“All Wiped Out!”: Wellington Avalanche

Great Northern Railway Train in 1914 Courtesy Wikipedia

In the Cascade Mountains, the Great Northern Railway had been battling snowfalls. The constant barrage of snow was causing slides and blocking the railroads. Several feet of snow accumulated each day and the rotary snow plows had to be called in.

On February 22, 1910, the Seattle Express pulled out of Spokane bound for Seattle. The next morning passengers found their train stopped at Cascade Tunnel Station. The rotary plow that had been clearing the way had gotten stuck in the “Cascade cement” and would need to be dug out. The Fast Mail had arrived and was also stopped nearby, waiting for the line to be cleared.

Since the Seattle Express did not yet have a dinner car, passengers had to eat at the station’s beanery. It was a grimy place and one or two passengers held a very low opinion of the crew. When they weren’t eating, passengers took to writing letters, keeping notes of what was happening or conversed. By the 25th, food was beginning to run low and there was talk of rationing. Hopes raised though when the bored passengers noticed the engines began “steaming up”. Superintendent James O’Neill had come out to see the two trains off and to supervise the digging out of the rotaries. Eventually the Seattle Express and Fast Mail were moved to Wellington, a small town that housed a number of railroad employees. There they would wait until the line could be cleared, which was suffering from continual slides. It was believed that Wellington was a place where slides were least likely to occur. Food was also plentiful and dining at the Bailets Hotel was much preferred to the beanery.

Cascade Tunnel Courtesy Wikipedia

Back at the Cascade Tunnel an avalanche took out the beanery, killing two. Because of this passengers began to doubt the safety of their own position. Above and around  them snow was continuing to accumulate. On the 24th the temperature had risen making it even more likely for slides to occur. The passengers peppered Conductor Joseph Pettit with questions. He often assured them that they would be pulling out soon. Over time though this had a rather hollow sound to it. Then the passengers requested to see O’Neill, to which O’Neill would not comply. Some of the women were becoming hysterical, a Mrs. Ada Lemman suffering from a nervous condition. There were also children to keep occupied. Widower Edward Topping wrote letters to his parents back home detailing what was happening. An elderly lady by the name of Sarah Convincing noted how irritable the passengers were becoming. A man to his daughter “you’re crippled, you’re crippled in the head where you can’t wear crutches”.

On the 26th temperatures again rose.  The next day church services were held in one of the coaches. Crew and passengers alike attended. By this time the passengers were desperate to get away having been trapped for four days. The massive accumulation in the mountains was looking down, taunting them. Some considered walking to Wellington but the hike could be dangerous especially for, as one local called them, “tenderfeet”. The coal was running so low that some had to be transferred from the Fast Mail to the Seattle Express. That morning three passengers set out for Scenic Hot Springs. They arrived alive, but it had been tough going. One of them sent a message back to the others telling them not to come. The message didn’t go through, however, because communications had been knocked out.

On the 28th Pettit also set out for Scenic. He wasn’t sure he wanted to evacuate the trains just yet. He and some others arrived in good time. The conductor sent a telegram telling the others to come. This message didn’t go through either. In any case, Pettit arrived back at the train the same day. There he prepared for the group to leave. But even with Pettit’s news not everyone would be excited. There were some elderly and ill aboard who would not be able to make the trip without a fair amount of assistance. Nevertheless, most of the people were giddy about leaving. On the Fast Mail crewmembers settled in for the night. Mail clerk, A. B. Hensel was uncomfortable in his bunk and moved to the other end of the train to sleep. In the skies above lightning flashed and thunder rumbled across.

Train Wreckage Courtesy Library of Congress

In Wellington John Wenzel heard a strange noise. At 1:42 AM looking towards the train he could see a mass of snow sliding down towards the cars. No one is quite sure what started the avalanche, but most think it was lightning. Passenger R. L. Forsyth felt the avalanche slam into the train, lifting it up and throwing it back down. From there the trains rolled down into a canyon. When it stopped the car fell apart. It was deathly quiet, survivors noted.  Surviving crew members and Wellington residents began digging out survivors. In the second class mail car, Hensel’s life was spared. The car had broken apart and the other end where his comrades had slept had been crushed. The enginemen’s bunkhouse was made into a hospital while engineer J. J. Mackey left for Scenic to get help and inform O’Neill. He arrived the next morning amd O’Neill sent help back with Mackey.

With no doctor yet available telegraphist Basil Sherlock removed a large stick lodged in Raymond Starret’s forehead. Starret was seven years old and would go on to survive the ordeal, although he would loose two of his siblings and grandfather.

Conditions in the canyon were horrifying. People worked to get the dead and survivors dug out of the snow. Among the living they found Ida Starret, Raymond’s mother, under the snow and stuck under a tree trunk. At the hospital Ida suffered from shock. Raymond tried to being her around but nothing worked. At the wreck site even the most hardened of hearts would have trouble digging the dead out. Conditions too gruesome to describe was what rescuers found themselves working in. Sadly, 96 passengers and crew were lost, Joseph Pettit among them. He left behind a wife and 5 children. There were 23 survivors. The dead were eventually bundled up and put on sleds to be taken to Scenic. The last body would be found in July.

Source : Krist, Gary. The White Cascade : The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche

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16 thoughts on ““All Wiped Out!”: Wellington Avalanche

    • In a way I can understand why O’Neill decided to send the trains out earlier before the storm became worse. The Fast Mail had been performing badly and could lose its contract with the government. But I guess we have the benefit of hindsight. Thanks for reading and for your comment!

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  1. This was really good. Like you, I really enjoy history and am also an avid genealogist. (Civil war is my specialty in genealogy) I really enjoy reading things that I never read about (such as what you wrote here). Sad and tragic, but so hard to make decisions when faced with so many obstacles.

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    • So glad you liked it, Laura. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

      Yes it was very tragic. I thought it was just awful about the mail clerks and to think if Hensel hadn’t been uncomfortable he would have died, as well.

      I enjoy genealogy as well. Lately, I’ve been doing alot of researching. I’ll have to order the information from NARA to be absolutely certain, but I think my g-grandfather fought in the Civil War.

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    • Yes write NARA and you can get their records if it is your ancestor. US records are usually more complete than the CSA records. Once you find that out.. there are many brigade and regimental genealogies/histories out there where you can sometimes get more information. If you ever come up with a KY CSA person let me know. I have mucho info on that as that was most of my ancestors. A friend of mine and myself maintain a database of those soldiers on line. (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~orphanhm/index.html)

      Have you searched at http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm yet? If so (or not) be aware that first names were sometimes just listed by initials and not the whole first name.This you may also find in the NARA records.

      Happy hunting and thanks again for the great article.

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    • If this man is my ancestor he fought with the Green River Battalion for the Union. I’m going to go check out the soldiers/sailors database. It sounds familiar. I’m not sure I have any Confederate ancestors. There are some distant cousins though, but I think they were from farther south. But I’ll be sure to let you know if I do stumble across one. Thanks for the links!

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  2. I had never heard of this horrifying event. You write so well; I could just imagine those parents trying to keep children occupied in a stopped train even before the slide. Thanks for being a frequent supporter on “Al’s War”. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go with it, but it feels like abandoning a child or a pet. I look forward to more posts from you. I’ll learn a lot!

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    • Thank you, so glad you like it. It must’ve been very trying to be cooped up in the train for a week.

      I also enjoy your blog. Where I live we have a WWII connection via LSTs. A number of them were built here and we now have one sitting on the Ohio. It serves as a museum ship.

      Thanks for reading and for your comment.

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    • All disasters are sad, but it seems that the ‘what-if’ events are even more sadder. To think it could have been avoided. Glad you liked the post, thanks for reading!

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