The History of Wellington, WA and the Train Disaster of March 1, 1910
Wellington, the town:
Wellington, WA was established in 1893 by the Great Northern Pacific Railroad as small unincorporated town for the railroad workers and their families. Wellington was located about three miles west of the Stevens Pass Summit and just off the old Stevens Pass Highway. Due to the negative connotation of the original name after the 1910 train disaster, the Great Northern Railroad changed Wellington’s name to Tye in 1913. The town’s new name was derived from the nearby Tye Creek. The town of Tye was abandoned in 1929 when the old railroad grade route was abandoned and a new grade route was developed and came into use. The new railroad grade route, including the new Cascade Tunnel, is still in use by the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad today. The old grade route was turned into a hiking trail named the Iron Goat Trail that winds about seven miles through the forest from the trailhead at Highway 2 to the original town site of Wellington. The name Iron Goat was taken from the Great Northern Railway corporate symbol of a mountain goat standing on a rock. "Iron goat" was applied to Great Northern locomotives climbing mountainous rail line in the Rockies or Cascade mountains. Wellington Elementary School located in the Northshore School District of Seattle, WA. was named after the town of Wellington.
The Wellington train disaster of March 1, 1910 is still the worst avalanche, measured in terms of lives lost, in the history of the United States. The unofficial number of lost lives was set at 96. Unfortunately, no one will ever know the actual number of victims that may well have exceeded 96. Of the 96 men, women and children killed, 35 were passengers, 58 were Great Northern employees on the trains, and 3 were railroad employees asleep in their bunkhouses. 23 passengers did somehow survive as they’re broken bodies were pulled from the wreckage by railroad employees living at Wellington. Due to the unsafe and extreme weather conditions, rescue efforts were abandoned. It was late July, before it was possible to retrieve the last of the bodies. The last body recovered was that of Archibald McDonald, a 23 year old brakeman lay trapped under piles of splintered timbers.
On February 23, 1910, after a snow delay at the east Cascade Mountains town of Leavenworth, two Great Northern trains, the Spokane Local passenger train No. 25 and Fast Mail train No. 27, preceded westbound towards their destination, Seattle. Combined, there were 6 steam and electric engines, 15 boxcars, passenger cars, and sleepers. The trains 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.
This horrific train disaster was an accident just waiting to happen due to extreme weather conditions and the treeless slopes of Windy Mountain. It began on February 19, 1910 when Wellington was hit by a terrible snow blizzard. On February 23 both trains were trapped on a narrow ledge on Windy Mountain, about 150 feet above the ravine of Tye Creek, just outside the town of Wellington. Heavy snowfall, labor disputes, and the dwindling coal supply made it impossible for train crews to clear the tracks. The rotary snow plows were only effective at depths up to 13 feet. The deeper drifts, up to 40 feet deep, had to be shoveled by hand down to the 13 foot level before the rotary snow plows could be used. Passengers became impatient as the supplies of food and water ran low, sanitation on the passenger train deteriorated, and snow continued to pile up on the slopes above the stranded trains. A few small groups of passengers and workers eventually walked westbound on the tracks for help; eventually they reached the small town of Scenic. For six long days, the trains were stranded in an ideal environment for the avalanche. Then it happened, White Death! Shortly after midnight, on March 1st. with everyone asleep in the trains and the town bunkhouses, the avalanche came roaring down Windy Mountain as a ten foot wall of snow that measured a half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. The avalanche carried the two trains over the narrow ledge and they finally came to rest about 150 feet below in the Tye Creek ravine. Great Northern worked for three weeks to repair the tracks before trains were running again over Stevens Pass.
First Hand Descriptions:
Charles Andrews, a Great Northern employee, was walking towards the warmth of his employee bunkhouse, shortly after midnight. In the quiet, peaceful night, suddenly the mountainside roared to life. In a 1960 interview, he described what he witnessed:
"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 23 survivors interviewed three days after the Wellington train disaster stated: "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".
A surviving train conductor sleeping in one of the mail train cars was thrown from the roof to the floor of the car several times as the train rolled down the slope before it disintegrated when the train slammed against a large tree.
In the days that followed, news of the tragedy that reached the rest of the country was inaccurate. On March 1 there were reports of "30 feared dead." On March 2 there were "15 bodies ... recovered ... [and] 69 persons missing. “One hundred and fifty men, mostly volunteers, are working to uncover the dead." On March 3 a headline stated, "VICTIMS NOW REACH 118."
The injured were sent to Wenatchee. 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.
Victims and Heroes of Wellington:
Miss Nellie Sharp (Mrs. Nellie McGirl) and friend Mrs. Herbert Tweetie:
In a hotel room in Spokane, Washington, Nellie Sharp said to her companion, Mrs. Herbert Tweedie, "I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll draw for it. The one who gets the short straw goes east to Montana, the one who gets the long, west to Seattle”. Nellie Sharp drew the long straw. Nellie was a young twenty-six year old woman, recently divorced, freelance writer, working on a traveling article with her friend Mrs. Herbert Tweetie. Mrs. Tweetie also seemed to be on her own and without a husband. She and Nellie Sharp were planning their new direction in life. From Spokane, Nellie would go west to the coast to do research for a travel article and interview loggers and fishermen of the Washington coast. Mrs. Tweetie would go east to Montana and research the cowboys and homesteaders of the Great Montana Plains. They panned to meet again in Spokane in a couple of weeks, finalize their articles and submit them to the popular magazine “McClures”.
Ida was a recent widow from Spokane, WA traveling with here three small children and elderly parents to Seattle.
Sara Jane Covington:
A petite, sixty-nine year old grandmother who after visiting her ailing son, Melmoth A. Covington from Spokane. Melmoth had become gravely ill due to a scratch from a cat and within three days, had to be hospitalized for his infection. She later wrote to her daughter. “They injected serum in his chest that made him extremely weak; then they cut three gashes in his arm which was swollen very much. When I first saw him, they were spraying him with stuff that burned and smarted so as to make him holler out.” After a month, Sara Jane was returning home to her husband where they would be celebrating their fifty-first wedding anniversary on March 3rd. In Olympia, she was well known for her intellect and involvement in charity and reform work.
The owner of her own hair accessories company.
Henry H. White:
Henry H. White boarded the train a Wenatchee. A salesman for the American Paper Company was now headed home to Seattle at the Fenimore Hotel where he and his wife resided.
Lewis C. Jesseph:
Lewis was a thirty-two year old lawyer who boarded the Seattle Express, the Great Northern Railways No. 25, in Spokane and was heading to Seattle for an important court case in Washington States Supreme Court. Lewis later wrote “we knew that the Great Northern Railway had constructed many snowsheds to protect the right-of-way from slides and that the rotary snowplows could clear the exposed track”.
John was a lawyer in his fifties and close friend of Lewis Jesseph who was also headed to Seattle’s Supreme Court to argue his case against Lewis as the opposing lawyer and by chance, was booked on the same train as Lewis.
Edward W. “Ned” Topping:
In the sleeper car Winnipeg, was Edward W. “Ned” Topping a twenty-nine year old salesman from Ashland, Ohio. Ned worked in his father’s family business, the Safety Door Company, which manufactured hardware for barn doors. The previous August his wife, Florence and unborn daughter had both died in childbirth. His parents had decided to send him on the road to take his mind off of the loss of his wife and unborn daughter. They cared for his twenty-two month old son, Bill, while Ned was traveling. Ned wrote to his mother while on the train; “Mother, I am so glad that your trip to Akron was so successful and that the doctor found nothing wrong with Little Bill. I’d like to have seen him acting up on the train. I suppose the Durrs” (Little Bill’s maternal grandparents) “thoroughly enjoyed your visit for I know how they like to see him and I’ll be anxious to hear from your own lips, the story of the trip. I can hardly believe that Ruth” (his younger sister) “is wearing a ring. I know that she must be very happy. I’m glad, exceedingly so, and further believe she has made a wise choice. She will have a new life now entirely. I hope father and the rest will get busy pretty soon and write me, for letters do come so good way out here”. Ned also wrote “Dear Mother and friends, I wrote you last night that I expected to reach Seattle this am. Here I am at the summit of the Cascades, snowed in since 6:30 this morning. Such a snow you never saw. It’s banked up to the top of the window here, and we can’t go or come. Can’t get any information as to when we’ll get out”.
Lucius was a young, black man from Mississippi who was a porter assigned to the sleeper car, Winnipeg.
Joseph was a conductor on the Seattle Express.
The Greys, The Becks and a young motorman traveling with his three year old daughter. There were also several women traveling alone to Seattle. There were five lawyers aboard including Jesseph and Merritt. The passenger list also included two men in real estate, a clergyman, a civil engineer, an electrician and three or four drummers (traveling salesmen).
James Henry O’Neil:
Thirty-seven year old James O’Neil was the superintendent for the Great Northern Railways Cascade Division for three years prior to the Wellington disaster. His office was located at the Delta rail yards in Everett, WA. because of the extreme snow conditions in the Cascades, he had moved to his tiny office space in Scenic, WA. He was responsible for keeping the mail, freight and passenger trains moving through the entire western half of Washington State. A few years later Mr. O’Neil wrote “boys did not go to work on the railroad, simply because their fathers did. What fetched them were the sights and sounds of moving trains and above all the whistle of a locomotive. I’ve heard the call of the wild, the call of the law and the call of the church. There’s also the call of the railroad”. James answered that call at the young age of thirteen. He left his home and education behind to start as a water boy for a dollar-a-day at Devils Lake.
Archie “Mac” McDonald:
Archie, a close friend of Bill Moore and brakeman of Great Northern, lost his life in the avalanche.
Bill J. Moore:
As a young, nineteen year old, Bill was one of the many heroes of Wellington as he and his wrecker crew dug and scoured in the snow and wreckage searching for survivors and bodies of the victims. With bodies scattered all over the mountain side, some under as much as forty feet of snow and debris, their task was backbreaking and dangerous. Once the bodies were located, they were placed “like cordwood, in 4x4 stacks”. Later they would be wrapped in blankets and placed on Alaska style sleds for evacuation to the makeshift morgue in the stations baggage room to be identified and stored until their delivery to the assigned cemeteries.
Charles Andrews would not make it to the bunkhouse warmth for many hours. Along with other Wellington residents, Andrews rushed to the crushed trains that lay 150 feet below the railroad tracks. During the next few hours they dug out 23 survivors, many with serious injuries.
PIHA Case Manager/Historian
PIHA Website: http://www.pihausa.com