Monday, February 28, 2011
Book Review: The White Cascade
The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist chronicles the events surrounding the killer storm of February, 1910 in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains.
A record-breaking blizzard delays two Great Northern Railway trains as they cross the Cascades near Stevens Pass: a passenger train, the Seattle Express, and a mail train, the Fast Mail. At first it doesn’t seem so serious, but as time wears on, the storm’s intensity increases. Although Superintendent James H. O’Neill and his men work around the clock, they are unable to clear the way for the two trains to get through. Stranded near the tiny railroad town of Wellington, passengers can do little more than wait it out, hoping their various destinations and projects won’t be too inconvenienced by the delay.
But the storm doesn’t abate, it only gets worse. It leaves so much snow on the tracks that the equipment can’t carry it off fast enough. Passengers get edgy as the days pass without relief. Over a six day period enough snow has fallen to bury a two-story house, and still there’s no letup.
As the weather warms, conditions get more dangerous with the threat of avalanches. Forests surrounding the trains have been thinned from fire, making conditions for avalanche even more likely. Thunder and lightning heighten the danger as the snowfields disintegrate.
Gary Krist does a remarkable job keeping suspense high throughout the book. With skill and meticulous detail he weaves local history, the personal lives of passengers and workers, newspaper accounts and meteorological conditions culminating in a killer avalanche, and finally the inquest resulting from the tragedy. Steam railroad buffs will find this book fascinating with its vivid descriptions of the ins and outs of railroading in early twentieth century. But you don’t have to be a railroad enthusiast to enjoy this book–it’s a piece of history skillfully presented.