Friday, January 2, 2015

The White Cascade:The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche by Gary Krist

SThe White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalancheoon after a disaster, even a natural disaster, hits today, speculation begins -- did those in control act in the most expedient and safest manner? How much did human error enter the equation?  Did some technology or mechanics malfunction, causing or adding to the disaster?  Human interest stories will quickly arise, telling tales of mankind's best and worst.  One often hears criticism of today's modern journalists for distorting, magnifying, and prolonging coverage of the event.  Little did I realize that all these phenomenon were significant parts of the true story of America's deadliest avalanche, a slide down the Cascade Mountains which killed approximately 100 passengers and crew on two Great Northern trains stranded at Wellington in late February 1910.   

Russ and I first heard of this gigantic, multi-day blizzard and the subsequent avalanche when watching some history mystery television show.  I was intrigued from the first and when one "authority" was identified as an author, I figured a book had been written about the disaster.  A quick check of the internet showed that I would NOT be interested in the supposed authority's writings, but that another work would be a possible read.  Next step, check Winnefox Library System for a copy, which produced a lucky match.  THE WHITE CASCADE arrived right before Christmas and it became my first read for 2015.  

It's the kind of nonfiction I like, chronological narrative (with lots of focus on the people) mixed with
an authoritative retrospective.  The life of this story is clearly provided by the memory of those who survived and the diary and letters that were found in the destroyed train cars during the clean up.  
Two westbound trains were stranded in the Cascade Mountains, first on the east side of the Great Northern Tunnel and then on the west side at Wellington, a tiny village whose only purpose was being a stop on the line.  While Wellington was able to feed the 100 plus pasengers and crew, there was no suitable off-train lodging. The late season blizzard raged for days, causing the passenger train and the speedy mail train to be stalled for 6 days while officials scrambled to fix the situation.  Almost all the huge rotary plows broke down and were quite ineffective anyway.  First day laborers had to shovel down to the 13 foot height of the plows and then soon after any area plowed would again be covered in drifts and newly fallen snow.  A months' long switchmen strike affected delivery of coal to the engines and plows.  Over the first days, hiking down the mountain to Scenic depot below was discouraged.  Poor visibility due to extreme wind along with deep and increasing snows made the trek seem too dangerous for even the healthiest passengers.  And no one wanted to leave behind those less able -- women, children, and a few disabled passengers.  As the days piled up and so did the snow, a few men did make that climb down to safety.  

In the end, there was a horrific avalanche that few survived. It is clearly another reminder that our ingenuity and technology, powerful as it is, will fail against mother nature at her fiercest.  From our 21st century vantage point, we may think it silly that 1910 America saw itself as modern and invincible, but it did,  The railroads were part of that invincible swagger as was the telegraph.  Both failed on that mountain range.  And that streak of opportunist journalism that we detest now-  wait until you read the wild untruths that flew across the country from the moment notification of the stalled trains hit the wires. And then after the tragedy, comes the blame game.

Gary Krist did a remarkable job with this book.  As I sat reading in the sunshine of our sunroom on a subzero day, I kept visualizing this story as a movie.  Probably not enough heroes or survivors to attract Hollywood, but then again maybe there are.  For almost everyone, this avalanche and Wellington are long forgotten (actually never known) and Krist has done a great service in pulling the true story together. 

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