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March-April 2009

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Retrospect - March 1, 1910: The Wellington Avalanche

On the evening of February 22 1910, passenger train No. 25 of the Great Northern Railway, commonly known in Spokane as the Seattle Express, pulled out of the station in Spokane, Washington, bound for its namesake city some 300 miles away. For the 56 passengers aboard, the trip that lay ahead of them through the Cascade Mountains might have seemed mundane; however, none of them would reach their destination on time and, in a little more than a week, most of them would be dead.

Though various reports exist from 1910 with slightly different details, this account of the Wellington avalanche here has been drawn mainly from the Monthly Weather Review and The White Cascade by Gary Krist, a book-length account reconstructed from historical documents.

On February 25, the Seattle Express had completed its climb up the lee side of the mountains when it ran into trouble just outside of the Cascade Tunnel, which lay below Stevens Pass near the small town of Wellington, at an elevation of more than 3,000 feet. High snow drifts blocked the railway, essentially trapping the train.

The drifts were the result of a series of powerful storms that came in off the coast. According to an article by Weather Bureau district forecaster Edward Beals that appeared in the June 1910 issue of the Monthly Weather Review, the first of these storms “was attended by milder weather, high winds, and a heavy fall of snow in the mountains.” The second and third storms “caused high winds and also heavy rains that extended well up the slopes of the mountains, while at the summits the precipitation was mostly snow which was very moist and heavy,” the article continued. “In fact, as a result of these 2 storms, all the recent falls of snow became soaked with moisture, while underneath was a layer of old snow having less moisture and beneath this was the first snow which had almost the consistency of ice, conditions that were ideal of the occurrence of avalanches.”

Trapped by the inclement weather, the Seattle Express had no choice but to wait out the storms. It sat stranded for 7 days outside the Cascade Tunnel beside train No. 27, known as the Fast Mail, an express train that could carry mail from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle in just over 47 hours (a rather incredible feat at that time).

Despite the discomfort caused by the extremely long delay, the weather had another surprise in store for the stranded passengers, and this time the consequences would prove deadly. At 1:45 a.m. on March 1, an avalanche—nearly half a mile wide, according to 1 estimate—struck the 2 trains, along with 3 locomotives, 4 large electric motors, a nearby depot, a water tank, and the track beneath them. The latest storm that precipitated the avalanche was so strong that witnesses and survivors of the tragedy reported thunder and lightning accompanying it, noting that the snow had changed to rain. This latest storm, as well as the others that stranded the trains, followed a period of heavy snow and unusual cold followed by milder thaw in the early part of January. These changes, combined with the heavy but less dense snows of early February and the more dense snows at the end of the month, set the stage for the disaster that played out that night.

The winter of 1909-1910 was a particularly bad one for avalanches in the Intermountain West. In the same Monthly Weather Review article, Beals detailed some 3 dozen avalanches that had occurred in the region, 9 of which claimed more than 100 lives. The Wellington avalanche was by far the deadliest, with the number killed listed as 87, though later estimates put the death toll at 96.

“It is seldom that avalanches in this district cause loss of life or damage of property,” Beals noted in his article, “except that once in a while a miner, prospector, or trapper living high up in the mountains is killed or has his cabin destroyed, and as these causalities happen in such remote regions they are seldom reported to the press and little is known about them.”

Despite the popular notion that avalanches “strike without warning,” these deadly winter phenomena, which kill an average of 25 people in the United States each year, rarely occur unaccompanied by telltale signs that the risk for such disasters is high. For example, a recent avalanche warning issued by the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (part of the USDA Forest Service) for the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon indicated that “heavy snow at warming temperatures along with very strong winds” were expected to “cause a significant increase in the danger [of avalanches] as the new storm deposits denser snow over the current weak snowpack.”

That such conditions pose a significant risk for avalanches was apparently known back in 1910, as well. “It was not the quantity of the snow alone which fell this year that caused so many avalanches,” wrote Beals, “but it was the manner in which it fell, and many of the people most familiar with these phenomena knew a day or 2 before they occurred that slides were inevitable, and had they not sought places of safety more lives would have been lost than there were under the existing conditions.”

Yet, for those unaware that such conditions exist, or of the impending danger they pose, the threat of being killed by an avalanche becomes all the more real. Such was the case for many of the passengers and crew of Trains No. 25 and 27, stranded on a snowy mountaintop for more than a week, before succumbing to the impetuous wrath of nature in what remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history.   ”                  

Weatherwise Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM) and science writer who currently divides his time between the Washington, D.C., area and New York City.

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