White Cascade chronicles a tragic railway disaster

Some of the best disaster books in the non-fiction world tell of little-known events giving the author the sort of virgin territory that’s denied those chroniclers of the Titanic or Pompeii calamities.

In his book White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche Gary Krist tells of a catastrophic winter storm in February and March 1910 that took the lives of about 100 people. This is the first I’d heard of the event despite my having crossed the Cascade Mountains dozens of times on trips to and from Seattle the city most affected by this almost century old drama.

Krist’s gripping account reads like a well-constructed novel fashioned chronologically in the style pioneered by Walter Lord in his A Night to Remember (1956). Krist bases his story of the fateful events on among other sources witnesses’ official statements newspaper reports and the un-mailed letters of a victim of the train wreck. But he cleverly heightens the drama with the backdrop of a young frontier and its recent wild west past the shenanigans of railroad empire building and the apathy of powerful men in dealing with ordinary folks’ lives.

It will never be known for example how many people actually died in this tragedy because the Great Northern Railway didn’t bother to pay much attention to the identities of passengers or front-line employees at the time although the official death toll was settled at 96.

Those lives seemed destined for nothing particularly eventful when on February 22 1910 the conductor on Great Northern (GN) train No. 25 shouted “all aboard” at the Spokane station and the steam engine chugged its way westward toward Stevens Pass and its Seattle destination beyond the mountains.

But it was heading along with GN train 27 into a relentless blizzard unlike anything seen previously by rail veterans. The trains ended up stranded on a track near the village of Wellington where passengers and crew passed the time for six days and nights playing cards staging impromptu entertainment grumbling and writing journal entries. Then when many were sleeping a massive avalanche on March 1 swept the trains off an alpine ridge into the valley below. A few had avoided death by hiking down earlier to safety via a treacherous snow-covered route. Others were just plain lucky and lived to testify at the inquest and a civil trial that followed.

Krist sheds light on some of the corporate indifference with which individuals were regarded in that era but he’s even-handed in the key areas noting that avalanche science was in its infancy and the GN crews were learning as they went along like everybody else. “In retrospect it’s clear that the situation in Wellington should have been handled differently” he writes because there would have been safer places to park the trains such as inside one of the nearby mountain tunnels — “but ‘conditions afterwards’ are unknowable beforehand.” We know much more now and it’s a riveting if sad story.