[3/1/17] 107 Years Ago, On March 1, One Of The State’s Worst Natural Disasters In History Occurred

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And on this first day of March, we look back at one of the worst natural disasters in Washington state history. Today 107 years ago – 1910 – shortly after midnight a peal of thunder dislodged a snow shelf directly above two stalled trains near Wellington, not far from the summit of Stevens Pass. Millions of tons of snow and ice swept locomotives, carriages, and 96 lives down the mountainside. 

The Great Northern Railroad’s westbound Spokane Express left for Seattle February 23, 1910. On February 26, a blizzard caused high snow drifts in the Cascade Mountains that blocked the rail lines.

Both the Spokane Express and a mail train 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, a small town populated almost entirely with Great Northern railway employees, just past the summit of Stevens Pass.

Despite many workers attempting to clear the tracks, the trains were still stuck in Wellington. In total, six steam and electric engines, 15 boxcars, passenger cars, and sleepers. The area’s telegraph lines had come down in the storm, and there was little passengers or train personnel could do but wait out the storm.

The snow continued to fall, sideways even by the violent winds, piling in drifts over 20 feet high. Passengers slept in the train, many crew members joining them, believing it to be the safest place. Others slept in nearby shacks in Wellington.

And then, shortly before midnight, it started to rain. With it came lighting, followed by thunder. Each successive boom rattled the increasingly unstable snow pack on Windy Mountain, until, in a rush and a roar, a wall of snow 14 feet high let loose and slammed into the idled trains, sweeping them 150 feet down into the Tye River gorge. The Wellington station was wiped away, though the town’s hotel and store were untouched.

Charles Andrews, a rail worker and resident of Wellington who witnessed the disaster, described the scene as White Death.

“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.”

Because the telegraph lines were down, the people of Wellington were unable to call for immediate assistance, and it would be 48 hours before help from outside Wellington was able to reach the site.

At the bottom of the gorge, some 50 feet of snow and debris covered the trains. Despite the risk of further avalanches, many pitched in to try to dig out survivors. By March 2, 23 people had been pulled out alive, most with serious injuries. Many of them were taken to Wenatchee.

It took over a week to recover the bodies of all 96 victims of the avalanche, 35 passengers, 58 railroad employees sleeping on the trains, and three railroad workers sleeping in cabins, all enveloped by the avalanche. 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.

It took the Great Northern three weeks to repair the tracks before trains started running again over Stevens Pass. After the disaster, the town’s name was changed to Tye, after the nearby Tye River, because of the negative connotation of the name Wellington.

The immediate cause of the avalanche was the rain and thunder. But, conditions had been set by the clear cutting of timber and by forest fires caused by steam locomotive sparks, which opened up the slopes above the tracks and created an ideal environment for slides to occur.

In 1929, a new tunnel was built, making the old grade obsolete. It’s still used today by the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad.

The old grade is now the Iron Goat Trail, a hike through the forest, along the old path of the Great Northern. A place for people to visit the site of Washington’s most disastrous avalanche, where the long sheds and entrance to the tunnel still stands, and the ghosts of the past remain, frozen in tragedy.