The Wellington Avalanche
Remembering the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history.
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What does it take for history to remember a tragedy? Early twentieth-century history is sprinkled with infamous disasters like 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.