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The Deadly Avalanches of 1910
Snow in the western mountain ranges has always been the nemesis of American transcontinental railroads. Moist air moving off the Pacific Ocean is forced upward over the mountain ranges causing great bands of precipitation to fall, for this reason, the Pacific Northwest is called the Rain Coast. In winter, when the temperatures at elevation are below freezing, the precipitation falls as snow. From northern California across the Canadian border and then north to Alaska (should we not call this region the Snow Coast?), trains traversing the coastal ranges have faced snowfalls measured in metres (feet) and devastating avalanches. But none stands more infamous than the disasters that struck in early March of 1910 in north central Washington and southeastern British Columbia.
Washington 1910 Stevens Pass Avalanche
The first disaster occurred on the Great Northern Railway line through the Cascade Range of central Washington at Stevens Pass, 60 miles (96 km) northeast of Seattle. It shares the dubious distinction as the second greatest rail disaster in the United States and greatest due to natural factors with the Eden, Colorado event, both recording 96 fatalities. It also ranks as the most tragic US snow avalanche.
The event began in late February. For several days, two westbound trains had been delayed in Leavenworth, Washington, just east of the Cascade Range. The Great Northern trains were the Spokane Local Passenger Train No. 25 and the Fast Mail Train No. 27. The two trains combined included five or six steam and electric engines, and fifteen boxcars, passenger cars and sleeper cars.
When finally given the high-ball to proceed, the trains pushed across the Cascade divide. But they did not advance far before again being halted by snow and avalanches just outside Wellington at Stevens Pass. For six days, the trains remained snowbound on the track ledge beneath Windy Mountain and above Tye Creek.
On 28 February, the weather changed dramatically. Warming temperatures changed blizzard conditions into a steady rain/snow mix with lightning and thunder punctuating the storm. The already high avalanche danger level became critical.
Then shortly after midnight 1 March, booming thunder shook Windy Mountain and unleashed a massive avalanche, a quarter mile (400 m) wide. With frightful speed and power, it swept the half dozen locomotives and fifteen railcars sideways over the mountain ledge down into Tye Creek. Like Christmas toys, they rolled more than 1000 feet (300 m) before stopping in the canyon 150 feet (46 m) below, buried under 40 feet (12.2 m) of snow mixed with trees and boulders.
Charles Andrews, a Great Northern employee, witnessed the avalanche. As he walked towards the one of the Wellington's bunkhouses, he heard a growing rumble and turned toward the sound. Half a century later, he described the scene:
"White Death moving down the mountainside above the trains. Relentlessly it advanced, exploding, roaring, rumbling, grinding, snapping a crescendo of sound that might have been the crashing of ten thousand freight trains. It descended to the ledge where the side tracks lay, picked up cars and equipment as though they were so many snow-draped toys, and swallowing them up, disappeared like a white, broad monster into the ravine below."
According to one of the survivors interviewed after the disaster,
"There was an electric storm raging at the time of the avalanche. Lighting flashes were vivid and a tearing wind was howling down the canyon. Suddenly there was a dull roar, and the sleeping men and women felt the passenger coaches lifted and borne along. When the coaches reached the steep declivity they were rolled nearly 1,000 feet and buried under 40 feet of snow."
Andrews and other Wellington residents rushed down to the crushed trains that now lay 150 feet (46 m) below the rail bed, but it took six hours before they could locate the wreckage. The rescuers dug frantically to save those buried. Miraculously twenty-three were rescued. A few lucky survivors were thrown clear when their railroad coach broke open upon impact with the creek bed. One was a train conductor sleeping in a mail train car. He was repeatedly tossed from roof to wall to floor as the car rolled down the slope and then disintegrated when it slammed against a large tree.
The official toll claimed 96 dead though many bodies were likely never recovered comprised of 35 passengers, 58 railroad employees sleeping on the trains, and three railroad employees sleeping in nearby cabins. The last body was not found until the following June.
Three weeks passed before the Great Northern was able to restore the tracks and permit trains to again run over Stevens Pass. The name Wellington became so associated with the disaster that the community was later renamed Tye before being abandoned when the rail line was moved.
To protect the tracks and trains from avalanches and snow slumps, the railroad initially constructed snow sheds over the nine miles of tracks between Scenic and Tye. The old right of way was finally abandoned in 1929 when the 7.8-mile (12.5 km) Cascade Tunnel was completed. The tunnel, through which I have travelled aboard The Empire Builder as it rolls form Seattle to Chicago, is still in use, and the old stretch of track is now the Iron Goat Hiking Trail, the name derived from the Great Northern Railway corporate symbol of a mountain goat.
Roger Pass, British Columbia Avalanche 1910
A transcontinental railroad link to eastern Canada was British Columbia's price for joining Confederation. The daunting task of finding a usable route through the Rockies and Columbia Mountain Ranges fell to an intrepid group of explorers and surveyors. Many felt a northern route through the Yellowhead Pass which now connects Prince George and Prince Rupert with Edmonton would have left southern British Columbia vulnerable to American rail connections and influences. A direct link was needed between Calgary and the mouth of the Fraser River.
The Canadian Pacific Railway had already laid out a rail line up the Bow River Valley and across the Continental Divide through the Kicking Horse Pass, but its engineers had not determined where to cross the imposing Selkirk Mountains just west of the Rockies. Railway surveyor, Major A. B. Rogers eventually found the best crossing point: Rogers Pass. (The naming of the pass after him was part of his contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway.)
While the construction of a track bed through the pass was a formidable task, once it had been completed, the railway discovered even greater obstacles to overcome. Rogers Pass was subject to great snowfalls and formidable avalanches. Snows metres deep often covered the track, then avalanches ripped sections from the roadbed. In some areas, snowslides buried the track under twelve metres (39 ft) of snow. The winter of 1885, for example, completely shut down the rail line only months after its completion.
Location of deadly Rogers Pass avalanche
As a defence against the snow and avalanches, the railway constructed a system of thirty-one snow sheds designed so that the snow would avalanche over the sheds rather than across the most vulnerable sections of track. The heavily constructed structures cost a fortune to build and maintain and yet covered only 6.5 kilometres (4 miles) of track, less than a half of the treacherous Rogers Pass route. The snow sheds helped but did not completely solve the problem. Men and equipment still were required to clear the track, and did so often.
Such was the situation as darkness settled in the evening of 4 March 1910. Work crews were dispatched to clear a snowslide that had rumbled down Cheops Mountain, just south of the Pass near Shed 17, and blocked the tracks. The clean-up crew consisted of a locomotive-driven, rotary snowplow with its crew and two section crews, a total of sixty-three men.
Time was of the essence. CPR Train Number 97, westbound for Vancouver carrying four hundred passengers, had entered the Rocky Mountain foothills just about the time the slide was reported.
The winter of 190910 provided exceptionally conducive conditions for avalanches, and slides had been common during January and February. As the cleanup crew arrived, sleet fell to add additional weight to the already unstable snowpack. As the men laboured to clear the track, the rain and sleet continued, and all around them, the crack and rumble of avalanches from the surrounding high peaks echoed through the damp night air.
Half an hour before midnight, the track was nearly clear. At that time, Billy Lachance, the rotary-plow locomotive fireman, climbed out and took a stroll toward the bridge crossing the nearby creek. Moments after he crossed the bridge, a sudden gust of wind buffeted Lachance and threw him upslope into the brush.
The snowpack on Avalanche Crest, the ridge which formed the opposite side of the canyon from Cheops Mountain, had given way. A new avalanche rumbled down the slope. According to The Province newspaper account of the event, "In a few seconds, with a noise like a thousand thunderbolts crashing in unison, it leaped from shelf to shelf, uprooting and carrying with it a tangled mass of trees, ice, and huge boulders."
The avalanche widened as it raced down the slope, burying around 400 metres (1311 ft) of track. The avalanche picked up the 91-ton plow and locomotive and hurled them fifteen metres (50 ft) onto a snow shed roof where they landed upside down. The wooden cars behind the locomotive were crushed, and all workmen were instantly buried in the deep snow. The rushing snow dropped into the creek bed choking it with snow . . . and stopped, literally, at Lachance's feet.
The rescue crew of six-hundred quickly sent in to clean the tracks and recover the buried bodies found many of the dead standing in upright positions, frozen in body expressions like the dead of Pompeii. The death toll numbered sixty two, the only survivor being the fortunate Billy Lachance, who reportedly never again went back to railroading.
Despite rotary plows, wing plows, snow sheds, and a small army of men battling to keep the tracks clear, the line through Rogers Pass was never safe. From 1885 to 1911, deaths due to avalanches there exceeded two hundred. Eventually, the Canadian Pacific accepted defeat at the hands of the weather. An alternative route would go under the snow and weather . . . literally.
In 1913, railway engineers began burrowing into Mount Macdonald and through its granite core. If trains could not safely cross over the pass, then they would cross under it. On 13 December 1916, the first train passed through the eight-kilometre (five mile) Connaught Tunnel, at the time Canada's longest tunnel, bypassing the sixteen-kilometre (ten mile) hazard of Rogers Pass. The tunnel cost $9.2 million to complete, of which $2.5 million was spent on dynamite.
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