The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche

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by Gary Krist

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The never-before-told story of one of the worst rail disasters in U.S. history in which two trains full of people, trapped high in the Cascade Mountains, are hit by a devastating avalanche

In February 1910, a monstrous blizzard centered on Washington State hit the Northwest, breaking records. The world stopped—but nowhere was the danger more

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The never-before-told story of one of the worst rail disasters in U.S. history in which two trains full of people, trapped high in the Cascade Mountains, are hit by a devastating avalanche

In February 1910, a monstrous blizzard centered on Washington State hit the Northwest, breaking records. The world stopped—but nowhere was the danger more terrifying than near a tiny town called Wellington, perched high in the Cascade Mountains, where a desperate situation evolved minute by minute: two trainloads of cold, hungry passengers and their crews found themselves marooned without escape, their railcars gradually being buried in the rising drifts. For days, an army of the Great Northern Railroad's most dedicated men—led by the line's legendarily courageous superintendent, James O'Neill—worked round-the-clock to rescue the trains. But the storm was unrelenting, and to the passenger's great anxiety, the railcars—their only shelter—were parked precariously on the edge of a steep ravine. As the days passed, food and coal supplies dwindled. Panic and rage set in as snow accumulated deeper and deeper on the cliffs overhanging the trains. Finally, just when escape seemed possible, the unthinkable occurred: the earth shifted and a colossal avalanche tumbled from the high pinnacles, sweeping the trains and their sleeping passengers over the steep slope and down the mountainside.

Centered on the astonishing spectacle of our nation's deadliest avalanche, The White Cascade is the masterfully told story of a supremely dramatic and never-before-documented American tragedy. An adventure saga filled with colorful and engaging history, this is epic narrative storytelling at its finest.

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Editorial Reviews

In late February 1910, a blizzard hit the tiny hamlet of Wellington, high in Washington's Cascade Mountains. Two trains, along with their passengers and crews, were trapped near the depot by the record snowfall. Finally, after days of futile rescue attempts, the snows began to lift, replaced by warming rains. Just when hope seemed at hand, a sudden avalanche struck, flipping the railway cars like toys down the deep embankments. Ninety-six trainmen, mail clerks, laborers, and passengers succumbed; the last body was not recovered until the following summer. Gary Krist's meticulously researched narrative reconstructs America's most deadly snow disaster.

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A Late Thaw

Summer 1910

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.

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White Cascade 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wish I had read this book several years ago. I used to live in the town of Leavenworth, WA mentioned in the book. My nephew and I hiked the Iron Goat Trail which used to be the Great Northern line west out of Wellington. We hiked through the old short wooden tunnels leading up to Wellington. The last snowshed is long and damp. Close to the end there is a walk out pier over the ravine. Along the railings are pictures and stories of that fateful day....week. You can look down the ravine and you can still see pieces of the train left there 100 years ago. We then turned east and walked through the old 2 mile tunnel that you read about in the book as the passengers hope for shelter. This is a totaly interesting story told in great detail for Gary Krist. I would consider it a must read for any railroad fans.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
we'll written and a pleasure to read---definitely recommended
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read which had a perfect blend of human intrest, social insight, and mother nature - resulting in a captivating telling of truely tragic events. I hope to someday see the pass where man and business came face to face with a brutal untameable wilderness, were so many lives were lost under the increadable circumstances that played out those temptuous days on the mountian.
mogeyman More than 1 year ago
A great story about a little-known railway disaster high in the Cascade mountains in the winter of 1910. Like the Titanic, this catastrophe was the result of Gilded Age capitalist hubris and unusual natural phenomena working together to create the ideal conditions for loss of life. The human interest stories are fascinating.
jeann More than 1 year ago
I read this in just a few sittings it was extremely well written and exciting to read. This was riveting all the way through. Amazing recreating of the details and people involved.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A well written story about a terrible but probably little known railroad disaster that happened in 1910 in the state or Washington. The author did extensive research of the facts and the people involved and wove it into a story that reads like a novel. Read this one if you are interested in railroad history.
CajunDS More than 1 year ago
A very well written book, it tells the story without bias. It reads like an adventure while maintaining the strictest of historical accuracy. Very hard to put down, even when you know how it will end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thls was a very interesting book packed full of facts
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Northwest_Historian More than 1 year ago
Very little new material is contained in Mr. Krist's book. Most all of the factual accounts have already appeared in the two books I have already mentioned. I had the privledge of working with Ruby El Hult for several years when I was doing research for Conquest and Catastrophe. In fact I provided Gary Krist with answers to questions he had in helping him with the writing of his book. Unfortunately, he chose not to use the information. His book is a strong narrative, but a weak history.. There are errors. As an example, Mr. Krist is wrong in stating that Wellington was a much smaller town than Cascade Tunnel Station. Wellington had a population of nearly 600 people at times, not 100 as Mr. Krist states. Cascade Tunnel had only Great Northern workers living there. When they received their paychecks, they would walk through the Cascade Tunnel to Wellington to cash them at Bailets Hotel or Fogg Bros. Restaurant. They would then remain at Wellingto to drink and gamble away their money, for it was the only town close enough for them to do this. His book is a good read, but I must recommend Ruby El Hult's book, Northwest Disaster, for historical facts. Conquest and Catastrophe has a very detailed account of the Wellington disaster too. However, it also covers far more of the history of Stevens Pass and the Great Northern Railway, in addition to Wellington.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written piece of Northwest history..