"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
In late February of 1910, an almost unprecedented late-winter snowstorm hit the US Pacific Northwest, causing massive disruption to transportation throughout the region, and utterly crippling the Great Northern Railroad in the vicinity of Stevens Pass, the railroad's Cascade Mountains summit crossing. Two Great Northern trains, the #25 Seattle Express (filled with passengers) and the #27 Express Mail, were eventually stranded on passing tracks at Wellington Station on the western side of the GN Cascade Tunnel. There they sat for days, while railroaders worked round-the-clock in abysmal conditions to clear the snow-drifted tracks so that the trains could move again.
The trains sat on a narrow ledge -- with a steep, snow-covered mountainside rising above them to one side, and a deep precipice falling to the other side . The treacherous and isolated terrain made evacuation of the trains by foot seem a less-than-viable option. As temperatures fluctuated and the precipitation continued falling, in varying mixtures of snow, ice, and rain, the snowpack on the slope above them became more and more unstable . . .
This is Gary Krist's first venture into non-fiction, and he brings the full storytelling skills of a novelist to this true story of a railroad under siege by Mother Nature. The narrative is well-paced, vividly (but not luridly) presented, never dry. Yet his research seems thoroughly done, too, with solid endnotes explaiing his sources and how he put the story together from the historical record.
I highly recommend this book, especially to lovers of railroad history.
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.
Worth reading more than once.