. Set in this context, the questions of liability for the 1910 Rogers Pass avalanche are all the more compelling.

Encounters in Avalanche Country is a thoughtful and well-written addition to the environmental history of the western mountain ranges of North America. This book provides an interesting examination of the relationship between humans and their environment at a time when “natural” disasters are again at the forefront owing to human-caused climate change.

Encounters in Avalanche Country: A History of Survival in the Mountain West, 1820-1920
Diana L. Di Stefano
University of Washington Press, 2013. 192 pp. $34.95 cloth