Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Overhyped disasters

Yesterday they fired up the Large Hadron Collider. Being crushed into a black hole isn't as bad as I expected. Then again, neither is living in a Communist, health care dictatorship.

Yay me!

I seem to have missed my own blogiversary. Archy turned seven last week.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Don't touch the Howling Pig

I just submitted the trademark application for Clever Wife's soap business.


PS - I drew the pig.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Still waiting

It's been almost four days now and the Death Panels still haven't come for me. I should have known those government bureaucrats would mess this up. If we had turned this over to the private sector, like the Republicans said we should, I'd be a nice package of Soylent Green by now. But noooo, the Obamacommienazis had to turn it over to the biggest government take over in the history of the universe. I guess I should stop putting it off and go do the dishes.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Violent escalation

My friend David Neiwert has been warning us for years that this was coming. Tea Party activists appear to have attempted to murder a member of congress.

Words have consequences. For almost twenty years, the rhetoric of the far right has been getting more violent and eliminationist. Eliminationism is a particular form of rhetoric that not only dehumanizes the oppositon, but that portrays them as a threat to the audience's very life--a threat that must be eliminated if they are to survive. It takes us-and-them rhetoric and cranks it up to eleven: only one of us can live. The most common imagery in this style of rhetoric is painting the opposition as a disease or as vermin. Of course, a few comments of this kind will show up in any heated debate, but when it is a steady drumbeat, day after day, it amounts to nothing less than inciting a mob to massacre the other side. Stalin used it to prepare the countryside for his dekulakization massacres, Hitler to go after Jews and Communists, Radio Rwanda scced the Hutu on the Tutsi, and Milososovic's allies used it start the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia. Death panels, baby killers, end of America, treason, armed rebellion, secession. At one time, no office holding politicial would be seen near such talk; now it the--the Republicans--who are doing the talking.

The Virginia Tea Partiers really, really hate Rep. Tom Perriello. In November the Danville TEA Party planned to hold an event where they would burn Perriello and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in effigy. The event was eventually called off when the farmer, whose land they were going to use, backed out. Yesterday, Sarah Palin today tweeted: "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!' Pls see my Facebook page." Her Facebook page showed a map with the districts of twenty Democratic House members marked with crosshairs. Perriello was one of them.

On Monday, Mike Troxel, an organizer for the Lynchburg Tea Party, published what he thought was Perriello's home address with the message, "I personally believe it’s so important for representatives to remain fully grounded and to remember exactly what it is their constituents are saying and how they are telling them to vote. Nothing quite does that like a good face-to-face chat. It has a much more personal touch to it." In fact, Troxel the address published does not belong to Perriello; it belongs to Perriello's brother, Bo, who lives there with his wife and four young children. When told of this fact by the online magazine Politico, Troxel said he would leave the address up until the congressman's office proded him with Perriello's real home address. Troxel also ignored a direct request fromy Perriello's office to take down the address.

Nigel Coleman, the Danville Tea Party Leader who wanted to burn Perriello in effigy last fall, copied the address from Troxel's blog and posted it on his Facebook page with the message, "This is Rep. Thomas Stuart Price Perriello’s home address ... I ain’t holding back anymore!!" When notified by a local paper that, like Troxel, he had put up the wrong address and was actually sending people to the home of Perriello's brother, Coleman shrugged it off. "Do you mean I posted his brother’s address on my Facebook?" Coleman wrote. "Oh well, collateral damage."

Damage is what it almost was. Yesterday, Bo Perriello recieved a threatening letter. In the evening he smelled gas and discovered that the line to a propane tank on his patio had been slashed. FBI, local police, and fire marshalls are investigating the incident as a possible threat on a member of congress. Coleman's cavalier attitude towards collateral damage has dissolved. He is "shocked" and "almost speechless," he "obviously condemn[s] these actions." Naturally, he also denies any responsibility, "we don’t know this is a related event."

Democratic congress members arriving for the healthcare vote walked a gauntlet of angry Tea Partiers. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) was spat on by a protestor. John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights icon, was called a "ni--er." A small crowd began chanting "fa--t" at Barney Frank (D-MA). Now that intimidation has failed, they are moving on to unveiled threats and actual vilolence. Over the weekend, at least five Democrtaic offices were vandalized. Louise Slaughter's office received a phone message threatening to assasinate the children of lawmakers who voted for the bill. At least ten members of congress have requested extra security. The Virginia police have stepped up patrols in Bo Perriello's neighborhood.

Like Nigel Coleman, the Tea Party leaders, talk radio, and Fox News pundits will all express horror at near tragedy with the Perriellos. They will say the attempted arsonist was a lone crazy who has no connection to them. They will deny that their words have consequences. And, when they are done with their pious denials, they will manage to slip in that, anyway, it's all Perriello and the Democrats' faults for making us mad. Then they will go on demonizing their fellow Americans and priming the pump for the next violent attack.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I've been interviewed!

The tireless Bora Živcović, AKA Coturnix of A Blog Around the Clock, one of the founders of the Science Online conferences, editor of the first Open Laboratory anthology, etc., has interviewed me as part of a series of interviews of participants in ScienceOnline2010. Like the conference, the subject of the interview is science communication. Bora will be putting these interviews up all year. Most of the interviewees are bloggers, many teach, and a few are paid science journalists. It's a very interesting crowd.

I won a t-shirt!

At long last my vast knowledge of mammoth stuff is paying off. If you ever wanted to know more about mammoth molars--and who wouldn't want to more about mammoth molars--this is you chance to learn it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mammoths, floods, and whatnot

Construction workers drilling holes for a new overpass on I-5 near Ridgefield, Washington brought up pieces of mammoth ivory this January. Brad Clark, a Washington Transportation Department inspector, collected the pieces that, when reassembled, formed about four feet of the tip of a mammoth tusk. Mammoth ivory in Washington is nowhere near as common as in Alaska or northern Siberia, but it is not rare either. For that reason, the construction is going ahead without any attempt being made to see if there are more remains to be found. Even without digging up the rest of the remains, this tusk makes a departure point for for some nice educational stories.

The tusk.

The mammoth in question is almost certainly a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) and not a woolly mammoth (M. primigenius). Columbian mammoths evolved earlier than woollies and emigrated to North America sooner. The simple version of their family tree shows them both as descendants of a common ancestor, the southern mammoth (M. meridionalis), which spread across Eurasia about four million years ago. One group of these mammoths, usually called the imperial mammoth (M. imperator) crossed into North America via the Bering land bridge at the beginning of the ice ages (c. 1.9 mya). The Columbians evolved from the imperials*. Back in Eurasia, the woollies evolved from the main group of southern mammoths. About 500,000 years ago, the woollies emigrated into North America. Both kinds of mammoths went extinct around the same time.

In North America, the two types of mammoths lived in different ecological zones and physical regions. The woollies stayed in northern grasslands close to the ice cap and the Columbians lived in a variety of different zones from the edge of the tundra all the way down to the edge of the tropical rainforests in Central America. So far, no woollies have been found west of the Rocky Mountains. The Ridgefield fragments have been sent to the Burke Museum here in Seattle, where Bax Barton will make a final identification of the species. Some mastodons have been found in the Pacific Northwest, so it is possible that the ivory is not from a mammoth at all. What would be frustrating would be if the ivory turns out to belong to a woolly. That would make the find important enough to warrant further investigation, but an administrative nightmare since the decision has already been made to continue working on the highway, which is the main north-south artery on the West Coast.

It is unlikely that this mammoth has any great scientific significance. However, if we could know its personal history, we would see that the mammoth's last hours witnessed to one of the most dramatic moments in northwestern geological history. The Oregonian article mentions it rather simply at the end of the article, "The tusk was buried about 30 feet deep in sediments piled up during the Missoula floods." I've written about these floods before.

During the last ice age, two ice sheets covered what is now Canada and extended into what is now the United States. The larger sheet, the Laurentian, was centered on Hudson Bay and, at its peak, extended almost to the Ohio River. The smaller ice sheet was a collection of mountain glaciers that grew together to form a single sheet. Geologists call this the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. It only extended to the US/Canada border region. At the end of the ice age, when the Laurentian and Fennoscanian (European) ice sheets began to melt, the changed global weather patterns caused the Cordilleran sheet to lurch south for a couple thousand years befor it too melted. Eastern Washington was just as conservative then as it is now. The local mammoths cited this change as proof that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by elitist ground sloths.

The western part of Montana, between the Continental Divide on the crest of the Rockies and the Idaho state line on the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains--an area about the size of West Virginia--is drained by the Clark Fork River. Unlike most rivers in the United States, the Clark Fork flows north. It loops across the Idaho panhandle near the Canadian border and joins the Columbia River in the extreme northeastern corner of Washington. When the Cordilleran Ice Sheet lurched southward, a branch of the ice sheet called the Purcell Lobe pushed into Idaho near the location of the present day town of Sandpoint and blocked the Clark Fork. Behind the Purcell Lobe all of the drainage of the Clark Fork was damned up, eventually forming a Great Lake sized body of water we call Glacial Lake Missoula. When the lake was full, the future location of the town of Missoula was beneath a thousand feet of water.

Because ice is lighter than water, an ice dam needs to be about ten percent higher than the water behind it in order to be stable. If the water gets higher than that, it essentially floats the dam off its foundation. That happened to Glacial Lake Missoula when the water was almost two thousand feet deep at the dam. The collapse of the dam was catastophically sudden. The lake pressed against the base of the dam with a pressure of nine hundred pounds per square inch. It took no more than a crack for the lake to get under the dam and tear it to shreds. The collapse only took a few hours.

Five hundred cubic miles of water flooded across Eastern Washington tearing up everything in its way. Hundreds of square miles of top soils were scoured down to bedrock. Grass, trees, and animals were carried away. At the Wallula Gap, a narrows where the Columbia River becomes the border between Washington and Oregon, the entire flood was forced into the channel of the river. In the Columbia Gorge, where the river carves its way through Cascade mountains, the flood appeared as a brown wall of water, several hundred feet high, traveling fifty an hour, pushing gale force winds ahead of it. For a brief moment,the Columbia carried several times more water than all the rivers in the world combined.

"Age's End" © 2005 Stev H. Ominski.
The flood waters arrive in the Columbia Gorge east of Portland. The viewer is standing on Crown Point looking toward Beacon Rock. This is one of an ongoing series of paintings by Ominski.

At narrow spots in the river the flood waters backed up forming temporary lakes. Geologists call the lake behind the Wallula Gap Lake Lewis, after Mr. Clark's travelling companion. Another lake formed over the present day locations of Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. The water that blasted through the Columbia Gorge spread out over the basin where the two cities now sit. About thirty miles below Portland, the river narrows again near a tiny town called Kalama. The Kalama Gap is no where near as impressive as the Columbia Gorge or the Wallula Gap, but it was sufficient to force the flood waters to back up and form a lake. Lake Allison, named after the geologist who mapped it, was about four hundred feet deep over downtown Portland and filled the Willamette River valley a hundred miles southward to the outskirts of Eugene. Fans of the University of Oregon fighting Ducks will be happy to know that Corvallis, home of their arch-rivals, the Oregon State Beavers, was underwater.

Lake Allison and Ridgefield, WA. Source.

As the water pooled behind the Kalama Gap, some of the vast amount of debris that it carried began to settle. The topsoil of Eastern Washington filled the Willamette valley to produce fertile farmland. Melting bergs from the ice dam deposited rocks that had been encased in the ice. A large meteorite was dropped near West Linn. A mammoth settled to the bottom near Ridgefield.

Until the radiocarbon dates are back, it will be hard to say exactly when the mammoth met its doom. The problem is, there was more than one Lake Missoula flood. After the first flood, the Purcell Lobe glacier surged forward, once again damming the Clark Fork, forming a new Lake Missoula, that, about fifty years later, breached the dam. This process was repeated as many as forty times over a 2500 year period. As the ice age ended and the glaciers got smaller, each ice dam was lower than the one before and the flood, consequently, smaller than the one before. However, since the Ridgefield mammoth was found only a few feet above the current level of the Columbia River, it could have been deposited by any of the floods.

It's equally hard to say where the mammoth came from. It could have been grazing right under the dam in Idaho when the flood waters caught it. It could have been caught somewhere in Eastern Washington or along the Columbia Gorge. It might have been in the Willamette Valley and been carried to Ridgefield as the waters of lake Allison drained. Or it might have drowned and settled to earth on the same spot.

Was anyone there to see the floods and this mammoth's last days? The answer is a firm "maybe." From organic debris in the sediments laid down, the Lake Missoula floods have been dated to have happened from 15,000-13,000 years ago. Until recently, archaeologists had no undisputed evidence of people in North America before the Clovis culture that began around 13,000 years ago. The Clovis people are believed to have traveled down the center of the continent between the Laurentian and Cordilleran Ice Sheets. This would have put them in Colorado around the same time as the last floods. A fine collection of Clovis tools was discovered in Eastern Washington in 1987, proving they did make it into the Northwest, but neither that site nor the last flood have been dated exactly enough to indicate whether this group was around to witness the floods.

During the 2002, '03, and '04 excavation seasons a group of paleontologists and anthropologists recovered human coprolites (also known as old poop) from the Paisley Caves in south central Oregon. Radiocarbon dating placed the oldest of the coprolites at 14,300 years old and the youngest at 13,000. The dates make it possible for the poopers to have witnessed any of about thirty floods. The Paisley Caves are two hundred miles south of the Columbia River, so it is also possible that the poopers never made it that far north. So far, no human remains or artifacts have been found in the flood deposits. For now, whether or not there were human witnesses to the floods is an open question.

The poop. Source.

Finally, did the floods have anything to do with the extinction of the mammoths and other Quaternary megafauna? On this we can be more definite. No. The last floods happened a good thousand years before the generally accepted date for the North American extinctions. Most disputes about the extinction date put it more recently, not further back.

Columbian mammoths as visualized by the Czech illustrator Zdenek Burian.

One last educational note. It's only appropriate that the Ridgefield mammoth ended up on the Washington side of the river. The Columbian mammoth is the official state fossil of Washington. Over in Oregon, it is the dawn redwood (Metasequoia). Nebraska also claims the Columbian mammoth, but they claim all types of mammoths. If they can't settle on one type of mammoth, I'm not sure they deserve a state fossil at all.

* Not to be confused with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Little Anthony & The Imperials.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Wellington Avalanche, 1910

One hundred years ago, 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. We depend on it. The ski resorts need 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. But the late February storms of 1910 were something different.

Though the name was not yet in use nor the pattern discerned, the winter of 1909-10 was a la Niña winter. La Niña weather begins when cooler than usual surface water appears in the equitorial 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 plagued the railroads on an almost weekly basis from the beginning of November. A strike in the Great Northern Railway's switch yards added to the stress 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 a catastrophic avalanche.

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, she never had much time to read for herself. One rare time, during my childhood, that she did read a book just for pleasure, she managed to fit it into her version of good mothering by retelling the story to me.

The book was Northwest Disaster: Avalanche and Fire by Ruby El Hult. One of the other Moms read it first and the book was being passed around the neighborhood in the fall of 1963. 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 about 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. I suppose bedtime stories like this helped turn me into the person I am today.

You had your bedtime stories. I had mine.

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 Railway. 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 choices 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 shuttle both trains onto a competitor railroad's track in order to cross on a pass further south. 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.

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 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 near its end. Two trains had just made their way up the west side, 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. 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 the pass without incident. There, 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. 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 the blockage until the two trains were already at the top of Stevens Pass.

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. Stevens quickly discovered that 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 mountains, 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 and Cascade--became 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, but 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 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 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'Neil's optimism 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 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 stick them in place. A crew of shovelers had to unstick the work train so that the next part could be moved into place. This operation had to be repeated for coal and water. An operation that should have take less than an hour took the entire night. At the same time, the stalled trains at Cascade had been sitting in the falling snow for a full day and needed to be dug out. The double rotary on the east side of the mountains, supervised by William Harrington, had to be brought through the tunnel to repeat the fueling operation. That took up more hours.

Even without new snow or slides the tracks needed constant clearing. Snow that fell onto the tracks from slumping walls was enough to stop a train that was not equipped with a plow. This picture was was taken one week after the avalanche when the had melted and compacted some.

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. The task was completed after dark that evening. By then, 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 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, then 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 the railroad, 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 away, on the other side of town, were four more spurs. On the mountain side of the mainline was a track that led up hill to stop runaway trains. Next downhill 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.

Wellington, 1909. The tall building at the center is Bailets Hotel. The mouth of the tunnel is just off the right side of the picture. The train is crossing the junction of the main tracks, the fueling spur, and the passing tracks.

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 they would have to recall the plows to clear it and that it would be a full day's to to do it. 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, many of the railroad workers moved onto the trains, judging their 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. The damaged plow was pushed up to the end of the fueling track. 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 it 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 to the coal. On the east side of the mountain, O'Neill believed there were three cars of coal sitting on a siding at Merritt, a station a dozen mile 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 Railway 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 leaving.

Feeling trapped and needing to do something, the men of the train had begun looking for someone with more power than the conductor, Pettit, to give 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.

A rotary plow at the Wellington coal chute. This state of the art piece of equipment could cut through snow up to thirteen feet deep, but used enormous amounts of fuel. Besides the boiler that powered the rotary blades, the plow needed at least one locomotive to push it. In snow deeper than thirteen feet, the plow depended on a crew of shovelers. The shovelers were also needed to remover rocks, branches and other rubble from avalanche snow. Some of the avalanches that trapped the two trains at Wellington in 1910 were as much as thirty five feet deep.

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 measures 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.

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.

Even before the first hymn was sung, O'Neill 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 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 the 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 later, 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 to 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. They would have entered the dark hole and stomped the slush off their shoes. Right at the point, someone--O'Neill or the departing laborers--had punched a hole in the roof. Climbing out, they could see the lodge at Scenic Hot Springs, eight hundred feet below. The right of way for the telegraph cut a path through the trees straight uphill from the lodge to the snowshed. The slope was too steep to climb down, so they pulled their coattails up between their legs and tobogganed down on their butts. They could have died a half dozen ways, run into a tree or tumbled and broken their necks. In Mom tellings, 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 had a drink and and headed straight to the telegraph office where he wrote to the others "Arrived safe. Do not come."

The lodge at Scenic Hot Springs, directly below Windy Point. Trains from Everett were able to reach Scenic with very little trouble. From there, the tracks left the bottom of Tye canyon and climbed over a thousand feet up the canyon wall to Wellington.

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 employees' cabins. The train was 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. 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 them 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 never made it, 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 bringing supplies and laborers. 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. 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 to escort a second group out, but his comforting presence and encouraging news about the trail considerably lightened the mood on the passenger train. A group of men who had declined to join the previous two groups of escapees, decided to 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 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, 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 lightening 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 and just happened to be looking in the right direction.


Thirty acres of the mountain broke loose and slowly began slowly to slide.


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 trains.


No sign of the trains was to be seen. The moving hillside continued its irresistible slide into the canyon on hundred and fifty feet below. All the while the air was filled wit the rumble of snow and boulders and the snap of entire trees being broken.

Henry White was jolted awake by the sound of the snow hitting the train, not 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 he had helped entertain should go in 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 killed.

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.

The wreckage and the rescuers. John Juleen, a photographer from Everett, was the first to reach the scene with a camera.

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. 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 were 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.

Wellington after the slide. The avalanche came down off the slope above and behind Bailets Hotel in this picture. The black rubble next to the telegraph pole in the lower right is the remains of a workers' cabin that had been near the coal chute (not visible). It is laying on the passing tracks where the two trains were swept away. Asahel Curtis was a well established photographer in Seattle. He traveled to Wellington on one of the first trains after the tracks were opened and took a series of pictures of the town in the snow on March 10, 1910.


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. The widow and five children of the supremely dedicated conductor, John Pettit, 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 scedules again. The first concrete improvement they made was to build a large 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 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. 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 to the tunnel. The Washington State Department of Transportation operates and 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. Thanks to the work of train and outdoor enthusiasts, the Wellington avalanche and its dead will never be forgotten.

July 12, 1929. Opening the New Cascade Tunnel. James O'Neill is second from the right. He remained with Great Northern, running the Cascade Diivision until his death in 1937.