The Wellington Avalanche of March 1, 1910, near Stevens Pass is still the deadliest in U.S. history, with 96 lives lost.
The snow swirled day after day, driven by breathtaking wind, and piling in drifts some 20 feet high.
Then it started to rain. Lightning stabbed the darkness, illuminating two trains stuck in snow drifts on the tracks at Wellington, near Stevens Pass. Thunder boomed — and a wall of snow 14 feet high let loose and slammed into the trains, sweeping them 150 feet down into the Tye River gorge.
In all, 96 souls were lost in the Wellington disaster on March 1, 1910. It was the most deadly avalanche in U.S. history. A century later, it still is.
The avalanche forever changed railroading through the high Cascades. Afterward, the Great Northern Railroad — today’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe — built massive concrete snowsheds over the tracks. Eventually, a 7.8-mile-long tunnel was built through the mountains at lower elevation, opening in 1929 and still in use.
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Hulks of the snowsheds, and an earlier, shorter tunnel, can be seen from the Iron Goat Trail, a recreational and historic interpretive hiking trail on the old railroad grade, including the Wellington town site near the base of Windy Mountain. The town was renamed Tye by the railroad, in an attempt to bury bad PR along with the dead.
But forgetting will never be that easy. Preserved in a coroner’s inquest and court records, testimony of survivors tells of what happened that night on the mountain a century ago, and in the harrowing days before the disaster, as passengers grew increasingly uneasy, trapped on the tracks, with snowslides rumbling down the mountain east and west of them.
Snow King’s reputation
No one foresaw this routine trip to Seattle from Spokane would turn deadly, even in a mountain crossing in winter. The 1900s were the era of can-do engineering. And the Great Northern’s Snow King — William Harrington — and his crews running snowplows day and night usually kept the trains on schedule.
Lawyers on their way to argue a case in Olympia, a widower looking for a new start out West, a travel writer on her way to Seattle — they all had their reasons to hop on the train in Spokane, expecting a comfortable trip.
As they climbed aboard, it was already snowing in the mountains.
“I had never seen a storm like this one, on the level snow was 8 to 10 feet, and in places it drifted 15 to 20 feet high. This winter is a hell of a time.”
— Nyke Homonylo, Great Northern Railroad track walker
Harrington dispatched crews to clear the Great Northern’s tracks with rotary snowplows, iron beasts fed coal and water that gnawed into the snow, throwing it with fan-like blades.
After a snow delay at Leavenworth on Feb. 23, that train and an express mail train continued west to Seattle.
Soon Harrington knew he faced no ordinary snowstorm: The wind was piling drifts as fast as crews could clear them. It was snowing a foot an hour. The trains became stuck at Wellington, just west of Stevens Pass, as slides to the east and west made it impossible to go forward or back. Not to worry, Harrington told passengers, as he ordered the trains to a side track to wait out the white melee.
His crews battled the snow more desperately with the snowplows. Laborers attacked the drifts with shovels before most of them — paid 15 cents an hour — gave up and walked off the job.
The passengers waited. One day, two, then three, and four. Five days, six. But never had the men of this mountain railroad known a snow slide to occur in this spot. Surely they would catch a break in the weather soon, and this wait, while a blow to their pride, would end with the storm. But incredibly, instead of abating, the storm was gathering force.
“The coal was running short, and the supply in the bunkers was used up, and what little coal they had was needed to keep the trains warm so the passengers would not suffer from exposure. … “
— John H. Churchill, Great Northern Railroad brakeman
Some of the passengers had already lost patience and walked off the mountain, hiking in their street clothes through deep drifts and sliding hundreds of feet down the mountainside on their rumps. They all made it safely out, but it was a desperation move that the children aboard the train could not possibly attempt, and that many other men and women aboard also thought better of.
On Feb. 26, Harrington’s alarm grew. The storm had changed to rain, falling in sheets of water on all that snow. On the 28th, an electrical storm began to rage, splitting the night just after midnight, March 1, with thunder and lightning.
The passengers were asleep in the train, many crew members joining them, believing it to be the safest place. Others slept in nearby shacks in Wellington.
“At 12:05 I woke up and saw a flash of lightning zigzag across the sky, and saw another, and then there was a loud clap of thunder. The next thing I knew I heard somebody yelling. We got up and climbed down on the bank to where the trains had been knocked by the slide … I saw a man lying on the snow and I went and got him, and put him on my back … and while I started up the hill, another slide hit and knocked me down underneath it, and I lost this man, I was sort of dazed and was underneath the snow some ten or 15 feet. I started to dig and climb out along the side of a tree, and finally got out, and I was in such a dazed condition that I walked down and walked into the river up to my shoulders, when I came to and realized what I had done.”
— William Edward Flannery, Great Northern Railroad telegraph operator
Rescuers dug through the snow to find the wounded, and towed out the dead on sleds. The snow surrendered the last body in July.
Story of trainmen
In an Everett cemetery, seven of the trainmen killed in the Wellington disaster lie buried.
To Martin Burwash, a farmer and feed-mill worker from Burlington, Skagit County, the trainmen of the Great Northern Railroad were workers like him: just ordinary men, used to long days, loud machinery and rough conditions.
He believed their fate — 61 of them died in the avalanche — had been largely overlooked, as attention focused on the 35 passengers killed. He decided to write the workers’ story in a book of self-published historical fiction, “Vis Major.”
So moved was he by the workers’ plight that he also bought a headstone for a crewman in an unmarked grave. It faces east toward Stevens Pass, as do all the other trainmen’s graves at the cemetery.
“I’ve often wondered if they think that was cool,” Burwash said. “Or if it’s, ‘I don’t want to look at that damn place, that is somebody’s idea of a bad joke.’ “
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org