• Henry Holt and Co.
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The White Cascade

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Important Figures

James H. O'Neill
37-year-old James H. O'Neill, the Superintendent of the Great Northern Railway's Cascade Division, was the man in charge of the situation at Wellington. It was his controversial decision that had brought the trains up into the stormy mountains in the first place, and now it was his responsibility to get them down again. A railroad man to the core (he'd started out on the GN as a 13-year-old waterboy and had risen steadily through the ranks ever since), he was considered one of the best snowfighting superintendents in the country. Never content to oversee operations from a steam-heated office, he was laboring night and day with the snowplow crews to battle the storm and get the trains to safety. This was grueling work, and highly dangerous—a fact known all too well to his pregnant wife Berenice and their baby daughter Peggy, waiting anxiously at their Everett home for his return.

James J. Hill
The Great Northern's founder and chairman, James J. Hill—universally known as the Empire Builder of the Northwest—was watching the events at Wellington from headquarters in St. Paul. Regarded as the last of the great 19th-century railroad barons, the irascible, indomitable Hill had taken a small, bankrupt Minnesota railway line and turned it into one of the premier railroad empires in the country, in the process opening up the entire northwestern quadrant of the country to settlement and industry. But his passion for efficiency and cost-cutting, along with his notorious hostility toward labor unions and government regulation, had led some critics to question the railroad's commitment to passenger safety, particularly on its treacherous Cascade line. The reputation of Hill and his entire empire thus hinged on the outcome of the Wellington crisis. 

Edward Topping
Edward "Ned" Topping, a traveling salesman for his father's Ohio-based hardware manufacturing business, was a passenger aboard the ill-fated Seattle Express. A curly-haired, powerfully built young man of 27, he was still in mourning for the recent deaths of his wife and unborn daughter. His parents had sent him on this trip west in order to distract him from his loss, and now Ned was writing them a day-by-day account of his experiences. This letter, which would later provide a valuable glimpse of life on the marooned trains, was found in the wreckage after the avalanche. 

Ida Starrett
Ida Starrett, a young widowed mother from Spokane, was also trapped on the Express. Her husband, a Great Northern freight conductor, had been killed just weeks before at the railroad's main yards in Hillyard, Washington. Having just settled his estate, Ida was now traveling with her elderly parents to start anew in Canada. In her care were her three children: nine-year-old Lillian, seven-year-old Raymond, and an infant boy, Francis. As the week of their entrapment wore on, Ida became increasingly haunted by fears of an avalanche burying the train—fears that were later to proved tragically prescient. 

Nellie Sharp
Miss Nellie Sharp, a.k.a. Mrs. Nellie McGirl, was the person with perhaps the oddest reason for being a passenger aboard the Seattle Express. Recently separated from a husband in Oakland, Nellie had been staying in a Spokane hotel with a friend, planning the research for a travel article they were to write together about the lingering traces of the old Wild West. The two had drawn straws to see which of them would head east to the Montana plains and which would go west to the Washington coast. Nellie, a decidedly stout 26-year-old of ebullient good humor, had drawn the long straw, and had chosen to head west. The plan was for the two friends to meet again in Spokane after a few weeks in the field—their notebooks brimming with fabulous tales about their escapades—and begin assembling the article. But this bright new chapter in Nellie's life was destined to be cut brutally short at Wellington.