THE WHITE DEATH
The Wellington Avalanche and Railroad Disaster
Throughout the night of February 28 and March 1, 1910, one of the most horrific railroad disasters in American history occurred in the Cascade Range of Washington State. It was no surprise that such an event could happen, for the mountains had claimed many lives over the years. The explorers and railroad builders who first came to the region knew that death waited here. As they attempted to conquer the Western mountains, they found that the Cascade Range in Washington was among the greatest challenges they would ever face. They were formidable mountains, shrouded in ice and snow for most of the year, and the steep cliffs and treacherous passes made travel nearly impossible. But they refused to be beaten by nature and the Great Northern Railway, headed by famed railroad magnate James J. Hill, began construction through Stevens Pass in the Cascades in 1891. Workers created a series of switchbacks to carry passengers and freight over the mountain route for several years.
In 1897, work began on the Cascade Tunnel, which would eliminate the switchbacks, reduce the avalanche risk and make the grades much easier to ascend and descend. The two-and-a-half-mile tunnel opened in 1900, although snow slides continued to block the entrances. In addition, the threat of avalanches increased after fire destroyed the timber that provided some protection for the track. But these minor problems were only a prelude to disaster.
But then, 10 years later, an avalanche roared down Windy Mountain near Stevens Pass and swept two Great Northern trains into a ravine, sending 96 victims to their deaths. It was the deadliest snow slide in American history – and one that has left a haunting presence in its wake.
On February 24, 1910, after a snow delay at the east Cascade Mountains town of Leavenworth, two Great Northern trains, the Spokane Local passenger train No. 25 and Fast Mail train No. 27, traveled west through the mountains toward the coast. There were five or six steam and electric engines, fifteen boxcars, passenger cars, and sleepers. The trains had passed through the Cascade Tunnel from the east to the west side of the mountains, when snow and avalanches forced them to stop near Wellington, in King County. Wellington was a small town populated almost entirely with Great Northern railway employees.
The train stopped under the peak of Windy Mountain, above Tye Creek, where they were forced to wait for plows to clear the tracks. Meanwhile, the snow continued, piling up in five- to eight-foot-deep drifts. Four rotary plows – locomotives with rotating blades on the front that cut through snow and blew it aside – that were sent to clear the tracks ran into difficulty. The first hit a stump on February 25, knocking it out of commission. A second plow became stuck and couldn’t refuel on February 27. Snow slides trapped the last two plows. The slides, which were strewn with rocks and timber, had to be cleared by shovel gangs before the plows could go back to work. Unfortunately, Mountain Division supervisor James H. O’Neil had fired the shovelers because of a wage dispute. This left both the rotary crews immobilized while trains No. 25 and No. 27 waited at the siding for six days. When the Wellington telegraph lines went down, cutting off all communication with the outside world, the agitation of the passengers reached its peak.
During the late night of February 28 and early morning hours of March 1, the snow that was falling from the sky turned to rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning. Thunder shook the mountains, stirring loose walls of snow and sending them hurtling down toward the tracks.
Shortly after midnight, Charles Andrews, a Great Northern employee, was walking towards the warmth of one of the Wellington’s bunkhouses when he heard a rumble. He turned toward the sound and saw a horrific sight that he would never forget. He later described what he witnessed: "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.”
The wall of snow, which was ten feet high and a quarter of a mile wide, crashed down the mountainside. The avalanche swept the passenger train and the mail train into a gulch that was more than one hundred and fifty feet deep. Everyone – passengers, mail workers, Great Northern crew members – were all trapped inside. Some were killed instantly, while others suffocated, buried in the mounds of snow. A surviving train conductor sleeping in one of the mail train cars was thrown from the roof to the floor of the car several times as the train rolled down the slope before it disintegrated when the train slammed against a large tree.
Wellington residents and crew members rushed to the crushed trains that lay far below and over the course of the next few hours, they dig out 23 survivors, many with injuries. As news slowly made its way out of the mountains, hundreds of volunteers and Great Northern employees converged on the scene to dig out the victims. The injured were sent to Wenatchee. The bodies of the dead were transported on toboggans down the west side of the Cascades to trains that carried them to Everett and Seattle. The death toll from the avalanche reached 96 people, including 35 passengers, 58 railroad employees sleeping on the trains and three railroad employees who were sleeping in cabins struck by the wall of snow.
An inquest that followed the disaster absolved Great Northern of negligence. Eventually, the courts ruled that the deaths had been caused by an act of God. The immediate cause of the avalanche was the rain and thunder, but the conditions had been set by the earlier forest fire (started by locomotive sparks), which destroyed the shelter that had been provided for the tracks.
It took the Great Northern three weeks to repair the tracks before trains started running again over Stevens Pass. Because the name Wellington became associated with the disaster, the little town was renamed Tye. By 1913, to protect the trains from snow slides, the Great Northern had constructed snow-sheds over the nine miles of tracks between Scenic and Tye. The railroad also built a huge, double-track concrete snow shed in the area of the slide and, in later years, built a second tunnel through Windy Point at the trouble spot, where the slides had occurred. Still, Stevens Pass continued to pose problems for the line. In 1929, Great Northern rerouted its tracks through this troublesome section by constructing an eight-mile-long tunnel through the mountains – the longest railroad tunnel in America – and adding forty miles of tracks.
The old railroad line through Stevens Pass is now the Iron Goat Trail, a hiking trail through the forest with spectacular views of Cascade Mountains scenery. The trail travels past the old snow sheds, the remains of the original tunnel and the frightening ravine where pieces of the wreckage from the two trains still remain.
And if the stories are to be believed, it’s not just twisted pieces of metal and remnants of railroad archaeology that remain at this place; some say the ghosts of the avalanche victims remain behind, as well.
Those who have the chance to visit the site of the Wellington disaster say that one can feel a very tangible history at the spot, despite the fact that everything that once existed as Wellington has long since vanished from the map. This is not an easy place to get to since the site is usually buried in snow from October to July in most years but there are many who come – hikers, history buffs, park rangers and ghost enthusiasts among them. And it’s not just the ghost hunters who believe this place is haunted. Many of the park rangers won’t go to the disaster site – or even into the nearby parking lot – after dark.
The site of the Wellington Avalanche today is only accessible by the Iron Goat Trail but it is a place that many believe is haunted.
Many speak of uncomfortable and sometimes oppressive feelings as they navigate the hiking trail, walk through the old snow shed or brave the midday darkness of the crumbling railroad tunnel. But it’s not just odd feelings and weird cold spots. Many claim they have heard and seen things here that should not exist – perhaps a little of the disaster victims who have remained behind. Inexplicable voices have sometimes been heard, echoing off the stone walls of the tunnel. On other occasions, these voices have even imprinted themselves on recording devices, offering chills to those who play them back later.
Some claim to have seen the victims of the avalanche. They report glimpses of people walking along the tracks near the site of Wellington where no people were walking before – and they say these mysterious figures vanish without explanation, as if they had never been there at all.
Has the sadness and tragedy of this terrible event left an impression on this place? Many who have visited here say that it has as it begs to be remembered as one of America’s worst railroad disasters.
The story of the Wellington Avalanche appears in the book AND HELL FOLLOW WITH IT by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse.