Trains buried by avalanche

Two trains are swept into a canyon by an avalanche in Wellington, Washington, on March 1, 1910, killing 96 people. Due to the remote location of the disaster and the risk of further avalanches, efforts to rescue survivors and find the bodies of the dead were not completed until several days later.

The Great Northern Railroad’s westbound Spokane Express left for Seattle, Washington, from Spokane on February 23. On February 26, a blizzard in Washington caused high snow drifts in the Cascade Mountains that blocked the rail lines. Despite many workers attempting to clear the tracks, the train was still stuck in Wellington, a small village in King County just past the Stevens Pass, nearly a week later. The area’s telegraph lines had come down in the storm, and there was little passengers or train personnel could do but wait out the storm.

The Wellington train station was located near the base of Windy Mountain, but had no protective cover. On February 28, weather conditions changed, with temperatures dropping and thunderstorms battering the area. In Idaho, several miners died in an avalanche, and flooding imperiled residents of low-lying areas. At 4:20 a.m. the following morning, with approximately 50 passengers and 75 employees of Great Northern Railroad sleeping in the Spokane Express, an avalanche of snow crashed down Windy Mountain, prompted by a combination of rain, lighting and thunder.

Charles Andrews, a rail worker and resident of Wellington who witnessed the disaster, described the scene: White Death moving down the mountainside above the trains. Relentlessly it advanced, exploding, roaring, rumbling, grinding and snapping. The Spokane Express and a mail train were both thrown from the tracks down a nearby gorge 150 feet deep. The Wellington station was wiped away, though the town’s hotel and store were untouched.

At the bottom of the gorge, the trains were covered by 40 to 70 feet of snow and debris. Because the telegraph lines were down, the people of Wellington were unable to call for immediate assistance. Despite the risk of further avalanches, many people pitched in to try to dig out survivors; it was not until the night of March 2 that assistance from outside Wellington was able to reach the site. By that time, 23 people had been pulled out alive, most with serious injuries. It took over a week to recover the bodies of all 96 victims of the avalanche, which then had to be moved by toboggan to the rail lines for further transport.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the worst in Washington’s history to that time, the town of Wellington was renamed Tye and new rail lines with protective tunnels were established; the old line is now a popular hiking trail. Lessons were also learned about the dangers of clear-cutting timber on mountains above towns and villages, a practice that was partially responsible for the avalanche.

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