"White Death moving down the mountainside"
January 1, 2010 6:36 AM   Subscribe

"It... 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." Nearly 100 years ago, on March 1, 1910, the deadliest avalanche in United States history struck the small town of Wellington, Washington. Ninety-six people died as a massive wall of snow struck two Great Northern trains stopped at Wellington to wait for the tracks to be cleared, rolling them nearly 1000 feet into Tye Creek and burying the victims under huge piles of snow, trees, and debris.

Later that year, the town of Wellington, associated in the public mind with death and sorrow, changed its name to Tye. Changes were proposed to make the Cascade crossing safer, and eventually a new tunnel route was completed. Now the town itself is a ghost; when the new Cascade Tunnel was built, Tye's tracks and station were abandoned, and the last remaining building burned in 1930. The original, abandoned Cascade Tunnel is now the Iron Goat Trail.

Photos related to the Wellington disaster at the Washington State Historical Society, in the Asahel Curtis collection. More 1910 photos. Photos of the area today. The story of the "Great Slide" by a railroad man who was at the scene. Contemporary news stories.
posted by litlnemo (13 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Now, see this is exactly the kind of uplifting, feel-good post I expect Mefi to deliver to me as the first thing I see on the internet in 2010.

Seriously, though, litlnemo, nice post.
posted by anastasiav at 7:33 AM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Very nicely done. Thanks for the post.
posted by netbros at 7:45 AM on January 1, 2010

"There was an electric storm 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"."

Nature is never loath to add the garish touch.
posted by Faze at 8:00 AM on January 1, 2010

I stood at the mouth of that abandoned tunnel one time...didn't have the time (or cojones) to walk in. The main thing I remember was a feeling of deep admiration and awe for the hardy bastards that built ANYTHING in that part of Washington, especially around the turn of the twentieth century. That area is remote and treacherous even today.

On a related note, the nearby town of Skykomish is undergoing a massive project to move all town buildings, dig out and replace the dirt under them which was contaminated by seepage from the fuel tanks for that same railroad, then put them back again. More here..

posted by chronkite at 8:40 AM on January 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had no idea of this story. The Iron Goat Trail is a fascinating place to hike and bike, many of the old tunnels and trestles are open to the public. One of the coolest things you can do when visiting Seattle is to take a bike ride through the tunnel near Hyak. It's about 2 miles long, pitch black, and perfectly straight. You pedal and pedal slowly, so as not to run into the other people whose existence you are completely unaware of until you hear their voice right next to you, all towards this tiny, tiny point of light way off in the distance that ever so slowly gets larger over the 30 minutes or so it takes to bike through there.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:06 AM on January 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

They dug out the 1920, rerailed her without much trouble, as we all hauled her over the heavy snows.

How the hell do you re-rail a steam locomotive? In the snow? What were these guys made of?
posted by m450n at 10:52 AM on January 1, 2010

Iron locomotives and iron men, m450n.
posted by pjern at 12:02 PM on January 1, 2010

ah, I hit Post Comment instead of preview. I can't tell a narwhal from a unicorn.

Rerailing locomotives and rolling stock isn't a terribly hard process as long as the wheels haven't gone too far afield from the rails. There are devices called rerailing frogs carried on most locomotives that will put things to rights fairly quickly as long as the track is relatively undamaged.

More difficult is the situation where, say, a rail has overturned or spread. This often calls for the big hook.
posted by pjern at 12:10 PM on January 1, 2010

Salvaging wrecked railroad equipment was often done with jacks and timbers, and a lot of human muscle power.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 1:56 PM on January 1, 2010

"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"

Roland Emmerich could not be reached for comment.
posted by secret about box at 7:38 PM on January 1, 2010

This post was a classic example of falling into a Web rabbit hole.

Though a Washington native, I had never heard of this disaster as of New Year's Eve. Then, after the NYE party and before going to sleep, I was reading a post on a blog about Seattle's urban development. The post contrasted Seattle with Leavenworth, WA, a kitschy faux-Bavarian mountain town. In the comments for that post, someone linked to a fake history of Leavenworth. In that fake history, there was at least one true event mentioned -- the Wellington disaster. I was curious, started searching, and next thing you know, hours have gone by and there is a new FPP on MetaFilter. From urban design standards to a 100-year-old avalanche disaster in only a few minutes.

I was amazed at the difficulty of getting over the Cascades even as recently as 1910, the year my grandfather was born. I have a housemate now who drives over them frequently (in an old Neon that isn't even 4WD) to see her family, most recently for Christmas. I think we take that ease for granted now -- and even now, it can still sometimes be dangerous and difficult in the winter, but nothing like it was a century ago.

I was also struck by how much the event has been forgotten -- and even the town itself is gone and mostly forgotten, except by some of the folks visiting the Iron Goat Trail.

I keep meaning to go to some of the ghost railroad town sites in Western Washington. Maybe this summer I will actually manage it.
posted by litlnemo at 4:09 PM on January 2, 2010

Oh, I was going to mention that while searching for info on this, I found a recent book about the Wellington disaster: The White Cascade. (Amazon link) I haven't read it yet, but I have it reserved at the library, so I hope to read it soon.
posted by litlnemo at 4:16 PM on January 2, 2010

Wonderfully thorough, great resources. Many thanks ... hope to get up there to visit sometime.
posted by Twang at 8:39 PM on January 2, 2010

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