Sunday marks 100th anniversary of Tilt Cove avalanche

Steve Bartlett
Published on March 10, 2012

Discovering the headstone of a father and son killed by an avalanche at Tilt Cove in 1912 had a major impact on David Liverman.

It spawned two decades of personal research and led to a book.

It also helped him as a geologist with the province’s geological survey, which indirectly gained expertise of natural hazards and geological hazards.

“It all came, really, from the discovery of that gravestone,” says Liverman, who authored 2007’s “Killer Snow: Avalanches of Newfoundland and Labrador” and is an assistant deputy minister (acting) with Natural Resources.

The father and son, Francis and James Williams, and the three others who died in the avalanche, will be remembered Sunday, the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

They had just sat down for afternoon tea with their family when a large avalanche slid off the hill above and slammed into their house.

Frances and 13-year-old James died instantly, and according to newspaper reports of the day, the boy still had bread in his mouth when he was found.

Two of the Williams’ servants were also killed.

His wife and two daughters were buried for hours, but escaped without serious physical injury.

The avalanche also struck William Cunningham’s house and swept it off its foundation.

All but one of the people in that residence survived.

The family servant, Emily Day, had been buried and was pressed against the wood stove holding Cunningham’s three-year-old son Edward in her arms.

She was badly burned, and succumbed to her injuries months later.

The child was burned but survived.

A church service, luncheon, wreath-laying, moment of silence and events at area museums will mark the tragedy Sunday.

Liverman is set to read the victims’ names before the moment of silence.

He will also address the Baie Verte and Area Chamber of Commerce Monday.

Part of that talk will involve showing photos  that were recently released by a family member.

“I’d never seen photos of the victims before,” Liverman says.

“It really humanizes the event when you see the picture of Little James Williams and the post cards he wrote. You can talk about it from an academic point of view, but obviously, this was a real tragedy for the people involved. The family, I doubt if they ever recovered from it, really, Mrs. Williams in particular.”

Liverman notes Sunday’s events were initiated by descendants of Francis Williams, who live in British Columbia and inquired about having flowers placed on the grave for the 100th anniversary.

He adds that the proceedings are also a way of honouring the more than 60 people who are known to have died in avalanches throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.

There are poor records of most of those disasters, he explains.

A lot is known about Tilt Cove because there are good newspaper reports of it as well as a contemporary record from survivor Vera (Cunningham) Alcock, who recalled what happened for the old Churchill Harbinger newspaper in 1996.

Francis Williams was manager of the copper mine at Tilt Cove.

Liverman says his passing had a negative effect on the operation.

“Subsequent to his death, the mine really went into decline and closed a few years later.”

There are now a handful of families living in the community, which had a population near 1,500 in 1916.

Liverman says it’s also important to remember events like the Tilt Cove tragedy because it helps raise awareness about the potential for avalanches in the province.

Twitter: @SteveBartlett_