The Rockslide of Elm 1881
A Manmade Disaster
On September 11, 1881, southeast of the Glarner village of Elm, 10 million cubic meters of rock became destabilized on the Tschingelberg and slid into the Untertal. 114 people were killed. One of the causes of the disaster was negligence in slate mining.
On the late afternoon of Sunday, September 11, 1881, about 10 million cubic meters of rock fell into the valley at the Glarner village of Elm. 114 inhabitants, including 37 children, were killed; entire families were wiped out. 38 children became orphans. A total of 31 bodies were recovered, the remaining victims were never found. 900,000 square meters of agricultural land and large forested areas were devastated; 83 houses, 50 barns and stables and a slate mine were destroyed. Most of the village cattle, however, survived as they were still grazing on the Alps.
In 1868 they started mining slate in Elm on the Tschingelkopf. This rock had a high value at that time and contributed to the income of the valley residents. Only a few areas in Europe were mined for slate. In 1879, either because of greed or a low risk assessment, individual shafts of slate were opened. They were of excellent quality but had historically been left as a support buttress in the interior of the mountain. Finally, at the Plattenberg, the later fracture site, a cavity of 180 meters wide and about 20 meters deep was created. The mountain, deprived of internal support, ominously towered over the valley. Continuous andheavy rains in late August and early September 1881 finally led to the disaster.
Wild-hay cutters returning home from the Tschingelalp reported in August that an existing rift in the mountain had widened massively. The crack was 2 to 3 meters wide and the ground below the crack had dropped 4 to 5 meters. Apparently, the warning went unheeded.
The loud noise of the rockfalls, break-offs and fractures were alreadyheard during the Sunday service on the morning of September 11, 1881. Despite this, next to nobody left the dangerous area – in fact, many spectators went to the affected area or climbed to the nearby hamlet of Düniberg on the opposing face of the valley in the hope of enjoying a better view of the spectacle.
Three Phases of the Disaster
The rumble on the mountain and the ongoing rockfall had attracted numerous onlookers. Then suddenly, the mountain broke and crashed in a first phase down to the valley. The people climbing the opposite slope and felt safe there. Storage areas inthe mine, and a pub that had been cleared as a precaution, were destroyed. Physically no one was harmed, yet. In panic, the people in the Untertal prepared their escape. Intrepid neighbors rushed to help - and thus to ruin. Seventeen minutes after the first slide, the Tschingelberg crashed again, a second, bigger rockslide followed. In the area of the mine, the rocks struck the projecting mountain nose, bounced and crashed into the bottom of the valley. The sound wave alone uprooted trees tore the roofs from houses and collapsed walls. From the top of the Plattenberg, huge masses of rock, which had supported the mountain, broke off. At any moment the Plattenberg "head" would fail. It took another three to four minutes for the Plattenberg to collapsed. This third phase finally sealed the fate of the victims.
The earth shook. Huge masses of rock burst undercreating a deafening thunder on the ledge of the mountain massif. Black dust clouds robbed everyone of sight. On the opposite side of the valley many who thought they were safe were now in as deadly a danger as those who sought to bring themselves to safety in the valley. The debris liquefied and created a lahar like river of mud and rock racing at horrendous speeds of nearly 200 kilometers per hour onto the almost flat terrain and rolling up the opposite slope. The devastation of nearly a square kilometer of land was complete.
Help from all over the world
The avalanche was reported worldwide. Even weeks after the event, hundreds and thousands of onlookers traveled to Glarus. From Zurich and St. Gallen extra trains traveled into the disaster area. The gestures of sympathy by these strangers outweighed the sensationalism. All of Switzerland collected for the deeply hit village Elm. Cantonal governments as well as the Federal Council provided immediate assistance. Donations poured in from all over the world. From North America to South America, Africa and Australia, Japan, Romania, the Philippines, Turkey and Russia all donated to the stricken village.
The event and its causes were chronicled in the same year by local priest Ernst Buss and geologist Albert Heim in their publication "Der Bergsturz von Elm". A novel surrounding these events was written by Franz Hohler (2000): Die Steinflut. The novel has the landslide to the background; he describes the last two days before the catastrophe from the perspective of seven-year-old Katharina Rhyner-Disch (* 1874, † 1959). She lost five siblings, one grandmother and both parents.
Link to the List of all victims of the rockslide of Elm