Gary Krist on The White Cascade
What brought you to the story of the Wellington Avalanche?
Sometimes writers find their best ideas through sheer chance. I first came across the story of the Wellington avalanche when I was looking for something else entirely. I was running Google searches for information on the Duke of Wellington. On the results page, I noticed a puzzling entry about something called "The Wellington Disaster." I had never heard of it, so I clicked the link, read a few paragraphs, and knew right away that this was something I had to write about.
For someone who had written both thrillers and historical fiction, the story was a natural. But I almost immediately abandoned any notion of basing a novel on the Wellington Disaster. Some stories don't need to be dramatized through fiction, and this was clearly one of them. The fact that the story was so little known just made the project that much more appealing.
What makes the Wellington Avalanche unique in the annals of American catastrophes?
One unique aspect of the Wellington Avalanche (and the one that makes it such an ideal subject for a narrative) is the element of extended suspense in the situation. Most disasters we read about strike with little or no warning—the Titanic collides with an iceberg, the Hindenburg explodes, the Galveston hurricane hits much harder than anyone expected, and it's all over quite soon. But the Wellington avalanche was no sudden stroke. The people trapped on those Great Northern trains had days and days in which to contemplate their fate and decide how to try to save their own lives. For nearly a week, they struggled as the instrument of their fate piled up on the mountain above them. There's a sense of tense inevitability to the story that gives it a particularly tragic edge.
Another unusual aspect of this disaster was the sheer freakishness of the accident. Trains are something we associate with civilization, control, everyday life. Avalanches, on the other hand, are exotic, untamed things that occur in the wilderness, far from civilization (which is why avalanches usually result in few casualties—they typically occur well away from population centers). The whole idea of a train being swept off a mountain by an avalanche violates our sense of boundaries and the normal order of things. So whereas other historical disasters may be noteworthy through their sheer magnitude or the number of casualties they left, the Wellington Disaster commands attention because it's really a one-of-a-kind occurrence.
What broader impact did the disaster have?
The Wellington Avalanche did lead to many changes in railroad operations nationwide, but the disaster was really more a symptom than a cause of the great transformations occurring at the beginning of the American Century. The decades right around the turn of the 20th century were, if you will, the golden age of grand disasters. It was a time when our industrial reach had profoundly exceeded our technological grasp, a time when safety and communication technologies had not yet caught up with the ambitious new standards of speed and efficiency mandated by American Big Business. The Wellington Disaster was, in that sense, a brutal rite of passage for an adolescent civilization just growing into a new sense of power and command in the world.