The Deadliest Avalanche in US History

As we drove across Stevens Pass here in Washington State, my husband told me the story of the 1910 Wellington Avalanche, the deadliest avalanche in US history to date. This was sobering, because it was May, and there was still snow on the pass, and here I was wearing shorts because we had come from, and were heading to, much lower, warmer elevations.

Back in 1910, weather forecasting was even less exact than it is today, so the passengers and crew aboard the Great Northern Railroad, along with a mail train that was following them, really had no idea what they were getting themselves into. They just thought they were taking a train from Spokane to Seattle, no muss, no fuss. (People really believed in engineering, and man’s ability to tame nature, back then.)

And it’s true, the railroad had employed snowplows to keep the tracks clear, and that had always done the trick until now. But now the two trains were stuck in Wellington, just west of the Cascade Tunnel. They couldn’t go forward. They couldn’t go back.

The snow kept falling, sometimes a foot an hour, for 9 whole days. One day saw an 11 foot accumulation. The drifts got up to 20 feet high, and avalanches were occurring to the east and west of them. The trains and their passengers sat there for what must have been a very scary 9 days.

Some of the passengers, in utter desperation, walked out of there in their street clothes, sliding down the hills on their behinds. All of those that chose to do so survived. But there were families with children aboard. There is no way that children could slog through those drifts. So they waited. They waited as the coal that heated the train and the food ran out.

And then early in the morning of March 1, 1910, the snow turned to rain and warm wind, and thunder began to rock the mountain, which was already not very forested due to a fire. Suddenly lightning struck, and a slab of snow, 10 feet high, a half a mile long, and a quarter of a mile wide, swept into Wellington and knocked both trains into the Tye River valley below.

A rescue effort began, and indeed 23 people survived, but all efforts had to be abandoned due to the weather. In the end, 96 people were killed, including 61 railroad employees and 35 passengers. Some of the bodies weren’t recovered until late July.

For some really interesting accounts from the survivors, read this Seattle Times article.

Later that year, the railroad renamed the town Tye, and built concrete snow sheds to protect the tracks from snow. In 1929, they built a longer tunnel at a much lower elevation, and the town was abandoned.

The old track is now called the Iron Goat Trail, and you can hike it and still see the snow sheds and remnants of the track. Some of the railroad employees are buried in the Everett Cemetery, their stones facing toward Stevens Pass, almost as if they can never quite be free.

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