“Give me enough Swedes and whiskey, and I’ll build a railroad to hell.”
James J. Hill, founder and chairman of the Great Northern Railroad James Hill may well have completed his railroad to hell in 1893 when the Great Northern put the final spike in a line over Stevens Pass, a Cascade Mountains route so forbidding that American Indians didn’t have a trail over it.
In the wee hours of March 1, 1910, after a hellish week of trying to clear the railroad tracks of snow, an avalanche at Wellington killed 96 people stranded on two Great Northern trains. It remains the deadliest avalanche in American history.
Four other men were killed by snow slides on Stevens Pass during a seven-day span that has been revisited by author Gary Krist in The White Cascade.
The avalanche, a 10-foot wall of snow one-quarter-mile wide and one-half-mile long, pushed trees and trains 150 feet downhill. It lasted only minutes before ending in eerie, deadly silence, but its consequences echoed for years.
Using newspaper articles, court documents, telegrams and the letters of passengers, Krist tells the story through the lives of the people involved. His account is interwoven with railroad history, union strife, courtroom showdowns and, above all, the losing battle to clear a railroad line buried by a storm that dumped as much as a foot of snow per hour.
At the center of that struggle was 34-year-old James O’Neill, a rugged, hands-on superintendent with a single mission: Keep the trains running on time. His job was made more difficult by the penurious Hill, whose bottom-line financial policies inspired a strike that left the railroad short of workers and coal when those resources could have meant the difference between life and death.
Wellington was a collection of buildings at the western end of the 2 ½-mile Cascade Tunnel, which ushered trains beneath the top of the Cascades. Occupants of Train 25, bound for Everett, Wash., had been stuck for a night at Cascade Tunnel Station, on the east side of the tunnel, before enough snow was cleared to allow the short trip to Wellington. There they would remain, stranded alongside the Great Northern’s “Fast Mail” train from the East.
Hill’s Steven Pass route was considered a marvel of engineering. At Wellington, the tracks rested on a 50-foot ledge notched into a 32-degree slope. Trapped passengers stared fearfully up the mountain as foot after foot of snow accumulated around the skeletons of trees ravaged by a forest fire. The snow was followed by rain, freezing weather and rising temperatures, creating conditions that generated snow slides all along the pass.
Modern experts could probably have predicted the Wellington avalanche. The stranded passengers were worried enough to demand either evacuation by foot or shelter inside the tunnel.
Their requests for a conference with O’Neill were ignored while the superintendent labored without sleep for days trying to clear the tracks. Poorly paid snow shovelers, aware of the danger, walked off the job when O’Neill rejected their demand for more money.
That, along with his refusal to listen to passenger demands and a coal shortage that stalled track-clearing efforts, were the primary arguments made by families who sued the railroad.
Great Northern lost the opening courtroom fight but was vindicated by the Supreme Court, which ruled the disaster “an act of God” and reversed a jury verdict awarding a plaintiff $20,000.
In the end, victims’ families were poorly compensated, getting only $1,000 after signing a waiver releasing Great Northern from further liability. For the family of Joseph Pettit, the conductor on Train 25 who left behind a widow and five children, it wasn’t enough.
Great Northern’s performance didn’t sit well with a public that was already harboring resentment toward powerful railroad conglomerates, especially in the wake of trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.
Meanwhile, competition from automobiles and airplanes were on the way to making “Fast Mail” train an oxymoron. Once the giants of industry, employing nearly 10 percent of all Americans, railroads were headed downhill.
Wellington was renamed Tye by the publicity-savvy Great Northern, and a concrete snow shed was erected at the site of the avalanche. In 1929, the Cascade Tunnel was replaced by a 7.8-mile, $25 million tunnel that took Wellington off the map.
To visit it now, you’ll have to put on hiking boots and set out on the Iron Goat Trail, which follows the route of James J. Hill’s railroad to hell.