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THE GREAT WELLINGTON TRAIN DISASTER IN THE SKY VALLEY 100 Years Ago March 02, 2010
: Wellington disaster: Bringing the bodies to Wellington, 1910. Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. A. Curtis 17465) CLICK TO ENLARGE
Wellington disaster: entrance to Cascade Tunnel, 1910 . Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. A. Curtis 17477) CLICK TO ENLARGE
Wellington disaster: the remains of the rotary snowplow, 1910. Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. A. Curtis 17467) CLICK TO ENLARGE
Standing amidst the twisted wreckage. CLICK TO ENLARGE
Bringin out bodies for burial. CLICK TO ENLARGE
Bodies on sleds for transport out of the mountains. CLICK TO ENLARGE
Blanket covered bodies. CLICK TO ENLARGE
Townb buildings at Wellington. CLICK TO ENLARGE
Photo shows where Wellington used to be. CLICK TO ENLARGE
Editor's Note: This story originally ran in the Sky Valley Chronicle on March 1, 2010 -- the 100th year anniversary of the Wellington Train Disaster in the Sky Valley
(SKY VALLEY) -- Today marks the 100th year anniversary of one of the worst train disasters in U.S. history and the worst natural disaster (with the greatest number of fatalities) in Washington State history.
And it happened here in the Sky Valley -- up in the east part of the valley past Index and Skykomish and just off to the left of U.S. Highway 2 and back in the woods a ways.
One hundred years ago today some 96 men, women and children lost their lives in a frigid winter in the Cascade mountains in what has become known over the years as the Wellington Train Disaster or alternately just the “Wellington Disaster.”
Death came calling for those 96 folks during the early morning hours (1:42 a.m.) of March 1, 1910 when a massive avalanche of heavy, wet snow, boulders, rocks, trees and mountain scrub brush came roaring down Windy Mountain near Stevens Pass, and taking with it two Great Northern railroad trains full of people.
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED
On February 23, 1910, after a delay due to snow at the then very little town of Leavenworth in eastern Washington, two Great Northern trains - the Spokane Local passenger train No. 25 and Fast Mail train No. 27 – chugged on westbound toward Seattle.
By all accounts, this was a normal, everyday sort of run. There were five or six steam and electric engines, 15 boxcars, passenger cars, and sleepers.
The trains eventually passed through the Cascade Tunnel from the east to the west side of the mountains, when heavy snow and avalanches forced the trains to stop near Wellington, in King County. Wellington was then a tiny mountain town populated almost entirely with Great Northern railway employees.
The trains stopped under the peak of Windy Mountain, just above Tye Creek.
But very heavy snowfall (and avalanches) made it impossible for train crews to clear the tracks with either snow removal machines or men with shovels. As soon as a section of track was cleared of snow, a fresh slide would come down the mountain and cover it again. It was a hard winter in the Cascades and the snowfall was relentless.
For six days those two trains waited in Wellington in blizzard and avalanche conditions unaware that death was waiting above.
SOME HIKED OUT
Nervous over the possibility of a huge avalanche, some passengers told train officials they wanted the train moved into the Cascade Tunnel. But the train supervisor refused the request. The train stayed where it was.
Tired of waiting, a small group of travelers opted to hike out of the mountains despite the danger involved. They fought their way through deep snowdrifts covering three miles of tracks and then followed telegraph wires to Scenic, Washington. A second group had planned to do the same the following day, March 1, 1910. But they never had the chance.
On February 26, the telegraph lines – the only communication with the outside world – went down. Everyone in Wellington was now isolated and on their own in brutal and dangerous winter conditions in treacherous, unforgiving mountain terrain.
One can imagine the passengers and crew trying to make the best of a bad situation. Parents no doubt attempted to keep their children occupied with games and other distractions. Kids blew their breath on windows most likely and played tic-tac-toe and drew funny faces in the thin mist that clung to those windows.
Perhaps there were snowball fights outside the train at times; perhaps kids built snowmen and snow forts. There were likely periods of great joy and laughter in the gorgeous white of a Cascade winter while death ticked off the minutes from high above.
Books were read, stories were told, coffee and food was served. Young women with tiny babies and small children were there. There were men and women from the city and country folk on that train. Old men with grizzled hands and bad backs were there as were young men, tall and strong, whose rough edges had not yet been worn smooth with the many hardships of life.
There were likely churchgoers, bible readers, hymn singers and perhaps sinners of various stripes who hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years.
But that’s the thing when death comes calling. He takes saints and sinners alike. Don’t matter a lick whether one is saint material or common saloon swill, death is an equal opportunity killer.
No one on those two trains likely had a clue they had very little time to live.
Much like this past weekend’s devastating 8.8 magnitude quake in Chile or January’s brutal killer quake in Haiti, events were simply going to unfold in this here universe and on that mountain to their own time, rhythm and manner as they have done since the dawn of the first electron in the primordial soup.
And no amount of praying or conjuring in a church, synagogue or mosque was going to change a thing. There were no preachers, priests, rabbis or mullahs that could have pulled any magic out of a hat. No amount of pleading or deal making with the almighty was going to alter history. It was what it was.
As in the deadly mega blast that was Mt. Saint Helens in 1980 or Mt. Vesuvius so many centuries before, the folks inside that train that were locked in a snowstorm in the Sky Valley’s Cascade Mountains and for sure were headed for a date with fate.
On the last day of February, a “Pineapple express” warm, wet weather front moved in and the weather turned to hard pounding warm rain with thunder and lightning. Thunder shook the snow-swollen Cascade Mountains with avalanches. Tons of snow was getting very slippery and very dangerous on the slopes of the mountains.
Then without warning it happened.
THE WHITE DEATH CAME CALLING
On March 1st, around 1:42 a.m. a Great Northern employee by the name of Charles Andrews was walking toward one of the Wellington’s bunkhouses when he heard a loud rumble. Many years later he would describe what he saw:
"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."
One of the few survivors, only 23 in all, described things this way just three days after the Wellington train disaster:
An electric storm was "raging at the time of the avalanche. Lighting flashes were vivid and a tearing wind was howling down the canyon. Suddenly there was a dull roar, and the sleeping men and women felt the passenger coaches lifted and borne along. When the coaches reached the steep declivity they were rolled nearly 1,000 feet and buried under 40 feet of snow."
And Charles Andrews' the man who was on his way to the bunkhouse? Along with other horrified Wellington residents, Andrews rushed down the mountain to the crushed and twisted trains that lay now some 150 feet below the railroad tracks and in the middle of Tye Creek.
Eventually Andrews and the others dug out 23 survivors. Many of them were injured.
As the days passed, news of the accident that reached the rest of the country was not quite accurate, as historians would discover later.
On March 1st the reports were of "30 feared dead." By the 2nd of March it had become fifteen bodies recovered and 69 missing.
And by the third day of March the newspaper were reporting 118 dead. And thus it has always been in great disasters that the early reports are often not accurate in a fine, pear-slice sort of way.
Those who survived and were injured went to Wenatchee for treatment. The bodies of the dead were hauled on toboggans down the west side of the Cascades to trains that carried them to Everett and Seattle.
The final count was that ninety-six people died in the avalanche. That number included, 35 passengers and 58 railroad employees that were sleeping on the trains along with three railroad employees who were asleep in cabins that were swept down the mountain by the avalanche.
They were still finding and hauling out bodies in July.
It took the Great Northern three weeks to repair those twisted Wellington tracks before trains started running again over Stevens Pass.
But because the name Wellington came to be associated with such a horrific disaster the town was renamed Tye. And by 1913 the Great Northern had constructed large “snow-sheds” over the nine miles of tracks between Scenic and Tye in order to protect trains from avalanches.
In 1929, a new tunnel was built and that made the old grade obsolete.
That old grade is now the Iron Goat Trail, a hiking trail right off Highway 2 that follows the old railroad grade through the forest and up to the site of the disaster.
The trail is safely (and best) done May through October. The U.S. Forest Service discourages people from using the trail in the winter for the same reasons that caused the 96 folks at Wellington to die prematurely.
The name “Iron Goat” by the way, comes from the Great Northern’s corporate symbol -- a mountain goat standing on a rock.
To this day many claim they never feel alone when hiking the Iron Goat or standing at the spot where so many people perished. Some say there is always a presence there. Many hikers choose not to stay overnight at the old accident site for that reason.
And there are those who call the old Wellington spot the “most haunted place in Washington State.”
Over the weekend the Seattle Times ran a story on the Wellington Disaster and included a short video about it. A link to the video is below:
The Northwest NW Paranormal Investigative agency says Wellington is #1 haunted place in Wash State.
It produced this video (below) of one of its members walking through the avalanche debris field at the bottom of the canyon where there is still a lot of twisted metal and other artifacts left. It is rather long (could have used a good editor) but interesting.
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