The Nelson woman who hated being famous

Marion McPhail’s claim to fame as the youngest survivor of the Frank Slide brought her no joy.

Marion McPhail

Marion McPhail

Don’t ever ask Mrs. McPhail about the Frank Slide!”

That was the warning my mother Dee Dee gave me as I left home to walk a half mile to Marion McPhail’s house at 808 Carbonate St. for my first piano lesson with her. Earlier that day my father Leigh and grandmother Helen separately told me not to mention the Frank Slide in Mrs. McPhail’s presence. It was September 1960 and I was an eight-year-old apprehensive about what was going on.

I remember finding it hard to imagine the large, red-haired lady with horn-rimmed glasses in her 60s as the baby who miraculously survived unhurt after Turtle Mountain crashed down on the coal-mining town of Frank in 1903.

The story I heard from family and friends was that everyone in Frank except Baby Marion died in the Frank Slide. The topic would inevitably come up in our annual drives from Nelson through the Crowsnest Pass to visit relatives in Alberta. Someone would always comment on the enormous boulders on each side of the road, and that bodies of victims of the slide — perhaps Mrs. McPhail’s relatives — were entombed directly below us.

I learned later that Marion’s older sisters Jessie and May Leitch also survived the slide, as did about 90 per cent of the residents of Frank, as their homes were safely away from the slide path. The Baby-Marion-As-Sole-Survivor story was one of several myths about the Frank Slide that would bother Marion for the rest of her life.

For her, the most annoying nonsense was The Ballad of Frankie Slide, a simple rhyme of unknown origin that told of the little baby discovered alone on a pile of straw with no identification, “so they called her Frankie Slide.” The line about calling the baby Frankie Slide was used again in the Stompin’ Tom Connors 1968 song How the Mountain Came Down.

As it turned out, I managed to get through four years of weekly piano lessons with Marion without ever mentioning the Frank Slide. However, it instilled a curiosity in me that continues to this day, almost 40 years after she died in Victoria at age 76.

In recent years, I have visited the Frank Slide interpretive centre several times and corresponded with their staff and fellow researchers. Most of their information on Marion and the extended Leitch family came from Marion’s daughter Sheilah, who was driving by in September 2003 and decided to visit the interpretive centre. She provided a wealth of information on the Leitch family and what really happened to them in the Frank Slide and after.

Mountain collapses

Marion’s parents Alexander and Rosemary Leitch were born in Quebec and settled in the late 1880s in Manitoba where Alex joined his three brothers in flour milling at Oak Lake. By 1899 Alex had moved to Killarney, Manitoba where he operated a grain elevator. Government records show Marion Moore Leitch was born Dec. 29, 1900 in Killarney in the sub-district of Turtle Mountain — ironically the same name as the mountain in the southwest corner of the future province of Alberta that would collapse into the Frank Slide at 4:10 a.m. on April 29, 1903.

Below: The site of the Frank Slide today (Sam McBride photo)

In 1901, after the Killarney grain elevator burned down, Alex bought a general store in Blairmore. A year later, after bringing his family from Manitoba, he saw that the new town of Frank just a few miles away was booming, so they moved there and established the Leitch General Store.

He bought a cabin and renovated it for his large family. They were a musical family who regularly gathered around the piano to sing songs. “We had brought a great many books with us, and were a happy, congenial family,” Jessie Bryan wrote in a 1950 Winnipeg Free Press article on the Frank Slide.

Jessie, age 15 in 1903, wrote: “Falling asleep on that quiet, moonlit night, I awoke to the sound of a rumbling roar transcending description.”

She and sister May, 10, were unhurt because the iron frame of their bed shielded them from the weight of debris from above. Ironically, one of the first rescuers on the scene was Rev. Andrew MacPhail, the same name (though with different spelling) as Larry McPhail who Marion married in Nelson 24 years later.

“Someone heard a baby crying nearby, and found the infant daughter of the family lying in a pile of debris, partly sheltered by the angle of a broken roof,” according to Jessie. Marion was 27 months old and definitely not a newborn baby as depicted in the Frank Slide myths.

The three girls were taken to an undamaged home and given other children’s clothes to wear. A stranger told them their parents and four brothers were dead, and their uncle Archibald Leitch was coming from Cranbrook to take them back with him. Archie Leitch had moved west in 1897 to establish Cranbrook’s first sawmill, and in 1903 was president and managing director of the East Kootenay Lumber Company.

The funeral at the Cranbook Presbyterian Church for the six members of the Leitch family on May 3, 1903 was packed to overflowing with mourners, according to the Cranbrook Herald. The six bodies were laid to rest in the Cranbrook cemetery.

The extended family decided Marion would remain in Cranbrook to be raised with Archie’s family, and Jessie and May would go to Manitoba to be raised by uncles Angus and Malcolm. In 1907 Malcolm Leitch moved to Passburg, Alta., on the east side of the Crowsnest Pass, to start the coal-mining venture that became known as Leitch Collieries, which today is a provincial historic site.

‘As if I belonged in a zoo’

Marion grew up in Cranbrook, and later went to stay with other relations in Vancouver where she attended high school, UBC, and received advanced piano training before settling in Nelson to make a living teaching piano and, to a lesser extent, French. The 1924 Wrigley’s BC Directory lists her as a music teacher residing at the Strathcona Hotel in Nelson.

She married Lawrence Alexander McPhail, son of a pioneer Nelson family, in Nelson on Jan. 11, 1927. Larry became registrar of titles at the land registry office and was active in many Nelson charities and civic organizations, including the Nelson Little Theatre where he was stage manager for a number of shows.

Below: Marion McPhail with baby Sheilah, about 1940. Courtesy Provincial Archives of Alberta, PR2008.0058/12

Marion was much less involved in community groups, aside from the local branch of the Registered Music Teachers of BC and the Soroptomist Club. Marion and Larry enjoyed going to parties and entertaining friends at the house.

My mother told me that she and other longtime friends of Marion were often apprehensive about what new acquaintances would say when they met Marion. She was offended when people would jokingly say “Oh, I know how old you are!” counting back the years to the Frank Slide. Marion lost her temper when people argued with her about the Baby Marion/Frankie Slide stories they had heard and believed to be true.

In an interview with Vancouver News Herald writer (and future Member of Parliament) Barry Mather in 1949, Marion said “I was found outside near where our house had stood. No, I don’t know how I got there. The stuff they write every now and then about the Frank Baby makes me so angry. And there was no mystery about what happened to me after the slide. My uncle, Archie Leitch, looked after me. I was brought up in Cranbrook. And later in Vancouver. And my two sisters who lived were looked after by an uncle in Manitoba.”

A few years later Marion arrived home from an outing and found writer William Worden waiting beside her front door with questions on the Frank Slide. “That thing again! Won’t it ever stop? All my life people have been looking at me as if I belonged in a zoo, just because of what happened to our family,” she said in Worden’s four-page feature story in the Jan. 1, 1955 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

Marion continued: “Have you ever heard the song? It’s a mountain ballad of the worst sort — and about whom? About ‘Frankie Slide,’ the poor little baby who never knew her own name. Leitch is a good Scottish name, and I’ve known it was mine all my life. But every year, on the anniversary at least, they put that horrid thing on the radio again — and people start ringing my telephone.

“That isn’t all. There was a radio play written, all about Frankie Slide again and they’ve repeated it two or three times. People keep talking about me being the only survivor — but nobody seems to know how that story started. Of course, I don’t know anything about the slide or remember anything. I was a baby then — and I’m not 100 years old now, although most people seem to expect me to be. Come inside now. I want to put on my shoes. I can’t get mad properly with my shoes off,” she told Worden, who described Marion as a “charming matron.” According to Sheilah, her mother regarded the Worden article as the most accurate telling of the Frank Slide story.

Loud sighs and extreme eye-rolls

The 1979 book Crowsnest and Its People by the Crowsnest Pass Historical Society describes Marion in her Nelson years as “very crusty.” I chuckled when I read that because that was how I remembered her.

As a piano teacher, she was a tough, no-nonsense taskmaster who had strong opinions and was blunt in letting you know them. My sister Eve remembers Marion rapping her knuckles with a pointer during her piano lessons. I don’t remember that happening to me, but she often looked as if she was about to explode at me in anger, usually for not practicing as much as I was supposed to.

She could tell very soon in each session how much I had practiced since she last saw me. Her displeasure was communicated by the loudest sighs I ever heard, and the most extreme eye-rolls.

She took the piano training extremely seriously and expected her students to as well. Her most effective tactic in getting students to work hard was to schedule them to perform in public recitals and in the annual West Kootenay Music Festival, where the fear of making a fool of yourself and losing to Trail competitors was a powerful motivator.

BELOW: Marion Leitch McPhail’s music book with her distinctive signature. She taught piano lessons in Nelson for many years. Courtesy Sam McBride

I never saw Marion play the piano in a public performance, but often towards the end of my lessons she would play for a few minutes beside me on the piano bench in hope that I might benefit from seeing how she did it.

She would close her eyes and flawlessly play by heart some complex classical music (usually Bach, her favourite composer) that used just about every key on the keyboard. As a pianist, she had the great advantage of long fingers, made strong and supple through many thousands of hours of piano scale exercises (which I neglected to do because they were so boring). I could sense how much she loved the music, and thought perhaps it eased the pain of being falsely known as Baby Marion and Frankie Slide all her life.

I never knew how good a piano teacher Marion was because she was the only one I encountered. I recently talked to Tom Shorthouse of Vancouver who was a student of Marion’s in Nelson in the 1940s, and he had nothing but the highest praise for her as a person, musician and teacher.

My other music involvement at the time was the Nelson Boys Choir led by Amy Ferguson, whose career as a music teacher in Nelson largely coincided with Marion’s. Choir practices and performances were extremely relaxed and enjoyable compared to piano ones.

Sheilah Lawrence McPhail was a medal-winning skater with the Nelson Figure Skating Club and graduated from the new L.V. Rogers high school in 1956. She married Peter Yorke in 1966 and settled in Victoria, where daughters Jenny Lynn and Melinda Leitch were born.

Larry McPhail had a heart attack and died in 1965. In 1971 Marion retired after nearly half a century of teaching piano and moved to Victoria, where she died Nov. 11, 1977.

Marion is buried alongside Larry in Nelson Memorial Park. The name on her side of the tombstone is Marion Moore (Leitch) McPhail — one last reminder that she knew her name and was proud of it.

Local historian Sam McBride lives in Castlegar.