Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


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








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Thanks to Gary Krist’s suburb writing in The White Cascade, readers will almost feel the cold and wet snow of the winter storm he describes in this fascinating book about a major rail disaster in 1910. 96 people died when two trains were trapped in a snow storm and then derailed in an avalanche in Washington’s Cascade mountains. The descriptive writing and character development that Krist gained as a novelist served readers well in his first non-fiction work. His extensive research gave him the ability to present dialogue that he did not invent, but that is supported  by the historical records. The end result is a page turning thriller that is consistent with facts. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 8, “Closing Doors,” pp. 100-103:


Q:        Had you had a chance to get a meal more than the two or three meals you have mentioned in that period?

A:        No sir, we did not have any chance to get any meals.

Q:        Where did you get your sleep?

A:        I got no sleep.

                        —John Robert Meath, rotary engineer



Saturday, February 26, 1910

Near Windy Point

Early Morning


Shortly before 4:00 A.M. on Saturday morning, after another protracted night of grinding, unremitting plow work, the westbound double rotary finally broke through the deep slide at Snowshed 3. For super­intendent O’Neill, this was a heartening development. The two consec­utive slides at this spot had been the principal obstacles preventing the escape of those two trains at Wellington.

Plowing away this second blockage, however, had taken nearly thirty-six hours—plenty of time for drifting snow and further slides to have created problems elsewhere on the mountain. Although the line was now clear from Wellington to Windy Point, there were still some seven or eight miles of track between Windy Point and Scenic about which O’Neill knew little. Master mechanic J. J. Dowling and the X808 had been hacking away at this stretch of track since 3:00 P.M. on Friday, working up from Scenic, but they were as yet nowhere to be seen on the line below. And as much as O’Neill wanted to continue plowing downgrade to meet them, the double needed to be coaled and watered again, and the overworked rotary crews needed some refueling of their own. Reluctantly, therefore, he ordered the double rotary back to Wellington.

While his men were eating breakfast at the station shortly after 5:00 A.M., O’Neill gathered whatever news he could about the other rotaries. With all communication down east of the tunnel, nothing had been heard from Harrington on the east slope, but word from the west was hardly more definitive. At last report, Dowling and the X808 were still far closer to Scenic than to Windy Point, delayed by a small slide and a burst flue on the rotary that had taken some hours to repair. There was, in short, still no verifiable path off the mountain in either direction.

O’Neill also had another new predicament to deal with. Over the course of the past few days, his battalions of temporary snow shovelers had been growing steadily less cooperative, grumbling about pay and the harsh and increasingly dangerous conditions. Many had been put­ting in only halthearted efforts, working more slowly and resting more frequently with each passing hour. Even the passengers had noticed their tendency to goldbrick. “Hello there, Bill,” one of the male passen­gers had shouted from the train to a group of idling laborers, “if you aren’t careful you will hurt your shovel!” This taunt had done little to in­crease the shovelers’ motivation. Then, on Friday, a fistfight had broken out between two drunken section crews at the saloon. O’Neill knew that it would only be a matter of time before the men stopped doing any work at all.

Now even the passengers were starting to turn troublesome. It was Sometime on Friday night, probably during one of the double rotary’s quick trips back to Wellington for water, that the superintendent had first heard from Longcoy about the passengers’ request to see him. O’Neill was not at all eager to oblige; after all, he had more than enough to occupy him without having to field unanswerable questions from nervous passengers. And so—understandably if not quite admirably—he had told Longcoy to make excuses for him. O’Neill instructed the stenographer to say that he was “too sleepy” for a meeting that night.

It was no mystery to O’Neill why these men wished to see him; they obviously wanted the Seattle Express moved off the flank of Windy Mountain. Given appearances, their concerns were not unreasonable. O’Neill wasn’t blind to the deepening snowfield on the mountainside above the trains, and he realized that the increasing instability of the snowpack was justifiably worrying to people ignorant of the behavior of slides. But he was convinced that the passing tracks at Wellington were actually one of the least slide-prone places on the mountain. Years of experience had shown that snowslides in the area almost invariably came down on slopes pleated with ravines or draws. There had been a small gully, for instance, creasing the mountainside above the beanery at Cascade Tunnel Station. Here, on the slope above the passing tracks at Wellington, there was no such interruption in the smooth face of the mountainside. That’s why there was no snowshed protecting the tracks there. No protection was considered necessary.

And the simple fact of the matter was that there was no other suit­able place at Wellington to put those trains. The tunnel, whatever the passengers might think, was an utterly impractical alternative. The only other sheltered place would have been under one of the snowsheds. Snowshed 2, not far west of Wellington, might have been long enough to cover at least one of the trains, but there was only one track—the main line—going through that shed; leaving a train there would have blocked the double rotary’s access to the coal chute and the water tank. Nor were snowsheds entirely indestructible; it was not unheard-of for a big slide to collapse a wooden snowshed, crushing whatever stood be­neath it. Since these sheds were naturally located in places known to be susceptible to avalanches, moving the Seattle Express under Snowshed 2 would also have been taking it from a place with no slide history to a demonstrably slide-prone area.

The last possibility—moving the trains to the spur tracks on the flat area near the tunnel portal—posed its own insurmountable difficulties. Given the amount of snow that had fallen, clearing those tracks would have taken O’Neill’s entire force of men at least two days of hard labor to accomplish. Putting a passenger train on a spur track would also have run counter to the rules of standard operating procedure. Besides, O’Neill wasn’t convinced that the spur tracks were any safer than the passing tracks. Yes, the steep mountainsides were somewhat more dis­tant from the tracks there, but that area—where the switchbacks had been located years earlier—had been the site of frequent slides in the past. A large avalanche coming down that gully-creased mountainside could easily travel far enough to bury any trains standing on the spurs.

Moving the trains was therefore simply out of the question; O’Neill felt he had no better alternative than to keep them exactly where they were. Instead of redeploying all of his manpower and steam power to the futile task of clearing the line between the trains and the tunnel, he would continue to devote all of his efforts to getting the trains off the mountain and out of danger entirely.

To do that, of course, he had to finish clearing the line down to Scenic, which meant working his already exhausted men even longer, not to mention finding more fuel to run the rotaries. After breakfast, O’Neill was relieved to learn that the plow crews had managed to solve at least the latter problem. By raiding supplies in the motor shed, the unused engines, and elsewhere, they’d collected enough coal to fill the rotary train’s tenders to full capacity. Depending on conditions, then, they would have a good ten to twenty more hours of work time— enough, O’Neill hoped, to at least secure access to one of his two po­tential replenishment sources of coal: either the carloads traveling up the mountain from the west with Dowling or the two or three cars be­ing freed by Harrington to the east.

Shortly after sunrise, refueled but woefully unrested, O’Neill and his force of thirty-five trainmen and snow shovelers reboarded the double rotary and headed back west. The snow was still coming down hard, but the wind had now fallen off to a breeze, promising to make the work of plowing considerably easier. With any luck, they would plow their way to a rendezvous with Dowling sometime that day, opening the line and allowing the trains to head down the mountain at least as far as Scenic.


Krist presents the event, the key players, the storm and the aftermath in ways that bring the story to life. The White Cascade will inform many readers about an event that may have been forgotten, and about the very human behavior that made all the difference for many.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2007



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