The Wellington Avalanche

Remembering the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history, which swept two trains off the side of a steep slope in Washington State's Cascade Mountains, killing 96 people.

What does it take for history to remember a tragedy? Early twentieth-century history is sprinkled with infamous disasters like the Iroquois Theatre Fire (1903), the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (1911) and the sinking of the Titanic (1912). Oddly enough, an equally dramatic accident from that same period—one involving the intersection of a half-mile wide avalanche and a pair of passenger trains—has largely been forgotten. In a new book entitled "The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche” (Henry Holt), author Gary Krist revives the memory of the Wellington avalanche, which swept two trains off the side of a steep slope in Washington State's Cascade Mountains, killing 96 people. Failure recently spoke with Krist to get further insight into this mostly forgotten calamity, which at the time, was front-page news nationwide.

What inspired you to write about the Wellington avalanche?
I'm almost embarrassed to say because it was a total fluke. I was researching a different topic—the Duke of Wellington—and the Google result included something about a "Wellington disaster.” I had never heard of it so I clicked on the link and started reading. It turned out to be this incredible story that—except for a couple of privately or regionally published books—had not been written about. 

Can you provide a brief timeline of the events leading up to the avalanche?
The train line in question was an essential link between Seattle and the rest of the country. While the line was instrumental to Seattle's growth the railroad had problems every winter because they get tons and tons of snow in the Cascades.

On Monday, February 21 [1910], the railroad first got word that a snowstorm was coming and that it looked like a particularly bad one. The two trains that were eventually involved in the accident set out from Spokane on Tuesday, February 22. They reached the foot of the mountains in Leavenworth, Washington, late on Tuesday night, and at that point the railroad superintendent, James H. O'Neill [the main character in the story], had to decide whether or not to re-route the trains. O'Neill decided the storm wasn't that bad and released the trains, but before they reached the pass an avalanche blocked the route. So the trains had to stop at Cascade Tunnel Station for a day-and-a-half until the railroad's rotary snowplows cleared the tracks. Then they continued on to Wellington, where they were delayed again because of yet another snowslide. 

Meanwhile, back at Cascade Tunnel Station an avalanche came down and hit the station right where the trains had stood, so if they had remained at Cascade Station the disaster might have happened a few days earlier. The trains were stuck at Wellington for four days—food was running out, coal was running out—and the snow just kept on coming. Over the course of the week the passengers began hearing avalanches in the distance, which heightened the tension on board the trains. The passengers started saying, "If avalanches can happen up the line why can't one occur on this slope that we're sitting under?” 

Finally, on Sunday February 27 one group [of passengers] decided to try and hike out [of the backcountry]—an ordeal in itself. The railroad warned that it was much more dangerous to hike out than to stay put, but some people decided to try and they got out successfully. When the remaining passengers heard they said, "Why don't we all go?” On Monday night everyone except the sick and the old were making plans to hike out. But at 1 a.m. on Tuesday March 1, before they had a chance to leave, the avalanche came and knocked both trains off the mountain.

Were there any survivors? 
There were a total of 120 people on the trains when the avalanche hit and 96 of them died. The way the avalanche came down a couple of the railcars were thrown on top of the avalanche rather than being buried. The people in those cars had a better chance of survival.

Were there any notable human-interest stories? 
There are a couple interesting stories, one of which illustrates the vagaries of fate. There was one woman, Nellie Sharp [a.k.a. Nellie G. McGirl], who had just divorced her husband and decided she wanted to be a travel writer. Sharp and a friend decided to do a travel article on the lingering traces of the Wild West; one of them would go east [from Spokane] into Montana and cover the cowboys, and the other would go west to Seattle to cover the lumber industry and fishermen. They drew straws with the one drawing the long straw getting to choose which assignment she wanted. Nellie drew the long straw and said, "I'm going to go west where it's warmer.” Because of that twist of fate she was on the train and died in the avalanche.

And to give you an idea of the chaos that reigned after the accident, nobody really knew who was on the trains because at that time railroads didn't keep official lists of passengers. There was one body that had been identified by twelve different people as Joseph Benier, who was a lumber worker. Benier showed up at the funeral home and said, "My friends say that you have me dead downstairs. I want to say that I am the livest man in town.” And sure enough it was somebody else; they had made a mistake.

The most poignant story was that of Joseph Pettit. Everyone loved conductor Pettit; he did everything he could to make the passengers comfortable. He was among those that hiked out with some of the passengers two days before the avalanche hit—not to ensure his own safety, but because he wanted to ensure that supplies were going to be delivered to the trains. He told the passengers, "I'm not abandoning you; I am going down to arrange for supplies to be packed in and I am going to come back.” 

After hiking out no one would have criticized him if he said, "I'll arrange for supplies to go up, but I've done my part.” Instead he felt a real obligation to his passengers and trudged back up the mountain. So he was on the train that night and died in the avalanche, leaving behind a widow and five children. He's the classic self-denying hero. 

Did you visit the scene of the accident in the course of your research? 
I went out to Seattle two or three times a year during the three-and-a-half years I was researching the book and visited the accident site in both winter and summer. The old train line is now a hiking trail and there are explanatory plaques in a few places—including the spot where the avalanche occurred—so it has been made it into a kind of destination. One winter I was hiking the trail and thought to myself, "I'm writing about an avalanche and this is an avalanche zone—what am I doing here?”

To what extent did hubris play a role in the disaster? 
Visiting the accident site in winter I couldn't believe that anyone ever thought a rail line could go through that area because it's so rugged and snowy. The way I put it in the book is that the railroad's technological reach had exceeded its technological grasp. They had the technology to get trains through but didn't have the technology to get them through safely. There's a tendency—particularly in American big business—to do things A.S.A.P. and to worry about the details later. That's definitely how this rail line was built. 

There was also an issue with [Great Northern Railway owner] James J. Hill, who was one of these Gilded Age warriors who was rabidly anti-labor. He said, "I own this railroad so I say what people get paid and I say what conditions they work under.” There was also a switchman's strike going on at the time so the railroad was operating short-handed, which may have played a role.

What changes did the Great Northern Railroad make to the line after the disaster?
Afterwards the railroad had a huge image problem and had to do a lot of damage control. It spent a huge amount of money building snowsheds over the tracks. At Wellington, where the accident happened, one can still see the remains of a huge concrete snowshed that runs for a half mile. The concrete shed was fabulously expensive, but the railroad had to build it to earn back the trust of passengers and shippers. 

Eventually the railroad put almost the whole Cascade crossing under one kind of snowshed protection or another, but no matter what, there were still avalanche problems. Six years later, in 1916, a dozen or so people died when a train got hit. 

Finally, the railroad constructed a tunnel much lower down on the mountain that bypassed most of the avalanche terrain. At the time it was the third longest railway tunnel in the world, second only to a couple of tunnels in Switzerland. That [eight-mile] tunnel is still in use today. 

The railroad also changed the name of the town of Wellington to Tye, which is the name of a creek that runs past the town. That way when people looked at the Great Northern schedule they would think, "Gee, the line doesn't run through Wellington anymore.” Of course, it was the same place, just a different name. 

There were also efforts to keep the official death toll under 100 because the railroad did not want it to be the deadliest railway accident in American history. I found no specific evidence but there were so many undocumented foreign workers involved that it would have been easy to conveniently overlook a few bodies.

What impact did this incident have on future railroad safety? 
One real problem leading up to this incident concerned communications. The railroad had been relying heavily on telegraphs to report weather and the position of its trains. As a result of this accident, there was a push towards making better use of wireless communications.

The U.S. Post Office Department also made it a rule that all railroad cars carrying mail would have to be metal rather than wood. That's because ten of 11 mail clerks perished. 

And while this wasn't a watershed case it was part of the movement toward making companies aware that they had certain responsibilities in regards to safety. It was one more accident that pushed in the direction of holding corporate America responsible for negligence. 

Was the railroad held liable for the disaster? 
The railroad was held liable by a jury. The verdict was later appealed and the [Washington State] Supreme Court overturned the ruling, saying that negligence was not in the evidence presented. The jury finding was a reflection of the anti-railroad sentiment that existed in the early twentieth century. 

Are snowslides still an issue for trains running through the Cascades today?
Today trains run through that eight-mile tunnel and pass through much lower on the mountain, so the tracks are not on steep, precipitous terrain. Also, we understand avalanches much better today and there is an active avalanche control program. When a particular slope is near sliding they take World War II-era howitzers and fire explosive charges at the slope, deliberately causing an avalanche. Then they use dump trucks and earth moving equipment to clean up the debris. Basically they force avalanches to happen when they want them to happen—when they are prepared for them and when there will be nobody in their path. 

What makes the Wellington avalanche unique in the annals of disaster history?
Trains are something we normally associate with civilization and industry, whereas avalanches are exotic and associated with wilderness. To have an avalanche hit a train and knock it off the side of a mountain brings together two worlds that we don't normally associate with each other. 

Also, avalanches typically happen far away from any population center. If an avalanche kills anyone it will usually victimize just one or two skiers, who probably caused the avalanche in the first place. You don't get many avalanches that inflict a large number of casualties.

Other railroad disasters:
The Angola Horror
The Tay Bridge Disaster