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A Late Thaw
The last body was found at the end of July, twenty-one weeks after the avalanche. Workmen clearing debris from the secluded site, high in the cool, still snow-flecked Cascades, discovered the deteriorating corpse in a creek at the mountainside's base. Trapped under piles of splintered timber, the dead man had to be Archibald McDonald, a twenty-three-year-old brakeman, the only person on the trains not yet accounted for.
Bill J. Moore was on the wrecker crew that found him. Moore's team was one of many that had been grappling with the hard, ugly work at Wellington over the previous five months. For the first few days following the avalanche--after the storm had finally tapered off and the isolated town could be reached--the men had done little but dig for victims in the snow. Bodies were scattered all over the mountainside, some buried as deep as forty feet. Once located, they had to be piled up--"like cordwood, in 4-by-4 stacks"--and carried to a makeshift morgue in the station's baggage room, where they could be identified. Wrapped in blankets and tied to rugged Alaskan sleds, they'd been evacuated in small groups, each sled maneuvered by four men with ropes, two ahead and two behind, in silent procession down to their mourning families.
After the dead were gone, the crews had turned to opening and fortifying the right-of-way, blasting away acres of compacted snow and timber, laying the groundwork for huge concrete shelters to protect the rail line from future snowslides. Temporary spur tracks had been built along the side of the ravine so that the wreckers could begin their recovery work. Some of the train equipment, like the heavy steam and electric locomotives, had been only lightly damaged, but the wooden mail cars, sleepers, and passenger coaches were completely shattered. Each scrap had to be hoisted back up to the tracks and carted off on a flatcar. The job had taken weeks. All that remained in the ravine afterward, strewn among rocks and ravaged trees, were a few twisted metal pipes, a ruptured firebox door, a woman's torn, high-buttoned shoe.
For nineteen-year-old Bill Moore, the unearthing of the final victim would mean yet another funeral to attend, yet another lost friend to lay to rest. Moore had often worked with Archie "Mac" McDonald, a fellow brakeman. The Great Northern Railway's Cascade Division was full of men like Moore and McDonald. Regarded as something of a hardship post, the division was often avoided by those with the seniority to land positions elsewhere, and it employed more than its share of young rookies. Rootless and unattached, they had to find family wherever they could.
So Moore, like many others, had found it among his fellow railroaders. There was a good reason why railway unions were called "Brotherhoods"; trainmen in the Age of Steam regarded themselves as a breed apart, united by their rough and highly specialized work. In this remote, dangerous territory, where the daily battle against the elements required the highest levels of teamwork, trust, and personal sacrifice, these bonds were especially strong.
For the men of the Cascade Division, the Wellington Disaster thus represented the decimation of an entire close-knit community. Although newspaper reports had given far more ink to the trains' lost passengers (business leaders, women, and children made better copy), nearly two-thirds of the fatalities had come from a relatively small population of trainmen, railway mail clerks, and track laborers. Among them had been several whom Moore considered close friends.
To those who had escaped, one question was unavoidable: Why them and not me? On the night of the avalanche, Moore had been down at Skykomish station, at the foot of the mountains. His train--the last westbound freight to make it over the mountain--had tied up there when the storm reached its critical stage, immobilizing all traffic throughout the range. Had his schedule or the storm's timing been slightly different, it might have been his train trapped for six full days, his body entombed in snow. Such an arbitrary twist of fate was difficult to get over. As Moore would later write: "I will never forget this as long as I live."
Others were less inclined to accept what had happened as fate. Tragedy, they claimed, was not the ending this story had to have. Four days before the terrible events of March 1--shortly after the two trains had become marooned at Wellington station, just below the very summit spine of the Cascades--the passengers and crews had received a stark portent of what was to come. A chef and his assistant, working overnight in a railway beanery at a nearby station, had just put the next day's biscuits into the oven to bake. Outside, the "howling, cantankerous blizzard" that had been raging for days was pummeling the surrounding mountains, rattling the doors of the beanery in their frames. Sometime around 4:00 a.m., in a narrow gully high above the station, the overloaded snowpack began to falter. Within seconds, a torrent of loose snow began slipping down the gully.
As the flow quickly broadened and deepened, it gathered momentum, fanning out into a rolling, churning river of white headed straight for the station below. Surging onto the valley floor, the powerful slide grazed a corner of the depot and twisted the entire building off its foundation. But the beanery stood directly in its path. Hit point-blank by the rushing wall of snow, the rough wooden structure imploded, its timbers rupturing, its roof collapsing to the ground under the intense weight.
For many hours afterward, rescuers digging at the site could find only one of the two dead men inside, though they managed to recover several hot biscuits from the oven.
Over the next few days, as the railroad fought desperately to clear the tracks, slides began falling everywhere. The Pacific Northwest had been inundated with heavy snows for days, and as the weather warmed and the snowfall turned to rain, mountains across the region shrugged off their heavy loads. In the mining country of Idaho, two huge avalanches smashed the sleeping towns of Mace and Burke. A landslide near Seattle annihilated a horse barn, trapping six animals inside and wedging the head of an eighty-year-old rancher under a crosscut saw. Snow shearing off another slope swept a small house into a ravine, the two terrified men inside riding the plummeting cabin like a bobsled for three hundred feet. And in British Columbia, a railroad gang near Rogers Pass was engulfed by an even more massive slide, leaving scores of foreign workers dead, some of them frozen upright in casual postures--"like the dead of Pompeii."
In the midst of this, Great Northern Railway trains Nos. 25 and 27 sat paralyzed at Wellington, slowly being buried under the snow. The men of the Cascade Division made Herculean, round-the-clock efforts to release them, but, as the Seattle Times would report, "so fierce is the storm that the attempts of this army of workmen, aided by all the available snow-fighting machinery on the division, are futile." The stress, meanwhile, was taking its toll: "Passengers by Sunday were in a frantic state of mind," one survivor would later report. "It was with difficulty that we could keep the women and children . . . from becoming actually sick in bed from the long strain."
Suffering most acutely was Ida Starrett, a young widowed mother from Spokane. Her husband, a Great Northern freight conductor, had been killed just weeks before at the railroad's main yards in Hillyard, Washington. Having settled his estate, Ida was now traveling with her elderly parents to start anew in Canada. In her care were her three children--nine-year-old Lillian, seven-year-old Raymond, and an infant boy, Francis.
Two other families were in similar straits. The Becks--mother, father, and three children aged twelve, nine, and three--were moving back to the warmth of Pleasanton, California, after two years of hard winters in Marcus, Washington. John and Anna Gray, with their eighteen-month-old boy, Varden, were on their way home after an even more difficult trip. John had broken his leg and was all but immobile in a hip-to-ankle cast. Anna was distraught, in tears every night. "We knew we were in a death trap," she wrote. "We were so much afraid that terrible week and could talk about nothing else."
In desperation, some of the passengers proposed escaping down the mountain on foot, but railroad officials wouldn't hear of it. "To hike out," as one of them put it, "is to take your life in your hands." A worker who made the attempt was soon trying to outrun a rumbling slide racing down the mountain toward him. "He had scarcely gone a step," a companion later reported, "before the walls of snow on each side quivered, then smashed together and he was caught breathless in a mass of snow." Choking on the viscous, powder-dense air, thrashing arms and legs to keep afloat amid the churning debris, he was carried hundreds of feet down the mountain "with the speed of an express train."
Understandably, most passengers elected to remain aboard the trains after that, but the railroad's rescue effort soon veered toward crisis. Food was running low, coal supplies were dwindling, and the temporary workers hired to shovel snow began quitting in droves. On the trains, fear and frustration gave way to blank despair. It seemed inconceivable to many that a snowstorm, no matter how vicious and protracted, could bring the entire northwestern quadrant of the country to a standstill. This was 1910, an era when, as a prominent lecturer of the day opined, "the final victory of man's machinery over nature's is the logical next step in evolution." Modern railroads like the Great Northern--with their tunnels and snowsheds, their fleets of rotary snowplows, their armies of men--were supposed to be unstoppable, the ultimate symbols of twentieth-century America's new mastery over its own geography and climate.
In the end, however, it was nature that had triumphed at Wellington. What was--and still is, a century later--the deadliest avalanche in American history had given the story a brutal end, killing ninety-six men, women, and children. And the toll had been as arbitrary as it was appalling: Of the three families aboard, one perished, one was entirely spared, and the third was ravaged, seeing half its members die.
Five months later, there remained troubling questions about how and why all of it had happened. Why, for instance, had those two trains been brought up the mountain in the first place, given the severity of the storm? Why, once they were trapped at Wellington, had they been left on the side of a steep slope and not moved to a safer, flatter place? Some critics questioned whether a railroad line even belonged in a steep and slide-prone place like Wellington. Wasn't the practice of running trains up into that mountain wilderness an act of supreme arrogance that made disaster all but inevitable?
These were difficult questions, especially for those who knew the full story of what had happened at Wellington. Punishments and remedies were obvious only to those ignorant of the complex facts. As for Great Northern railroaders like Bill J. Moore--working long hours in a place that even in midsummer could seem eerily hostile and forbidding--they could spare little time for such recriminations. They had trains to move, an outpost in the mountains to rebuild, an economically vital railroad line to secure against the wilderness.
And they had Archie McDonald to take care of--one last dead brother to carry back home.
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Krist. All rights reserved.