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For more information on this disaster, be sure to visit
Bob Kelly's Wellington Avalanche site

The Great Slide
by John P. Brady
Originally published in Railroad Magazine, 1946
Reprinted in "Locomotives of the Empire Builder" by Charles F. Martin, 1972

This true story graphically illustrates the incredible severity of winter operating conditions along the Cascade Division, and also describes the fatal avalanche that obliterated the railroad hamlet of Wellington, although the death toll was greater, and three of the early box-cab tunnel electrics, famed for their "Cascade Connection" wiring hook-up, went with the unidentified steamers. Of more importance, however, is the simple story of the character and perseverance of the dedicated men that manned these engines of the Empire Builder. This account was first told for the readers of Railroad Magazine, by a Great Northern locomotive engineer, John P. Brady, and is reprinted here by the kind permission of its editor, Freeman Hubbard.

Imagine a mass of snow 14 feet deep, 2000 feet wide and a half mile long breaking loose from a mountain side and roaring down over a siding where three passenger trains were parked! This picture, forever impressed on my mind, flashes before me when I think of the winter of 1909 and '10, and my early days on the Great Northern. I was twenty-seven then, a husky engineer working on the Cascade Division between Seattle and Leavenworth, Washington. Snowfall had been heavy all that winter through the mountain district which we crossed, and the entire division was blanketed by eighteen inches to two feet of snow. My regular run was the local passenger train, Number 25 and 26. We would leave Seattle about three and
a half hours ahead of Number 2, the Oriental Limited, travel sixty-three miles to Gold Bar over level track, then climb a one percent grade for twenty-one miles to Skykomish, where the incline rose to two percent for the remaining twenty-four miles to the summit, Cascade Tunnel.

Years before this bore had been a smoke terror. Coming eastbound through the two-mile tunnel, the grade was 1.7 percent, and although locomotives on the hill district were equipped with hoods hinged over the smoke stack, several enginemen died of gas poisoning. Eventually, a passenger train stalled in the middle of the Cascade Tunnel, when its helper engine became uncoupled and set the train brakes. The helper continued on out, but the engine crew were overcome and could do nothing to get the train in motion. Nearly all the passengers were unconscious or very sick by the time a fireman named David Abbott climbed up into the engine cab, cut in the runner's brake valve and backed the train out. For this act of heroism he was promoted to the right-hand side and received a $1000 check from James J. Hill, president of the road. The incident also resulted in the Great Northern's decision to electrify the tunnel.

Heading out of Seattle with No. 26 on its night run to the summit, I had no idea of the battling that lay ahead. It was February 21st; I had engine No. 1106, with Ralph Helfreitch as my fireman. At 8:45pm, we reached Skykomish. It was snowing hard and the dispatcher had issued instructions to hold us there until a rotary snowplow arrived from the east. This was to turn back over the mountain clearing the way for No. 2, and our train. When it came through at about 10:15 pm, the parade began, led by the plow, then No. 2, with us bringing up the rear. We made Cascade Tunnel okay and started down the hill for Leavenworth. I remember meeting several passenger trains opposing us that night; First 3 at Nason Creek; Second 3 and No. 27, the mail train, at Drury. This fixed in my mind for these were the ill-fated trains of the Great Wellington Slide. We reached Leavenworth at 6:00 am, nearly four hours late, but we were the last regular train into that terminal from the west until March 17th. Because of that fluffy stuff called snow, the line east to west was blocked for over three weeks.

After getting some sleep, Helfreitch and I reported at the roundhouse since we were due to start west at 1:30 pm. There we were told that all schedules were cancelled until further notice on account of heavy snow and slides between Skykomish and Leavenworth. Lanky J.C. Devery, Assistant Superintendent of the Division, was there at Leavenworth, and it was he who finally decided to make up a double-header work train and take her over the hill. They got away about 9:00 pm, then four miles from town the light outfit cars started derailing due to the heavy snow on the rails. When they tried to back up to Leavenworth, both engines and some of the cars were shoved off the track onto the ground in Tumwater Canyon. The canyon was bad in snow season. It was dug out of the hills near the Leavenworth West mile-board and for nine miles twisted its way around the mountains, while the Wenatchee River wound through it coursing the nearby tracks. The sides of the gorge were so steep that in late winter, when snow started to melt during the warm hours between 11:00 am and 7:00 pm, slides were liable to crash down on the track. After sundown, when the air grew chilly, Tumwater Canyon was again safe for traffic.

Superintendent Devery had a stiff knee, but in spite of that he walked back through the night to Leavenworth once the work train got off the iron. On the way he found a large snow-slide had blocked the track completely. Devery got through and, as soon as he reached the roundhouse, ordered two big mallets coupled together to go back to buck the snow and get the work train back into town. It was then nearly morning. I was called for engine 1920 and Mick McNulty, a stocky Irishman with a long mustache as full of curves as the Cascade Division, was summoned to take out engine 1818. Coupled tank to tank, away we went to the rescue, with No. 1920 headed west. When we reached the slide, we stopped to look it over. The snow was wet and heavy, and I didn't think we could do much with it. However, Devery wanted to try, so we backed up and took a run for it. When we stopped, we were about an engine length into the snow, and the 1920 - the heavier engine - was off the track, headed for the river. The section men with us earned their ride. They dug out the 1920, rerailed her without much trouble, as we all hauled her over the heavy snows. By this time Devery had decided to give up the attempt, so we ran back into Leavenworth, and tied up about 6:00 pm.

At the telegraph office, the Super got news that a rotary snowplow was being sent from Great Falls, Montana and should arrive on February 27th. We were to arrange to start west with it immediately upon arrival and were to work twenty-four hours a day. Helfreitch and I were assigned to the plow, while another crew came along for the night work. Big John Maryott, an older engineer, drew the night shift but he exercised his seniority to ask for the day work, which they had to allow him. The plow arrived the evening of the 27th as planned. After one look at it, Maryott changed his mind and arranged to go on nights, switching things back to their original order. As everything awaited the arrival of the rotary, in less than an hour we were on our way with the plow, a pusher engine and a caboose for the crews to ride in. The conductor was a tall well-built fellow called Winters, quite an appropriate name for the pilot of this expedition. His gift of gab had gained him the nickname of "Windy", and his two Spokane Division brakemen - strangers until that night - proved very agreeable companions on the eventful trip that followed.

From the moment we entered Tumwater Canyon we hit small slides. It took us six hours just to release the work train and reach Chiwaukum Station, eleven miles out; yet that proved to be a record trip as time passed. We got water, the night men took over and we set out again.

About daybreak on February 28th, one of the night crew came into the caboose, awakened me and my fireman and the crew of the pusher engine. The rotary pusher engine was out of water and they were stuck. Harry Geerds, a big likeable man, who is now pulling the Empire Builder between Seattle and Wenatchee, was the engineer on the pusher; and when we joined him at the rotary, we discovered we were only a couple miles from Merrit, where there was a water tank. Up ahead the snow was just about two feet deep and almost on a level, but there wasn't enough water in the engine tank to melt any snow which could be shoveled in. The rotary had a foot of water, both boilers a half glass each. There was nothing to do except melt the snow. We shoveled away till the tank was pretty well filled. Then we placed a tie across the rails and managed to back the rear truck of the tank up onto the tie. Tilting it sent the water forward. When we got inside the tank, we piled snow up around the tank valves and started the thaw-out hose working. Enough snow melted so that we finally succeeded in getting started and reached Merrit tank shortly before noon. We left Merrit within an hour and commenced the eleven miles of 2 percent grade up to Cascade Tunnel. The drifts were five feet deep and our progress was slow. By 7:00 that night we had gone only a mile and it was decided to tie up for the night. We backed to Merrit, where there was a lone farm house. The warm kitchen and plenty of home-cooked farm grub revived us after the long hours in the snow and cold, then we headed eagerly for the comfortable beds and a good night's rest.

At 6:30 am, we were up and out to relieve the night crews who had spent the night watching, watering and fueling the machines for the next day's work. The company always kept several cars of emergency coal at Merrit during the winter, and it surely came in handy for us. By 10:30 we had backed into Merrit for water. On inspecting the rotary, we found that a shaft key was missing from the left quarter box shaft. While we were making a new one from an old brakeshoe key, Superintendent Devery and Mr. Kelly, General Master Mechanic of the Western District, who had come out with us, walked down to the telegraph office to see if the wires were working. They found no connection west, yet one wire working east to Spokane gave a report picked up by the operator at Merrit of the Great Slide at Wellington, just fifteen miles west of us. This made us all more anxious than ever to break through to Wellington, which was over the summit through Cascade Tunnel.

The Super also learned that there was a dead rotary and its pusher stalled on the mainline between switchers at Gaynor, the next siding, four miles west of Merrit. Both machines were reported to be heading east, both out of water and coal. The crews had left them and walked back to Wellington. In a short time we pulled out of Merrit, but late that afternoon we broke the right quarter-shaft on our snowplow. By putting the machine on one-side, we kept going until 7:00 pm, making only a half mile all day. The entire next day, March 2nd, we plowed through but another half mile. Word came through on March 3rd that General Manager J.M. Gruber and his assistant, George Emerson, were at Spokane, ready to leave as soon as they could organize a relief train. As a result of a great struggle, we cleared the tracks for about three-fourths of a mile, but not until the next afternoon did we get within a short distance of the dead engines at Gaynor. That night, while we backed up to Merrit, we were more hopeful. The storm was broken and we were having fair weather to work in. Devery ordered the night crews out to see if they couldn't get the stalled engines off the main, in case the special from Spokane should arrive at Merrit early in the morning. However, after working until ten o'clock, the night crew returned to report that the left-quarter shaft on the rotary had broken and the machine was out of commission. We tied up then, planning to start the crippled plow east to Spokane next day.

The Special rode in, as promised, about 7:00 am. There were two trains: The first, a complete wrecking outfit with dining and cook car, and 250 men; the second, made up of cars of fuel, food and medical supplies, plus a carload of dynamite for shooting snowslides where needed. Two cars of coal were switched ahead of the lead engine and then the first train pulled up to where the rotary had quit working. It looked as though the night crew hadn't moved a foot of snow before breaking down. There was still a lot of it between us and the dead engines which were standing some distance above us, up a steep grade. Carpenters on the outfit rigged up some sleds, ropes were fastened to them and the men began hauling coal up to the rotary and its locomotive. Others were sent up with tools for cutting up ties, and buckets for filling the boilers from Nason Creek which ran alongside of the track. Since the creek was a hundred feet lower than the track down a steep bank, we needed a bucket brigade to carry water from the stream up to the engines. Because everyone pitched in, we soon had enough water in both boilers so we could get their fires going. By 5:00pm, the two engines were on the way back to Leavenworth, where we could turn them and start west again. We struck out bravely enough, but found Tumwater Canyon full of slides, some of them twelve feet deep, and reaching Leavenworth was a twenty-four hour battle.

We sure hit the hay that night. Called to leave at 6:00 am, we found the new rotary much heavier than the one we had been using. In a short time we were at Gaynor and broke through the drifts easily for three miles up to the east switch at Berne station, where we ran into a slide 800 feet long and fifty deep in the center. It had partly dammed up Nason Creek. The supply trains stayed right behind us. We couldn't go by them to get water at Merrit, so a gang of men were kept busy shoveling show into the rotary and engine tanks. This snow was full of fir buds and needles which added to our woes by giving us injector trouble because the hose bag strainers became stopped up. It was a case of getting underneath the rotary, taking down both hose bags and cleaning out the strainers about every half hour. Finally, we had to let the water down to two feet in the tank, then get inside with buckets to clean out the bottom of the tank and around the valves. As the water was ice cold, you can imagine it was a tough job and we had to do it five times before we reached the tank at Berne. Here we gave the engine tanks a thorough washing and flushing out.

Seven days after our first attempt to buck that slide, we cleared Berne. By 11:00 am, March 16th, we reached Cascade Tunnel, finding the company buildings and water-tank there completely demolished, and the wreckage of the large dormitory, eating house, section house, ten employees' cottages and two stand-pipes strewn down the mountain side. It seemed a miracle that no one had lost his life, though a number of company employees were badly injured. The people had fled through the tunnel to Wellington. We plowed out the main-line and both passing tracks, then dropped into the two mile tunnel. When we exited at the west portal at Wellington - the first train to arrive there after the avalanche - the sun was shining brightly and it was a fine spring afternoon. But we looked upon a scene of a terrible catastrophe; the avalanche had struck at 2:00 am on March 1st, while we had been sleeping peacefully in the farm house at Merrit.

Everything had been set up for tragedy. First No. 3 (Overland passenger train from St. Paul to the coast), Second No. 3 (A make-up train from Spokane to Seattle), and No. 27 (The Mail Train) - the three we had met the night we ran No. 26 into Leavenworth for the last time - were being held at Wellington because the main-line west was blocked by snow. There were into the clear on the passing track. Division Superintendent O'Neill had been there several days, his private car parked on a short track called the coal spur. But luck was with O'Neill, for he had walked to Scenic, nine miles west, the evening before to try to connect with Seattle by telegraph, and had not returned.

Picture then the enormous mass of snow; the avalanche carrying great boulders along like pebbles, snapping off trees and rolling over Wellington with little warning, but the telltale sucking wind. The three trains were carted like toys a thousand feet down into Tye Creek. O'Neill's car was flattened on the track where it stood. Trainmaster Blackburn and the Superintendent's secretary, whose name I do not recall, were killed instantly; no doubt they never knew what was happened. In all ninety-seven people lost their lives, besides a great many injured. In the depot baggage room, which by a freak of nature was left standing, there were fifty-seven bodies which were being prepared for movement by sled down to Windy Point, three miles west. The track formed a horseshoe curve at that point; and as the track west of Wellington was still covered by the slide while the line was open from Scenic west, men had made a toboggan trail by sitting down in scoop shovels and sliding down through the deep snow. The remains of a number of persons had already been taken down that way. Wrapped in blankets and roped to improvised sleds for the descent to Windy Point, they were transported from there to the other side of the horseshoe at Scenic and then to Seattle by train.

We plowed out the main-line and the sidings at Wellington on March 17th. No 1 was started out of Spokane that day and No. 4 left Seattle eastbound. No. 4 passed through Wellington safely about 5:00 pm by fearing more slides west of us, we were ordered to go ahead of No. 1 to Embro, four miles west of Wellington and left her by us there, if everything was all right. As soon as No. 1 was ready, we pulled out and she followed close behind.

A show-shed 500 feet long sheltered the tracks a short distance before you reached the east switch at Embro. There followed a small steel bridge across a little ravine, and farther on the east passing track switch about fifty feet west of the bridge. We found the west end of the snow-shed full of snow caused caused by a slide under the bridge which filled the ravine and then poured into the shed. It was a job for us, trying to buck the snow out of the long shed. We had succeeded in driving through the wooden structure and had the front end of our plow right up to the bridge, when the front truck of the rotary went off the track and both right-hand wheels down over the ends of the ties. One engine couldn't rerail the rotary, so Conductor Winters went back to No. 1, cut off her helper, and had the engine coupled on to our rotary pusher. Even then the plow wouldn't budge, but we did finally break the bull-nose on the front end of the pusher. It was no use. No. 1 had to to reverse to Wellington and was then returned to Spokane. Winters cut the engine loose from the rotary and headed for Wellington to send a relief crew for Helfreitch and myself. However, when no crew had shown up by 1 o'clock next morning, Ralph and I lay down inside the rotary to get some rest.

About 4:00am, we were awakened by large chunks of snow striking the sides and roof of the plow. We scrambled out and ran inside the snow-shed. It was another slide rolling under the bridge, and so much of it came into the shed, that for some time we feared being blocked off from the rotary. At the right moment it quit, and coming out, we found our machine shrouded in white snow piled two feet above the top of it. The crews came back that morning with a gang of laborers and two engines, so a little before noon we had the rotary dug out once more and put back on the rails. Then we finished cleaning up the slide and returned to Wellington, most of us dog-tired. When they released us and told us we could go to Seattle or Leavenworth as we wished, Helfreitch caught No. 4 for Leavenworth, while I went to Seattle on No. 1.

The End - Copyright 1946 by Railroad Magazine.

For more information on this disaster, be sure to visit
Bob Kelly's Wellington Avalanche site