One hundred and one years ago this week, it was snowing in the North Cascade Mountains. By itself, there was nothing unusual about that fact. It always snows in the Cascades around this time of year. Washingtonians depend on it. The ski resorts need that snow to stay open. The cities of Puget Sound rely on the snowpack laid down during the late winter for their water supply during the summer. Farms and orchards on the east side of the mountains depend on that same melting snowpack to water their crops. The salmon, who have been spawning in Cascade streams since the end of the last ice age, need that same meltwater to make their final journey home to spawn. But the late February storms of 1910 were something different.
Though the name was not yet in use, nor the pattern yet discerned, the winter of 1909-10 was a la Niña winter, as is this winter. La Niña weather begins when cooler than usual surface water appears in the equatorial Pacific and drifts westward to pile up against South America. As the cool water patch grows it begins to affect weather patterns all over the world. La Niña years, in the Pacific Northwest are colder and wetter than usual. In the mountains, colder and wetter translates as more snow. In 1910, there was lots more snow than usual. Old timers watched the snow get deeper and murmured that they had never seen a winter like this. Records bore them out. All over the northwest, towns recorded their coldest days, deepest snow, and most days of snow since recordkeeping began.
By the beginning of the year, the snow was twenty to thirty feet deep in the high Cascades and over ten feet deep in the passes. Railroad work crews, even with the most advanced rotary plows available, were stretched to the limit trying to keep the tracks open. Accidents and delays had plagued the railroads on an almost weekly basis since the beginning of November. A strike in the Great Northern Railroad's switch yards added to the difficulty of getting equipment and supplies were they were needed when they were needed.
Snow is a complicated substance. The temperature, texture of the flakes, and amount of wind during snowfall give each layer of the snowpack its own character. Some layers will be soft and loose, some hard and brittle, some light, and some dense. Some combinations of layers hold together and some slide against each other. The series of storms that began on February 21, 1910 began cold and grew warmer each day the storms continued. The later layers of snow were wetter and heavier than the earlier. Combined with the sheer depth of the snow, it created textbook conditions for catastrophic avalanches.
I first heard about the Wellington avalanche from my mother, when I was seven. Mom raised my sisters and me to be readers and lovers of words. Thanks to Mom, we all read for pleasure, play word games, have larger than average vocabularies, and talk rilly good. Also. However, being a full-time mom, even though she read to us, she never had much time to read for herself. On the rare times that she did read a book just for her own pleasure, she managed to fit it into her version of good mothering by retelling the stories to us.
One such book was Northwest Disaster: Avalanche and Fire by Ruby El Hult. One of the other moms in the neighborhood read it in the fall of 1963 and the book was passed from mom to mom through the winter. Northwest Disaster tells the stories of two catastrophes, both of which happened in 1910. The fire part of he title refers to the Big Blowup, a single wildfire in August of that year that burned three million acres, destroyed a large part of the town of Wallace, Idaho, killed eighty seven people, and led to the no burn policy that guided the US Forest Service for most of the Twentieth Century. The avalanche part of the title refers to Wellington avalanche in Stevens Pass, Washington, which crushed two trains and killed ninety six people. Bedtime stories like this helped turn me into the person I am today.
Wednesday, February 23, 1910
In the wee hours of Wednesday, James H. O'Neill faced a hard set of choices. O'Neill was the head of the Cascade Division of the Great Northern Railroad. As such, he was responsible for keeping the trains moving through the passes. He was responsible for the condition of the tracks, the equipment, supplies, personnel, and had the authority to make emergency changes to the schedule. That morning, it was, once again, snowing in the mountains and he had an insufficient number of plows to escort the trains over Stevens Pass. With two priority trains approaching the pass from the east, only one plow on that side of the mountains, and snow piling up on the tracks, his options were limited. He could delay the first train until the second train caught up and convoy both of them over the mountains behind the plow. He could delay both trains and wait for the storm to pass. He could send one train through with the plow and hope the tracks were still clear enough when the second train came through a few hours later. He could shuttle both trains onto a competitor railroad's track in order to cross on a pass further south. Each option carried its own set of risks and rewards but the latter was by far the worst choice. Using a competitor's tracks would involve paying them for the rights, it would be an embarrassment to the company, and the trains would be delayed.
O'Neill was not a long distance manager While he could have monitored events from an office in Everett, he preferred to travel in a private railcar to the scenes of problems and directly involve himself in their solutions. On Monday, when the latest round of storms began, O'Neill ordered up the car and traveled to Wellington at the top of Stevens Pass. He could see how heavily the snow was falling, but, after forty hours of precipitation, he figured the storm must be nearing its end. Two trains heading east had just made their way up the west side of the pass, where the snow was heaviest. O'Neill chose to gamble that the way would be safe enough for the two trains from the east to get through the pass. He telegraphed the Leavenworth station to send the No. 25 passenger train through and to wave the No. 27 fast mail train through as soon as it arrived.
The first part of O'Neill's gamble paid off. The next two passes to the south, Snoqualmie and Stampede were both closed due to the snow. Even if O'Neill had opted for the expense and embarrassment of begging the Great Northern's competitors for help, that gambit would have failed. His two trains, though separated by two hours, were able to make to the top of Stevens Pass without incident. Once there, however, things began to go wrong. At about the same time he gave the go ahead to the No. 25, O'Neill sent a plow, under the command of Homer Purcell, west from Wellington to clear the tracks down from the pass the Everett on Puget Sound. Three miles out of town, at a sharp bend in the tracks called Windy Point,the crew of the rotary ran into a large slide that covered almost a quarter mile of tracks with deep compacted snow and debris. O'Neill did not learn about this blockage until the two trains were already at the top of Stevens Pass waiting to come down.
Stevens Pass was the weakest point in the entire Great Northern line. In 1890, John F. Stevens had been tasked with finding the most direct route between the Wenatchee farm country on the Columbia River and Seattle on Puget Sound. Stevens quickly discovered that there was no good route in that part of the Cascades, but the least bad route ran in a fairly straight line from Wenatchee to Everett, just north of Seattle. On either side of the Cascade ridge, two rivers cut narrow canyons towards each other: the Skykomish and Tye Rivers from the West and the Wenatchee River and Nason Creek from the East. In places, the canyons narrowed to become gorges, but the real engineering challenge lay right at the center of the route. If the two approaches were knife cuts into the Cascades, then the the knife itself was standing on edge blocking the connection. In a few short miles, the mountains shot up over fifteen hundred feet. When the railroad was completed in 1893, Stevens Pass was crossed by a series of switchbacks that were, depending on your point of view, either an engineering marvel or a railroading nightmare. The rough and tumble work camps on either side of the pass--Wellington in the West and Cascade in the East--became permanent stations where Great Northern added engines to haul trains over the hump. By 1900, a tunnel had been built between Wellington and Cascade, cutting five hundred feet off the pass. The two stations lived on to attach electric engines for the tunnel trip, house railroad workers, and service snow plows.
On Wednesday morning, the passengers aboard No. 25 awoke to find themselves not approaching Seattle, as they expected, but, instead, sitting in Cascade waiting for the tracks on the other side of the pass to be cleared. On the passing tracks next to them, sat No. 27, the fast mail train. As their train had no dining car, the passengers walked over to the railroadmen's cookhouse for breakfast along with the mail train employees and track laborers. Conductor Joseph Pettit managed to quiet some of the passengers' grumbling by describing the meal as a wild west adventure. Even so, not all of the passengers were charmed at the thought of rubbing shoulders with working class "scum of the earth" as one passenger described their dining companions.
Thursday, February 24, 1910
On the other side of the pass, that same "scum of the earth" worked all day Wednesday to clear the Windy Point avalanche. Late in the evening, the plow from Wellington broke through to meet a plow fighting in from the other side. The two combined as a double rotary (capable of plowing forward and backwards) and worked their way back to Wellington, arriving just after midnight on Thursday. For a moment, things looked good. The worst blockage between the Pass and Seattle was now clear and another rotary plow, which till now had been in the shop in Everett, was back on line and bringing two cars of coal up to the pass.
O'Neill's optimism over these developments was short lived. While Purcell recoaled the double rotary to finish clearing the tracks down from the pass the storm picked up again. Recoaling the rotaries involved moving up a spur off the main track. The coaling spur itself needed to be plowed first. As each each part of the double--rotary, locomotive, rotary--took on fuel, the snow fell fast enough to pile up between the cars, sticking them in place. A crew of shovelers had to unstick the work train so that the next part could be moved into place and fueled. This operation had to be repeated for both coal and water, six operations in all. A process that should have take less than an hour took the entire night. At the same time, the stalled trains in Cascade had been sitting in the falling snow for a full day and needed to be dug out. Before they could do that, the double rotary on the east side of the mountains, supervised by William Harrington, had to be brought through the tunnel for its own refueling. That took up more hours.
Harrington and O'Neill picked up shovels and joined the crews at Cascade on Thursday evening trying to get the trains moving as soon as possible. By evening, they had excavated the two trains and were ready to move them. But, new problems had arisen. The power lines on the east side of the pass went down. This meant the telegraphs and telephones didn't work and there was no power for the electric engines to pull the trains through the tunnel. The latter problem was solved easily enough. The tunnel sloped downward from Cascade to Wellington. All that was necessary was for the locomotives to pull into the tunnel and throttle down, rolling through in the railroad equivalent of putting a car in neutral and letting gravity do the work. The electric engines had only been available since the year before and the engineers were well practiced in this maneuver.
The lack of communication turned out to be the more important problem. While O'Neill was incommunicado at Cascade, Purcell had taken his double rotary and begun clearing the new snow off the tracks on the west side. At Windy Point, he discovered another major slide. Digging into this obstruction, the rotary plow ran into a stump brought down by the slide. The frozen wood tore up the plow mechanism rendering that half or the double useless. All in all, the day's back-breaking labor had managed to move the trains three miles closer to Seattle.
Friday, February 25, 1910
Until Friday morning, being late was the worst thing the passengers and mail clerks on the two trains had to worry about. Lewis Jessup and John Merritt were lawyers on their way to Olympia to argue opposite sides of a case before the state Supreme Court (the court went ahead without them). Sarah Jane Covington was on her way home to celebrate her fifty-first wedding anniversary. Numerous salesmen and business travellers had appointments. Libby Latsch had an hair accessories company in Seattle to run. The mail train was supposed to be an express and faced fines for being late. That all changed around noon.
Not long after the passengers returned from breakfast at Bailets Hotel in Wellington, word began to circulate about a disaster at Cascade. Before dawn, when the cook, Harry Elerker and his assistant, John Bjerenson, were doing their baking for the coming day, an avalanche had tumbled down off the mountain behind the cook shack, crushing the building and killing both men. As the news that the two men who had cheerfully fed the stranded passengers for the previous two days were now dead, additional details arrived. The course of the fatal avalanche not only destroyed the dining hall where they had eaten, it also crossed the tracks and, had they still been there, would have crushed the mail train and at least two cars on the passenger train. Suddenly the passengers felt very vulnerable on the mountain.
Looking at Wellington in the daylight did nothing to reassure the passengers. Wellington was little more than a whistle stop stuck to the side of a mountain. In the shadow of Stevens Pass, Wellington had been built on a speck of relatively level land where the upper reaches of Tye River were joined by Haskell Creek. According to the 1910 census, there were 169 people in Wellington. Most of those were temporary railroad laborers. The biggest buildings in town were Bailets Hotel, a bunkhouse for railroad workers, and some buildings for the maintenance of the plows and electric engines. Scattered among them were a few small cabins that were home to railroad employees who lived there full time. On the northeast side of the town, where the railroad emerged from the tunnel, three short spurs fanned away from the main track. These were where most maintenance work was performed. A few hundred yards further on, on the other side of town, were four more spurs. On the mountain side of the mainline was a track that led up hill used to stop runaway trains. Moving downhill, next was the track where coal and water were taken on. Then came the main tracks. Finally, hanging about a hundred and fifty feet above Tye River were two passing tracks. It was on these that the two trains were parked, the passenger train next to the main line and the mail train next to the edge.
To the stranded passengers, the slope above their train looked very steep and the snow on it appeared heavy and ominous. Some of the passengers approached Joe Pettit, the conductor, to let him know how nervous they were and to ask about other other places to park the trains while they waited for the road west to finally open. Pettit patiently explained why the the passing tracks were the safest place to be. To those who wanted to move the train into the tunnel, he explained that, in the tunnel, they would have to turn off the heat to avoid suffocation from the fumes and that they could easily be sealed into the tunnel by an avalanche. To those who wanted to be moved into the snow shed downhill, he pointed out that the covered tracks had been built because that was the place where avalanches had happened in the past and that the shed was too short to cover the whole train. To those who wanted to be moved onto the maintenance spurs, he pointed out that the spurs had not been plowed since the storms began and that, to move their train onto those tracks, they would have to recall the plows that were clearing the road to Everett. Finally, he explained that it was the opinion that in the opinion of experienced mountain hands, the slope above the trains was not the type of slope that produced avalanches. To back up this claim, he pointed out that many of the railroad workers had moved onto the mail train, judging that location to be safer than their bunkhouse.
While Pettit tried to calm the passengers, O'Neill and the two plow supervisors, Purcell and Harrington, worked east and west of the Wellington to open the tracks. Reorganizing the rotary plows had taken some work. The snow continued to fall all day Friday with gale force winds piling it into deep drifts. The temperature had begun to rise making the new snow heavier and wetter. As on Thursday, it took hours just to refuel the rotaries. They pushed the damaged plow up to the end of the fueling track to get it out of the way. O'Neill and Purcell took another rotary and returned to the Windy Point slide. Harrington took a double rotary and headed for Cascade to clear the slide that killed the cook house crew, but first he had to plow the rail yard just to get to the tunnel. This along with the refueling took most of the day.
By this time, the storm had lasted longer than any in memory. Later examination of weather records would suggest that What hit the Cascades was actually three storms coming in off the Pacific that combined in the mountains to seem like one continuous event. Not that such knowledge would have mattered to O'Neill. Even if the snow had stopped on Friday afternoon, he realized that it might take several days to get the tracks cleared. O'Neill was running out of resources. The rotary plows burned through coal at an alarming rate and they had run through most of the supply at Wellington. J.J. Dowling was bringing two cars of coal and another plow from Everett. He had already passed Scenic Hot Springs, a mere eight hundred feet downhill from Windy Point, but almost eight miles by railroad. By late Friday, O'Neill's mission had been reduced from clearing the tracks down the mountain to the immediate task of getting more coal. On the east side of the mountain, O'Neill believed there were three cars of coal sitting on a siding at Merritt station, a twelve miles east of Cascade. During a brief break when the telegraph lines were open, he instructed Harrington to continue past Cascade to retrieve that coal.
Saturday, February 26, 1910
Just before four in the morning, O'Neill, Purcell, and the crew of rotary plow X-801 broke through the blockage at Windy Point. O'Neill was tempted to continue downhill till he met Dowling and the coal, but with no idea how far that might be, he decided the prudent thing was to stay close to Wellington and keep their stretch of the tracks open. He ordered the plow back to the pass to scrounge what coal they could from the other engines and to give the crew a well deserved hot meal. In Wellington he ran into, not one, but two growing mutinies.
The most dangerous came from the manual laborers, the shovelers who accompanied the plows. These men were informal employees of the railroad, mostly immigrants, who were hired on a temporary basis when there was dirty work to be done. They were being pushed to perform superhuman tasks and were beginning to break under the strain. What most separated them from the train crews, was pay. Manual laborers for the Great Northern Railroad were paid fifteen cents and hour and then billed for room and board. On Saturday many of the workers began a slowdown strike demanding better pay. But many had had enough and were not sticking around to negotiate. They were packing their bedrolls and walking out.
Feeling trapped and needing to do something, the men of the passenger train had begun looking for someone with more power than the conductor, Pettit, to hear their complaints. Friday evening, a committee of male passengers had buttonholed O'Neill's secretary, Earl Longcoy, and demanded that he arrange a meeting with his boss. O'Neill knew there would be no point in a meeting. The trains were in the safest place and his time would be better spent getting them off the mountain by clearing the tracks. He told Longcoy to make excuses and returned to work.
It was just after sunrise when O'Neill rounded up a crew, boarded the plow and once more headed downhill to do battle with the mountain. During the night, the snow had turned to sleet, and, with the temperature rising in the morning, the sleet turned to rain. The rain saturated the snow making it heavier, more compact, and more likely to slide. And slide it did, covering the tracks at Windy Point once more. Once more, O'Neill ordered Purcell to drive into the wall of snow. Their progress was painfully slow, sometimes measured in inches, and it ate up their coal before they were halfway through. There was nothing to do except head back to Wellington and see if they had missed any coal in their last raid. They did not make it to Wellington. When they turned back they found another slide behind them. O'Neill would not be breaking out. If there was any hope of the trapped trains getting out under their own power, it was up to Harrington in the East.
O'Neill's hope for Harrington was in vain. After battling all night to work their way through a large slide near Berne, about halfway between Cascade and Merritt, Harrington's crew broke through at midday and proceeded east in in fairly good order. The snow was deep but gave way to rotary's blades. For a short time it looked as if he would make it to Merritt and its precious three cars of coal. Nine miles east of Cascade at a narrow spot in the canyon called Gaynor, a huge slide rumbled off the mountains onto the track narrowly missing the plow. Like O'Neill, Harrington pushed into the pack, but he knew he was defeated. By late afternoon, down the last ton of coal, Harrington ordered the crew to stop. He instructed the engine crew to keep the boilers warm and started the long hike back to Wellington to give his boss the bad news. The mountains had won.
The passengers heard about the fading hopes of an early escape after returning from dinner. The men called a meeting in the smoking car. It was a odd affair carried out according to paliamentary procedures. Most of the conversation revolved around moving the train into the tunnel. Once more, Pettit patiently explained why that was a bad idea, adding that it was now also impossible. There was no longer a plow in Wellington to dig the train out and clear the tracks to the tunnel. Even if there had been, there was no longer enough coal. After that other issues were discussed--could a doctor be brought in for the the less healthy passengers, should they write a letter to the editors of the Seattle Times--but the meeting trailed off with no decisions being made. Afterwards, some of the men discussed the possibility of following the quitting laborers and leaving on foot.
Sunday, February 27, 1910
On Sunday, the passengers held a makeshift church service. One of the Passengers, James Thompson, was a Presbyterian minister. The mail clerks from the other train were invited and several other railroad employees and laborers attended. The sermon was on patience.
O'Neill did not attend the service. Before the first hymn was sung, he and two companions set out on foot for Scenic Hot Springs to find a working telegraph. O'Neill needed to update his superiors about the situation. He knew he might have to evacuate some of the passengers and pack food in for the others. He would need to replace the departing laborers. He was still the supervisor of the Cascade Division. He could not just call for help and wait for it to arrive. He would have to make all the arrangements himself.
One of O'Neill's companions was a brakeman named "Big Jerry" Wickham who was mostly along because of his size. Big Jerry went first and broke trail for the others. After they passed the stranded rotary, O'Neill had a horrifying demonstration of the danger everyone faced; a mass of snow up slope from them broke loose and swept Big Jerry off the tracks into the canyon below. O'Neill and the rotary crew looked for signs that the brakeman had survived, but none was to be found. This hardened O'Neill's conviction that the safest thing for the passengers to do was to stay put.
After the church service broke up, several of the men on the train began seriously exploring the possibility of hiking down the mountain. The railroad employees all tried to discourage them. One passenger tried to hire a trapper who lived in Wellington. The trapper refused saying he did not want to be responsible when they inevitably killed themselves. In the end, three decided to ignore all the warnings and go anyway. Lewis Jessup and John Merritt, the lawyers who had missed their Supreme Court date, and a dry goods store owner, George Loveberry bundled up and started out on the trail broken by Big Jerry. On the way, they ran into two younger men, Milton Horn and Milton Rea, who had been checking out the slide. On a whim, the two joined the trek.
Forty seven years after hearing it, this is the part of my mother's telling that I remember most vividly. These were businessmen completely unprepared for the mountain. They wore stylish wool coats and city shoes that provided no protection against the cold and wet. The storms had not let up; it was sleeting as they trudged on. Each footstep punched in the snow filled with ice water. I pictured tiny black dots, like ants, crawling over the white slope. Reaching the rotary, they heard about the fate of Big Jerry, but decided to keep going.
At Windy Point, part of the track was covered by a snow shed. The businessmen would have entered a dark hole into the shed and stomped the slush off their shoes. Right at the point itself, someone--O'Neill or the departing laborers before him--had punched a hole through the shed roof. Climbing out, the businessmen could see the lodge at Scenic Hot Springs, eight hundred feet below. The right of way for the telegraph cut a straight path through the trees uphill from the lodge to the snowshed. The slope was too steep to climb down, so the businessmen pulled their coattails up between their legs and tobogganed down on their butts. They could have died a half dozen ways, run into a telegraph pole or tumbled and broken their necks. In a Moms' stories, it's always your neck that gets broken. Either that you your eye gets poked out. Somehow all five made it to the bottom with necks and eyes intact. They ran the last few hundred yards to the lodge and threw themselves through the door--where they found Big Jerry, regaling everyone with tall tales about how he escaped certain doom. Merritt went first to the bar for a stiff drink and then to the telegraph office where he wrote to the others back in the pass: "Arrived safe. Do not come."
Monday, February 28, 1910
The mood among the passengers was decidedly gloomy on Monday. Many had been kept awake by the sound of avalanches in the mountains. One of the passengers, John Rogers, actually saw a small avalanche slide off the old switchbacks behind the railroad employees' cabins. The train was by now almost completely buried; by the mail clerks informal measurement, the snow had been falling at a rate of almost three feet a day. Additional demands for a meeting with O'Neill went unheeded as he was still in Senic. The telegraph lines were down again after operating for only a few hours Sunday evening. The sight of additional small groups of departing laborers left the passengers feeling abandoned and helpless. This feeling was made worse when their patient mother hen, the conductor Joe Pettit, announced he would be hiking out to Scenic in order to organize the supplies being packed in.
Pettit's announcement was the deciding factor for several of the men who had been considering hiking out. At noon, Pettit, six male passengers including Rogers, four Great Northern employees, and one laborer left Wellington. The trail broken by previous groups had been cleared somewhat by rain and melting. The trip, though quite unpleasant, did not take much longer than it would have in dry weather. On reaching Scenic, Pettit telegraphed Wellington to tell the others that it was safe for the able-bodied to follow. The message was not heard in Wellington, because the lines were once more out of commission.
The qualification of able-bodied was important. The remaining passengers were being whittled down to women, children, the old, and three invalids, along with those who felt duty bound to stay with the train. The latter group included three husbands and fathers, the mail clerks, locomotive crews, and Rev. Thompson.
The lodge at Scenic, normally a quaint spa in the mountains, had become the headquarters for the rescue effort. Several trains brought supplies and laborers to the base. After determining what was needed and telegraphing instructions to Everett and reports to the corporate offices in Minnesota, O'Neill put together a work crew and joined Dowling on the last functioning rotary plow, which in three days had only covered a little over six of the eight miles between Senic and Windy point. Pettit organized the parties who would be packing supplies in the next day, bid farewell to the passengers who he had led out and climbed the mountain back to Wellington.
Pettit returned too late in the day to escort a second group out, but his comforting presence and encouraging news about the trail and rescue efforts considerably lightened the mood on the passenger train. A group of men who had declined to join the previous two groups of escapees, decided they would make the hike in the morning. Two middle-aged businessmen went to Bailets Hotel and bought a three day supply of food for the two hour journey. Lilly Lasch, the hair accessories manufacturer, and Nellie Sharp, a divorced, aspiring travel writer, defied the advice of the men and announced that they would joining their group. A different faction was still leery of the trail. This faction, led by Henry White, a salesman from Seattle, typed up a petition, once more demanding a meeting with O'Neill with the intention of forcing him to send fifty fresh laborers up from Scenic with ropes and other equipment to escort them out. While no one in town would make commitments for O'Neill, the trainmaster, Aurthur Blackburn consented to round up as many free laborers as he could to travel with the passengers on Tuesday.
Tuesday, March 1, 1910, 1:42 AM
Sometime after one in the morning, the storm changed character. A lightning storm pushed in from the West and began rattling the mountains. A few people in Wellington were awakened by the first crash of thunder, but most slept on, unaware of this latest change in their situation.
A modern witness to the catastrophe might have recognised one of the great cliches from horror movies and begun the briefest hint of a smile before realizing that the horror was real and all the more awful for that reality. It was a strobe-light disaster that took place in pitch blackness, punctuated by sudden lightning flash illuminations. The only audience to this cinemagraphic production was John Wenzel, one of the few laborers still in Wellington. Wenzel was awake and fully dressed when the lightning storm began. He was standing on the porch of Bailets Hotel nervously watching the storm. He just happened to be looking in the right direction.
Thirty acres of snowy mountainside broke loose and slowly began to slide downhill.
The rumbling mass plucked up a workers shack, the damaged rotary plow, O'Neill's private car, and an electric engine near the coal chute and continued downhill.
The slide reached the passing tracks and enveloped the two trains.
No sign of the trains was to be seen. The moving hillside continued its irresistible slide into the canyon one hundred fifty feet below. All the while, the air was filled with the rumble of snow and boulders and explosive snaps as entire trees were broken off.
Henry White was jolted awake by the sound of the snow hitting the train. It wasn't a crash, but a loud splat. He knew right away that this was the end. He felt the damn shame of it all, that the children on the train, who he had helped entertain, should go in a manner that should have been prevented. Then he had a brief moment to wonder why things were taking so long. The survivors in White's car all describe the sleeper hitting something and splitting open. White's section began to spin and he was thrown clear. He blacked out. When he came to, he was lying on the snow in his nightshirt. He looked up at the sky and thought, this is "just like an old fashioned Minnesota thunderstorm."
Only a handful of men--all men--were either thrown free of buried shallowly enough that they could struggle out. All of them were in some degree of shock, but tried to find and help others. Soon they were joined by men from the town with lanterns and shovels. In the town, the wives of two railroad employees, Alathea Sherlock and Mrs. Bob Miles, took over the bunkhouse and set up a temporary hospital.
As word of the disaster got out, volunteers and supplies, along with reporters and photographers, poured in from Everett, Seattle, and beyond.
There were perhaps one hundred twenty five people on the trains that night. Forty four were passengers on the No. 25. The mail clerks and train crews were all on-board their respective trains. In addition, a large number of other railroad employees and laborers were sleeping on the trains because they thought the trains were in a safer location than the bunkhouse. Ninety-six people were confirmed killed. The dedicated conductor John Pettit died with his charges.
That's the story my Mom told me. She left off the aftermath of inquests, recriminations, and lawsuits. Blame for the disaster was fought in law courts and the court of public opinion for over three years. Mom, especially, left out the details of the dead.
As in any disaster, the survivors and rescuers struggled to make sense out of the seeming senselessness of who lived and who died. Of four families on board, two were completely destroyed. The Becks, mother father and three children, were all killed. Originally from California, the family was giving up a homestead and returning there because they could not handle the Washington winters. George Davis and his three year old daughter, Thelma, both died. They were returning from Spokane where they had just buried Thelma's mother. Elsewhere on the train, the Gray family, John, Anna, and baby Varden, were all safely rescued.
To many observers, the most heartbreaking case was the Starrett family. Ida Starrett's husband, a railroad employee had been killed in a yard accident just before Christmas, leaving her with three children to raise. After settling his estate, her parents had come down from British Columbia to take her home with them. The first of the family to be discovered was her seven year old son, Raymond, who was discovered on the snow with a two foot piece of wood sticking out of his head. The hotel owner W. R. Bailets went into shock at the sight of the boy. In fact, the wood had not pierced his skull and a telegrapher, Basil Sherlock, performed impromptu surgery with a straight razor to remove it. Raymond had a complete recovery. His grandfather, William May, and his sister, Lillian, were both killed. His grandmother, though injured, was rescued. His mother and baby brother, Francis, were missing. They were together, buried deep under the wreckage. Ida Starrett was pinned, face down, with a log on her back and the baby against her stomach. For hours, she faded in and out of consciousness. She felt felt Little Francis' breathing grow weaker and, finally, stop.
In the daylight, the rescue had turned to the grim business of recovering and identifying bodies. Many of them had been torn to shreds by the vast forces of the avalanche. Susan Bailet opened the hotel bar and sent down bottles of whiskey to fortify the men involved in this gruesome job. Even so, it was too much for some. Eleven hours after the disaster, and hours after the last living person had been pulled from the wreckage, Charles Andrews reported hearing a sound, "a mewing far off, like a kitten." Realizing it was a human voice, the men frantically began digging closest to the sound. They found one dead body and then another and still the sound came from deeper down. Finally they found Ida Starrett, pinned under a tree. More time passed while the rescuers worked to cut the log away. Ida Starrett was the last person pulled alive from the canyon.
The Great Northern Railway did everything it could to avoid culpability for the Wellington disaster. They refused even to replace the lost luggage of the survivors fearing it would be taken as an admission of responsibility. They gave the families of killed employees shamelessly small pensions. Pettit's widow and five children received a one time payment of one thousand dollars. However, the railroad was unable to pretend that nothing was wrong with the Stevens Pass route. If for no other reason than that the avalanche was a public relations disaster, the top brass at Great Northern knew they needed to make improvements.
Their first change was purely cosmetic; they changed the name of Wellington to Tye so that name would never appear on Great Northern schedules again. The first concrete improvement they made was to build a larger coal silo at Wellington so that the plows would never be idled waiting for fuel. These were completed before the summer was over. That same summer, they began construction on a series of concrete snow sheds, which would eventually cover sixty percent of the track between Scenic and the pass, and they drilled a short tunnel through Windy Point. It was a temporary solution. In 1925, the railroad began construction on an eight mile tunnel from Scenic to Berne at and altitude of almost a thousand feet lower than the old tunnel. When finished it was one of the longest in the world and hailed as one of the engineering marvels of the day.
The new tunnel signaled the end for most of the place names related to the disaster. The whistlestop towns of Tye and Cascade emptied out and the Great Northern burned the buildings. The lodge at Scenic Hot Springs went out of business because of the disruptions during the construction of the new tunnel. The tracks over the pass were torn up and the iron recycled. Only the snowsheds and the old tunnel remained and these were soon overgrown. Even the name Great Northern eventually disappeared. Through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations its identity faded into what is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
In 1992, Volunteers for Outdoor Washington, began a project to save the old rail line. Today the Iron Goat Trail follows the Great Northern route from near Scenic to the pass and the tunnel. The Washington State Department of Transportation operates an interpretive center in an old caboose at the trailhead. There are signs and photographs all along the trail and parts of the trail are wheelchair accessible. In 2010, commemorative events were held in Everett and Skykomish by local history groups. Thanks to the work of train and outdoor enthusiasts, the Wellington avalanche and its dead will never be forgotten.