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The Wellington Disaster - America's Worst Avalanche

In late February, 1910, days of endless snow in the High Cascades prevented two trains from traveling further on the "Great Northern Route through Stevens Pass" in the state of Washington.

A passenger train and a mail train were both stopped on the tracks at a Great Northern Railway town called Wellington.  Each was positioned close to the edge of the mountainside. The trains had been stopped on the tracks for days—since February 23rd.

John Rogers, who was aboard one of the trains but had grown weary of its inability to move, left his fellow stranded passengers and walked—through huge amounts of snow—to the nearby town of Scenic.  He described the location of the Great Northern trains:

At Wellington there are three tracks.  On the track nearest the mountainside stood Superintendent O'Neill's private car, two boxcars, the engine and three of the electric motors used to haul trains through the tunnel.  On these cars were the superintendent, train crews and porters.

On the second track from the mountainside stood my train, consisting of engine, baggage car, two coaches, two sleepers and an observation car.

On the third track stood the fast mail, on which were 16 or 18 mail clerks.  About 16 track laborers were also sleeping on the train in the day coaches...  (John Rogers, quoted in a March 4, 1910 article published by the Wenatchee World and referenced in Stevens Pass, by JoAnn Roe, at pages 84-85.)

As the snow continued to fall, Rogers had noticed something ominous:

Sunday we noticed on top of this switchback [of the old route] far above us an enormous cap of snow hanging precariously on the side and clinging to the sparse timber ... That night there was a slide at the east portal which filled a 50-foot gulch ...

The menace of that immense snow cap was a pall on our spirits.  It was the most enormous accumulation of snow ever known in the mountains, according to the hotel keeper.  During all this time it snowed continuously with terrific winds driving the drifts ... Monday night we decided we could wait no longer, and we set out to walk to Skykomish  [a railway town in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest](Rogers, quoted in Wenatchee World's March 4, 1910 article and referenced by Roe at page 85.)

Getting to Scenic was no easy task:

... Scenic Hot Springs was in sight, but first they [the male passengers who had left the stalled train] had to cross a giant slide, larger than the rest.  "To linger meant death.  To proceed did not hold much more," for the mountainside was almost vertical.  The men could not walk; they could only slide down the mountainside, some 2,000 feet, at the speed of a toboggan.  Some were injured, but all made it to Scenic.  (Roe, page 86.)

Falling snow turned into pouring rain on the last day of February. The rain was accompanied by a terrific thunderstorm:

There was an electric storm raging ... Lightning flashes were vivid and a tearing wind was howling down the canyon.  Suddenly there was a dull roar ... (Wenatchee World, March 4, 1910 article, quoted by Roe at page 87.)

Passengers and crew were asleep (or trying to sleep) in the rail carriages when a lightning strike triggered a massive avalanche at about 1:42 am, local time, on March 1st. 

Heavy snow roared down the mountain, tossing the trains off the tracks and sending them into the Tye river valley 150 feet below.  Along the way, the avalanche uprooted huge trees which became part of the wreckage.  

An eyewitness, Charles Andrews, saw what happened.  A Great Northern engineer, he later recalled the horror:

White Death moving down the mountainside above the trains.  Relentlessly it advanced, exploding, roaring, rumbling, grinding, snapping - a crescendo of sound that might have been the crashing of ten thousand freight trains. 

It descended to the ledge where the side tracks lay, picked up cars and equipment as though they were so many snow-draped toys, and swallowing them up, disappeared like a white, broad monster into the ravine below.  (Charles Andrews, a Great Northern engineer, from an interview - in approximately 1960 - with Ruby El Hult.  Quoted by JoAnne Roe in Stevens Pass:  Gateway to Seattle, at page 88.)

Although 96 people died, there were some survivors.  They were so shaken by what they'd experienced, and so distraught by what they had seen, they could hardly speak.  A contemporary account, published two days later in the Omaha Daily Bee, gives us firsthand information:

Forty hours have passed since the thunders of the high Cascades wrote a new story of the danger of winter traveling through the winding mountain passes.  In that time no detailed account has been received of what happened when the Spokane Express was taken from its shelter at the gateway of the Cascade tunnel and buried at the bottom of the canyon.

The only stories of the disaster have come from those who have climbed over the mountain trails.  Several men, on leaving the sights of horror at Wellington and arriving at Scenic, the nearest relief station, were unable to describe what they had seen.  The perils of their descent of the mountain and the cries of the wounded in the wreckage below the track, had made them hysterical.

To add to the difficulties of the situation, the only telegraph wires in from Scenic from the west went down again tonight.  Rescue parties are working desperately to save at least a few of the passengers in the buried coaches.  The day coach and smoker have not been found.  They were smashed as completely as though tons of iron had fallen upon them.  (Omaha Daily Bee, March 3, 1910.)

About two-thirds of the victims were railway men.  Before the disaster, they had valiantly tried to clear the snow so the trains could keep moving. Their story is told by Martin Burwash in Vis Major.

During its first 8 minutes, this video provides more background about the disaster (which remains the worst avalanche in American history).

EDITOR'S NOTE:  The narrator of the clip states that the Wellington avalanche caused America's worst train disaster.  While it is true that the event was the worst avalanche in American history, it was not "the worst" train wreck.  Wellington's casualties were extremely high, but they did not exceed "The Great Train Wreck of 1918."

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5123stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 19, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Feb 21, 2017


Media Credits

Video about the Wellington Avalanche by FistyCuff1.  Online, courtesy FistyCuff via YouTube.

 

To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"The Wellington Disaster - America's Worst Avalanche" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 19, 2013. Oct 18, 2017.
       <https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/The-Wellington-Disaster-America-s-Worst-Avalanche>.
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