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The White Cascade



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Event Timeline

DAY 1
Wednesday, February 23, 1910
Leavenworth, Washington

1:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m.
Despite mammoth snows, the Great Northern's James O'Neill gives the go-ahead to take the Seattle Express and a Fast Mail Train behind it, both filled with people, up into the Cascade mountains.

Cascade Tunnel Station, Wellington Washington
7:00 a.m.

Passengers and rail workers on the trains awaken to find themselves stalled near the Cascade Tunnel station, snowed in on all sides. They take meals at a beanery nearby.

White Cascade 1
 

A view of Wellington, around 1910, with the avalanche slope visible straight ahead. (Courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry, Seattle)

DAY 2
Thursday, February 24, 1910
7:45 p.m.

After a lull, snow resumes and passengers describe a "steep walls of white" around the trains. The Seattle Express finally succeeds in leaving Cascade area, making it to Wellington station where they bed down. The Fast Mail arrives at 10:15pm.

White Cascade 2
 A rotary snowplow and its crew. Pushed by one or two trailing locomotives, rotaries were the state-of-the-art snow-fighting machines of their day. Under normal winter conditions, a fleet of six could usually keep even the GN's notoriously snowy Cascade crossing open to traffic. (Courtesy of the Robert Kelly Collection)

DAY 3
Friday, February 25, 1910

12:00 p.m.
Passengers hear the shocking news that an avalanche hit the beanery at Cascade where they had been stalled just hours before. Dead are the beanery's cook and waiter who served the passengers lunch the previous day.

Evening
Unbeknownst to the passengers, the coal to heat and fuel the trains and rotaries starts to run out. But the rotaries will keep going as long as possible.

White Cascade 3
 Superintendent O'Neill inspects the wreckage of a railroad car at the avalanche scene. Many of the cars were deeply buried, but the remnants of a few lay near the surface, scattered over acres and acres of steep, treacherous terrain. (Courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Curtis17469)
DAY 4
Saturday, February 26, 1910

Afternoon
Repeated slides between Wellington and the next station, near Windy Point, keep the rotaries busy. Workers hired to shovel out the trains begin to walk off the job, disgruntled at their hourly wage of 15 cents.

In the afternoon, the snow turns to a driving rain—avalanche weather.

White Cascade 4
 A rotary snowplow and its crew.  Pushed by one or two trailing locomotives, rotaries were the state-of-the-art snow-fighting machines of their day.  Under normal winter conditions, a fleet of six could usually keep even the GN's notoriously snowy Cascade crossing open to traffic. (Courtesy of the Robert Kelly Collection)

DAY 5
Sunday, February 27, 1910
9:30 a.m.

O'Neill and men begin a treacherous adventure, braving the storm to walk to Scenic. When "Big Jerry" Wickham is swept away by an avalanche, O'Neill abandons the idea of evacuating on foot.

White Cascade 5
 Workers among the wreckage. Rescue and recovery efforts were complicated by the vast amount of lumber and other debris brought down by the avalanche. At times, rescuers had to dive into the wreckage to pull victims out "as if taking them from a river." (16: Courtesy of the Robert Kelly Collection; 17: Courtesy of the Everett Public Library)

DAY 6
Monday, February 28, 1910

Morning
Unbeknownst to O'Neill, two groups of passengers leave the train and make it to the town of Scenic where the Conductor of the Seattle Express sends a telegraph back to trains to signal a passable trail. When the message fails to go through, Conductor Petit returns to the trains to deliver the news.

Evening
Petit learns that 34 passengers have signed a formal petition asking O'Neill to meet them to formulate a plan of escape. But O'Neill ignores their request. The Trainmaster, however, allows some rail workers to help able-bodied male passenger escape to Scenic the next morning.

White Cascade 6
 

Salvage efforts went on for weeks after the avalanche. Most of the wooden train cars were totally annihilated ("as if an elephant had stepped on a cigar box," as one witness put it), but the much heavier locomotives suffered surprisingly little damage. (Courtesy of the Jerry Quinn Collection)

DAY 7
Tuesday, March 1, 1910

1 a.m.
Thunderstorms pass into the Cascades. The deep, rain-heavy snowpack on the side of Windy Mountain gives way at 1:42 a.m. Acres of snow begin to descend towards the trains. The leading edge of this mass is a half-mile wide and reaches 14 feet in height. The avalanche will just miss the town of Wellington, as it sweeps both trains and all 125 passengers and crew members down the side of the mountain.

Early Morning
Residents of Wellington and Great Northern 's men start the rescue. Among the survivors they encounter are a couple buried up to their necks in snow, a man trapped next to the burning hot boiler of the locomotive, and seven-year-old Raymond Starrett, "with a snag, a big splinter stuck right up through his forehead." Rescuers deliver the injured survivors to a makeshift hospital in the engineman's bunkhouse.

8:00 a.m.
James O'Neill, in Scenic, is informed of the disaster as Northwestern newspapers alert America to the brutal ordeal. Heated debates spurred on by the sensational reporting would later lead to accusations of negligence directed at the Great Northern Railway—and O'Neill in particular.

Early Afternoon
Nearly eleven hours after the slide, Ida Starrett, buried under the snow, regains consciousness and calls out to the rescuers. She is the last passenger rescued alive.

White Cascade 7
 The first through train reached Wellington on March 12, eleven days after the avalanche. Another slide early the next morning toppled a rotary off the mountain, killing a workman and closing the line yet again. Regular traffic did not resume until March 15. (Courtesy of the Robert Kelly Collection)

The Aftermath
Over the next few days workers would extract the bodies of the dead, bundling them in Great Northern blankets to hide the gruesome sight of their mangled remains and towing them down the mountain on sleds. The Wellington avalanche, the deadliest disaster of its kind in US history, claimed the lives of 96 men, women and children.

White Cascade 8
 Tied to rugged Alaskan sleds, bodies were evacuated down the right-of-way in groups of a dozen at a time.  Each sled was maneuvered by four men with ropes, two ahead and two behind.  Once they reached the top of Dead Man's Slide near Windy Point, they were lowered by rope to a train waiting at Scenic below. (Courtesy of the Robert Kelly Collection)