February 28, 2010 in Features

100 years ago avalanche wreaked havoc in the Cascades

Massive snowslides first stopped, then swept away a train originating from Spokane, killing 96 people and becoming the worst avalanche disaster in U.S. history
By The Spokesman-Review
 
File Associated Press photo

In 1910, a destroyed train and other debris from an avalanche rocked the railroad town of Wellington, Wash., the scene of the worst avalanche disaster in U.S. history, when two passenger trains were swept away and nearly 100 people were killed.
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To learn more, read Gary Krist’s definitive account in his 2007 book, “The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche” (Henry Holt and Company, $15, paperback).

More local history

In the newspaper:

Watch for a new column beginning Monday on the Northwest page, Jim Kershner’s This Day In History. Each day, we’ll take a look at what was making news in Spokane 100 years and/or 50 years ago.

On the Web:

Check out our new Local History page

On Feb. 28, 1910, exactly 100 years ago, a group of desperate Great Northern train passengers – many from Spokane – signed the following petition addressed to the railroad superintendent:

“We the undersigned passengers on train No. 25, after waiting here six days, and believing it will be impossible to move this train for many days, request that you meet us here, on train tonight, (so that a means may be found) by which the passengers can make their way over to Skykomish …”

The passengers were terrified, claustrophobic and out of patience. Their train was trapped on a passing track at Wellington, Wash., just beyond Stevens Pass at the crest of the Cascades.

Repeated, massive snowslides had swept over the tracks in front of them, blocking the way to Everett. Other slides had come down behind them, blocking the way back to Leavenworth.

The railroad’s huge rotary snowplows couldn’t keep up. As soon as one length of track was cleared, another slide would come billowing down.

For most of those six days, the passengers had been nervously peering out the windows at the steep, white slope above them, thinking the same chilling thought: What’s to prevent this slope, right here, from giving way?

It had already been a nightmarish week in the Cascades – and throughout the Inland Northwest.

Snow kept falling by the foot. Avalanches had already killed several people in Mace, Idaho, near Wallace. In the lowlands, rain was causing floods in Colfax, Pullman, Garfield and throughout the Palouse.

Those disasters were bad enough, yet the plight of Great Northern train No. 25 was very much on the minds of Spokane citizens.

The train, called the Seattle Express, had originated in Spokane and the majority of its passengers had boarded at the Spokane depot. Among its passengers were two prominent Spokane lawyers, Lewis C. Jesseph and John Merritt, on their way to Olympia to argue opposing sides in a state Supreme Court case.

Also on board were a young Sacred Heart Hospital nurse, Catherine O’Reilly; a retired bank executive, Charles S. Eltinge; and a former Spokane prosecutor, R.M. Barnhart. A Spokane widow, Ida Starrett, was on the train with her three young children.

The increasingly agitated passengers had engaged in impassioned debates over whether the train should be moved back into the nearby Cascade Tunnel. Railroad officials ultimately decided that the tunnel would be an even worse place to be trapped: poorly ventilated, cold and dark.

Then, just after 1 a.m. on March 1, nature blasted Wellington with one more unexpected, terrifying event: a thunder-cracking electrical storm.

One train engineer remembered hearing a sharp blast of thunder, followed immediately by a deep, ominous rumbling sound.

The snowpack above the stranded train had broken free. Tons of snow were headed straight downhill, picking up speed.

Some of the sleepers on the train never knew what hit them. The wall of snow smacked directly into No. 25, and into another stranded mail train. Both were swept off the track and tumbled into a creek ravine far below.

Many passengers died when they were pinballed around the train cars’ interiors. Others survived the wild ride down into the ravine, only to die slowly of suffocation in the snow-buried cars.

It took days, even weeks, for rescuers to burrow through the snow and find all of the victims.

The final tally: 96 people dead.

It remains, to this day, the worst avalanche disaster in U.S. history – yet even in the Northwest, plenty of people have never heard the story.

Gary Krist, a Maryland author, was one of the people who knew nothing about it until he stumbled upon it several years ago while doing research on another book.

“I said, ‘My God, how have I never heard of this?’ ” he said. “I felt this was a story that was in danger of disappearing.”

So Krist took it on as his next nonfiction book project, “The White Cascade,” published to glowing national reviews in 2007. Many of the details in today’s story are taken from his gripping and definitive book.

According to Krist’s account, 125 people had been sleeping on those two trains that night. It was a miracle that any survived.

Starrett, the young widow, was wide awake as she rode the rolling train car down into the ravine. She was thrown out of the mangled car, knocked out and woke up buried facedown in snow, with a huge weight on her back preventing her from moving.

She realized to her horror that her infant son Francis was trapped beneath her abdomen. She could feel him breathing – and was heartbreakingly aware of the exact moment when his breathing stopped.

One rescuer later reported that he heard a “mewing far off, like a kitten” from somewhere underneath the snow and wreckage. It was Starrett, in grief and crying for help.

After rescuers dug furiously for hours, they were able to uncover her face. They had to saw away the tree trunk that had fallen on top of her and finally pulled her out, the last person to be pulled out of the wreckage alive.

Starrett soon learned that another child, Lillian, was also dead. Her grief was somewhat assuaged by the discovery that her third child, Raymond, age 7, had been found alive.

When rescuers found him, they despaired because a 30-inch long splinter of wood was jammed through his forehead. Yet a heroic rescuer took him into the Wellington hotel and performed amateur surgery. Raymond survived, with no ill effects except a scar.

The young nurse, O’Reilly, was not so lucky. She died immediately, her body mangled. Eltinge and Barnhart were also found dead in the wreckage.

The two Spokane lawyers, Jesseph and Merritt? They weren’t there at all.

Two days earlier, they had come to the conclusion that it might be weeks before the train could leave. So they organized an “escape party,” a group of men who decided to hike down the tracks to safety.

They knew how treacherous it would be, and some of the women on the train begged them not to try it. But they concluded it was better than doing nothing.

Once they got started, the snow began blowing sideways. Several times they sank into snow up to their armpits.

After four hours, they could see the lights of the Scenic Hot Springs Hotel, 1,000 feet below them. They started to slide down a steep slope, lost their balance and began to tumble.

Fortunately the deep snow had covered up most of the obstacles. The men rolled to a stop at the bottom, where they took celebratory slugs of whiskey from Merritt’s hip flask and walked into the hotel.

Shaken, they sent a telegram to their fellow passengers which read, “Arrived safe. Don’t come.” It never arrived because of downed lines.

The two lawyers learned the fate of the other passengers 36 hours later, at the same time as the rest of the world.

The news shook the country and ultimately resulted in some changes. The Great Northern built many more snowsheds on its Cascade crossing, protecting the tracks and providing more places for trains to shelter.

Finally, in 1929, the railroad opened its seven-mile-long New Cascade Tunnel, which burrowed deep under Wellington and avoided almost all of the worst terrain.

“The disaster also helped to recast the whole balance of power between the people, the railroads and the government,” said Krist. “There was a growing modern sensibility that there was something called ‘corporate responsibility.’ ”

Today, the old tracks have been turned into a hiking and biking trail, the Iron Goat Trail. A sign commemorates the spot where the avalanche occurred – but it’s not called Wellington.

Not long after the disaster, the railroad renamed the spot Tye, a name without so many painful memories. Now, little of Tye is left either. It was dismantled after the new tunnel was built.

The trauma for the Inland Northwest was compounded when news arrived the same day – March 1, 1910 – that five huge avalanches had hit the mining camps at Mace, Burke and Carbonate Hill in North Idaho. At least 23 people died in those slides.

Only the biggest avalanche disaster in American history could dwarf that.


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