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The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche (2007)

by Gary Krist

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3221182,017 (4.04)47
"In February 1910, a monstrous blizzard hit Washington State. High in the Cascade Mountains near the tiny town of Wellington, two trainloads of cold, hungry passengers and their crews found their railcars buried in rising drifts, parked precariously on the edge of a steep ravine. An army of the Great Northern Railroad's men worked round-the-clock to rescue the trains, but the storm was unrelenting. Suddenly the earth shifted and a colossal avalanche tumbled, sweeping the trains and their sleeping passengers over the steep slope and down the mountainside."--From source other than the Library of Congress… (more)
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My reading patterns have become somewhat eclectic -- I don't even remember where I heard about this book, and nonfiction is not my typical genre, but what a read! Bringing to life the Wellington train tragedy of 1910 (which I didn't even know had occurred) Krist paints with broad strokes to show the political climate of the time (progressive) as well as the financial boom of the Railroad Era, in particular the rise of the Great Northern Line under James J. Hill from MN. Lesser known than the era's other Robber Barons, Hill forged a railroad with sheer grit and now-embarrassingly cheap labor through the formidable Rockies and even more daunting Cascades to reach Seattle. Jim O'Neill, the superintendent of this particular tough stretch of mountain passage through the Cascades began work on the railroad at age 13: "What fetched [boys who went to work on the railroad] were the sights and sounds of moving trains, and above all the whistle of a locomotive. I've heard of the call of the wild, the call of the law, the call of the church. There is also the call of the railroad." (9) Quoting Miles C. Moore, an early governor of the Washington territory he notes: "Railroads are not a mere convenience. They are the true alchemy of the age, which transmutes the otherwise worthless resources of a country into gold." (15) Krist captures well the romance of the Iron Horse and the immense growth and progress in the country at this time. " the final victory of man's machinery over nature's is the next step in evolution" (5) and "It was ... a time when mankind's technological reach had profoundly exceeded its grasp, when safety regulations and innovations in fail-safe communication and operations technologies had not yet caught up with the ambitious new standards of speed and efficiency...." Think of the Titanic 2 years later. So the stage is set for a tragedy: a monstrous late-winter storm that started with temps in the single digits that progressed to thunderstorms and rain within days. More than 12 FEET of snow fell and the mountain wind whipped some drifts even higher and 2 trains: The Seattle Express and the Fast Mail Train (an innovation of its day) became stranded when they were sidelined in Wellington to wait out the storm and wait for the tracks to be cleared. Here, Krist skillfully fills in the details for the trip from boarding to disaster, with fascinating information about many of the passengers, the workers and the "town" of Wellington -- a handful of buildings on a single street. He is very sympathetic to James O'Neill, the man in charge of the entire situation, and rightfully so, for he was out there in the storm on the tracks, personally running some of the rotary snowplows and shoveling to try to get passage through for his passengers and cargo. He is a man of action and a leader by example. In general, the hardiness of people at this time was amazing -- some passengers chose to hike out the 5 miles through the storm and fallen snow to a lower station. Slide after slide blocked the throughway in one direction then the other as men worked round the clock to try to fee the line and get the trains moving again. Meanwhile, avalanche conditions worsened in the area where the trains were parked, culminating in the final fall that wiped out the trains, track and killed 96 people. Though I knew the outcome, this was still a page-turner -- I became so invested in the people and the action. Krist seamlessly wove together facts from exhaustive research and good storytelling that followed through to the subsequent inquest and civil trials. If you like Jon Krakauer or Erik Larson, this is on par! Also includes authentic photos from the time period, which are fascinating. ( )
  CarrieWuj | Oct 24, 2020 |
This is a fascinating book about a subject I knew nothing about. I went into this book knowing nothing about mountain railroading, the Great Northern railroad, avalanches, or the Cascade Mountain range. I learned a great deal about all of those topics.

The book is well organized and easy to follow - we learn about the Cascades, the history of railroading in the Cascades, the backgrounds of some of the key passengers and railroad employees, the conditions that led to the trains' being stranded, and the conditions that ultimately caused the avalanche. This is followed by a description of the various civil lawsuits that faced the Great Northern railroad after the avalanche, some of the subsequent safety measures put in place as a direct result of the avalanche, and details about the lives of the people who survived and the families of those who didn't.

I am giving the book four stars because I felt that it dragged a little bit. The lead-up the avalanche itself took up more than half of the book. The background is necessary to understanding why the trains were stranded in such a hopeless position, but it did get pretty dry in a few spots.

However, that being said, it is still, overall, an interesting thriller, and it is a lot more than just a disaster story. It is a disaster story in the context of rapidly changing times in a rapidly changing area. It's got a little bit of everything: labor relations, changing attitudes towards railroads, the role of the railroad tycoon, the beginning of a regulatory environment for an industry that previously operated unchecked, and even, to some extent, a look at how women and foreign laborers were perceived. All of this was interspersed throughout the story, compensating for some of the dry spots in the book and making me really excited to get back to the book once I put it down.

Also - two recommendations: 1.) Bookmark the pictures in the middle of the book and go back to them - they are all clustered together and if you look at them all and read the captions, there are some spoilers. 2.) Google the old Cascade tunnel and the Wellington snow shed when you are done with the book - there are some interesting pictures of it as it stands today, and it is interesting to view 1910 structures as they exist today. ( )
1 vote slug9000 | Jul 23, 2014 |
Long, detail-rich account of the 1910 avalanche that swept two trains off their tracks. I liked the follow up with the survivors. ( )
  lesmel | Apr 19, 2013 |
A few weeks after driving over Stevens Pass, my book club decided to read this book about a railroad disaster that took place there in 1910. I particularly appreciated how well researched and narrated this book is, but one of the best things about it is that Krist, the author, takes time to explore the aftermath and ultimate impact of the incident. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
A vivid look at the havoc wreaked by the deadliest avalanche in the United States. Living in King County, I had heard of the disaster, but not ever read anything in depth about it. Well worth reading. ( )
  MsMixte | Jan 2, 2012 |
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The difference between civilization and barbarism may be measured by the degree of safety to life, property, and the pursuit of the various callings that men are engaged in.

  - James J. Hill
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For Jon
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The last body was found at the end of July, twenty-one weeks after the avalanche. (Prologue)
District weather observer G. N. Salisbury delivered the bad news early Monday morning: It was going to snow -- again.
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"In February 1910, a monstrous blizzard hit Washington State. High in the Cascade Mountains near the tiny town of Wellington, two trainloads of cold, hungry passengers and their crews found their railcars buried in rising drifts, parked precariously on the edge of a steep ravine. An army of the Great Northern Railroad's men worked round-the-clock to rescue the trains, but the storm was unrelenting. Suddenly the earth shifted and a colossal avalanche tumbled, sweeping the trains and their sleeping passengers over the steep slope and down the mountainside."--From source other than the Library of Congress

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