Stevens Pass train disaster of 1910: History’s valuable lesson

STEVENS PASS — When Monroe physician A.W. Stockwell went to snowbound Stevens Pass that early March, he came back a changed man.

Those who knew Stockwell say he became forever taciturn. Like others who made the trip, he reluctantly spoke of the horrors he witnessed: the bodies torn to pieces by tremendous force, the blood-stained snow, of cold days marked by a slow parade of the dead.

The ghosts of what transformed Stockwell still linger at Stevens Pass. The hissing of sliding snow, the distant snapping of tree limbs, the whisper of the past.

On March 1, 1910, the deadliest avalanche in the United States’ history swept away nearly 100 lives in the small railroad town of Wellington on the west side of the pass.

The carnage was so horrendous that people of the day renamed the town Tye.

Winter of ‘08 rivals past

This winter, as consecutive storms dropped more and more snow, sometimes closing Stevens Pass for days, many experts have recalled the Wellington disaster, which occurred 98 years ago Saturday.

This year’s winter is the worst avalanche season in modern history, experts say. There are striking similarities to the season that ended with the catastrophic snow slide at Wellington.

“It’s almost a carbon copy of what was happening in late February of 1910,” said Gary Krist, an East Coast author whose book about the disaster, “The White Cascade,” was just released in paperback.

Lessons still apply today

The story of the Wellington disaster, culled from eyewitness accounts, railroad records, court transcripts and newspaper reports, has been told and retold, but remains largely forgotten.

The country’s biggest avalanche disaster has important lessons today, experts say.

Should a late winter storm drop more snow on top of an already unstable snowpack in the Cascade Range, the resulting slides likely will be large, and have the potential to ravage hillsides, take out roads and add to this winter’s already high death toll, avalanche scientists say.

Avalanches this season already have killed nine people in Washington state, three from Snohomish County. Among the victims was Emily Swanson, 13, of Mukilteo, who died while hiking with family and friends on Mount Pilchuck.

“It’s clear that the snow we just recently had was the kind of snow the railroad was dealing with at the time of the Wellington disaster,” railroad historian Bob Kelly said. “It’s pretty hard to beat Mother Nature. There are going to be times when Mother Nature takes over. And that’s exactly what happened in the Wellington avalanche.”

A grim tale retold

In late February 1910, two trains became trapped by snow slides near Stevens Pass: The Seattle Express, Train 25, a westbound passenger train out of Spokane, and just behind it, the Fast Mail train, Train 27, the FedEx of its day.

Railroad travel in 1910 was far from a novelty, Krist said.

“It was no longer considered much of an adventure to cross the Cascades. They had it licked,” he said.

People may have had snow plows, and believed they understood avalanches, “but they didn’t have it licked,” Krist said.

When railroad explorers first opened a line over Stevens Pass in mid-1890s, trains were pulled over a series of painstakingly slow switchbacks.

In 1897, to speed the trip, a 2.6-mile tunnel was bored through the mountains. It opened in 1900.

Trains halted at tunnel

In late February 1910, trains were stopped at the east end of the tunnel. Snow slides to the west blocked the line.

Railroad managers put giant rotary-blade plows to work clearing away the tracks.

“The slides weren’t anything they hadn’t seen before,” said Martin Burwash, a farmer and railroad enthusiast from Burlington who is writing a historical novel about the disaster. “There was no real need for alarm at that point.”

After spending more than a day at a tiny railroad outpost on the Leavenworth side of the tunnel, the trains were brought through to Wellington just west of Stevens Pass. They were eased onto a side track, normally used to allow trains to pass. The plan was to wait out the storm.

Hour-by-hour, then day-by-day, railroad managers kept expecting to clear the tracks and send the train west towards Skykomish, Everett and Seattle.

The tracks where the trains waited were carved into a hillside with exposed slopes above and the Tye River below.

“They thought where they had those trains parked was safe because they never had seen a slide come down there,” said David Sprau, 63, a retired railroad telegraph operator, locomotive fireman and train dispatcher who grew up in Monroe.

“That’s why I say, ‘Never say never,’” he said.

A cruel change in the weather

As one day followed the next, slides continued to block the tracks. Snow kept falling.

While most storms in the Cascades dissipate after a day or two, the storms in the last days of February 1910 just kept pummeling the pass.

By Feb. 28, the weather started to warm and snow began to turn to rain. High winds tore through the mountains.

“What they probably had was a switch to a Pineapple Express situation,” University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Clifford Mass said.

That’s when warm, tropical air from Hawaii blows into the Pacific Northwest. Rising temperatures combine with high winds and heavy rain to create perfect conditions for avalanches, especially when the snowpack is already unstable.

After midnight on March 1, thunder rattled through Wellington and lightning flashed in the sky.

Many trainmen that night gave up bunks in town to sleep on the trains, thinking that was a safer spot than the fragile wooden buildings huddled along the tracks.

The avalanche thundered down at 1:42 a.m. The exact time was determined by the frozen pocket watches of the victims, recovered days later.

A slab of compacted snow, a half a mile wide, broke loose and smashed into the trains below.

“It seemed as if the world were coming to an end,” one railroad worker, who was not aboard the train, was quoted as saying at the time. “I saw the whole side of the mountain coming down, tearing up everything in its way.”

Reports said the snow around the trains turned blood red in places.

The avalanche hit with such force that it crushed rail cars. Rescuers found some survivors, but also encountered dozens of bodies, some dismembered. The last person to be pulled alive from the snow was a mother who had become pinned in the wreckage. Slipping in and out of consciousness, she was helpless to do anything for her infant son, trapped below her in the snow. She felt his final gasps.

Heroism and horror

The official death toll stands at 96, with about two-thirds of the dead coming among railroad and mail workers.

The actual number of fatalities likely was higher, Krist said. Many foreign workers, including Italian immigrants who helped build the railroad, probably were never accounted for.

“It was a night of heroism, a night of horror,” this newspaper, then called The Everett Daily Herald, reported at the time. Coverage of the disaster tended toward the sensational, historians say. Some details remain foggy and subject to dispute, nearly a century later.

Scores of men, including Stockwell, the Monroe doctor, headed up the mountain.

Sprau’s grandmother, Levina Kincaid Sprau, was 27 years old in 1910 and living in Monroe. She was Stockwell’s patient and witnessed the change in the doctor’s demeanor after the Wellington tragedy, her grandson said.

“He said it was just awful and more than he had been prepared for as a doctor,” David Sprau recalled hearing from his grandmother.

The body recovery effort took months. Corpses were lowered down the mountain on Alaskan-style dog sleds. The slope from Wellington down to Scenic at Windy Point, where a rope and pulley system helped lower the bodies, became known as Dead Man’s Slide.

The main rail line didn’t reopen until March 15, three full weeks after the trains were first sidetracked at the pass.

The railroad built long concrete avalanche sheds in an effort to protect the trains and prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

Those long sheds and the entrance to the tunnels — and the ghosts of the past — are all that remain to hint of the tragedy.

Today, the Iron Goat Trail, which follows the old railroad grade, provides a way for people to visit the site. Deep snow covers the trail and winter hiking is discouraged in the avalanche-prone area, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

“It’s a real eerie feeling to be where 96 people died,” said Nellie Robertson, a retired editor for the Monroe Monitor newspaper who wrote “Wellington Wisdom,” a novel about the disaster.

Modern devices avert trouble

Not far from the Iron Goat trailhead, crews worked this winter to keep U.S. 2 open after numerous snow slides blocked the road. For almost two weeks, I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass was closed.

“The idea of an interstate highway being closed due to weather is unthinkable,” Krist said.

In early February, Stevens Pass Ski Resort closed for five consecutive days, mostly because the highway up to the pass was blocked.

At Tunnel Creek, about 2 miles down the highway from Wellington, a slide 35 feet deep and 200 feet wide blocked U.S. 2. It took state Department of Transportation crews more than a day to clear the road.

“It brought rocks and trees,” transportation spokesman Jeff Adamson said. “That’s not an area that has slid in a long time. What came down this year was so far beyond anything we’ve experienced in recent history.”

Hillsides slid and chutes gave way in unexpected places and at elevations far lower than experts predicted.

Despite long road closures, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line stayed open, spokesman Gus Melonas said.

In 1929 the railroad built a new tunnel beneath Stevens Pass that’s still in use today. The tunnel avoids most of the avalanche-prone areas.

While some trains this season were delayed as plows cleared the tracks, the main line stayed open, Melonas said.

Modern communications and sophisticated track and avalanche sensors diminish the likelihood of another train disaster at the pass, Melonas said.

“We found ways to take the risk out of this operation,” he said.

Many of the lessons of the Wellington disaster have carried over, train historian Burwash said.

The railroad and road crews pay careful attention to the weather. Storms in the mountains are unpredictable and there’s no telling if another large scale tragedy could take place.

“They know that Mother Nature has the upper hand,” he said.

Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or

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