Blood on the Tracks

Untangling the train cars from the debris
Untangling the train cars from the debris (Corbis)
Reviewed by David Laskin
Sunday, February 4, 2007


The Great Northern Railway Disaster

And America's Deadliest Avalanche

By Gary Krist

Henry Holt. 315 pp. $26

"The Wellington Disaster was not . . . the 'Avalanche That Changed America,' " Gary Krist concedes with appealing frankness near the end of his book about America's deadliest avalanche. After all, "only" 96 passengers and crew died in the 1910 slide that descended on two snowbound trains in Washington's Cascade Mountains. In his first foray into nonfiction, novelist and short story writer Krist proves that you don't need an epoch-altering event -- a Katrina or a Dust Bowl -- to make an engrossing disaster narrative. In the hands of such a skilled and respectful writer, a week-long, late-winter snowstorm, stalled trains, and a cast of ordinary, unlucky people are more than enough to keep us turning pages.

Before letting things rip in the mountains, Krist briskly sketches in some useful background and context. At the time of the disaster, railroads "still dominated the national economy," he writes -- and the man who dominated the railroads was the irascible old empire builder James J. Hill. It was Hill who insisted that his Great Northern Railway punch a route through the treacherous northern Cascade Mountains -- at whatever cost in cash, engineering ingenuity and environmental hubris. "Modern railroads like the Great Northern . . . were supposed to be unstoppable," writes Krist, "the ultimate symbols of twentieth-century America's new mastery over its own geography and climate." But, of course, in a disaster narrative, geography and climate, not technologies, have mastery -- and whoever challenges them pays dearly.

The passengers and crew aboard the westbound Seattle Express and the Fast Mail train from St. Paul, Minn., paid first with a long stretch of inconvenience. In the early hours of Feb. 23, 1910, heavy snow stranded the two trains near the top of Stevens Pass, Wash., and continuing snow and wind kept them stuck there. A glimmer of hope came a couple of days into the ordeal, when the conscientious superintendent James O'Neill ordered the trains dug out and hauled a few miles farther down the line to the tiny wilderness station of Wellington, where there was more food, and, O'Neill believed, a safe set of passing tracks. But hope died as the storm hung in, and repeated avalanches rendered the tracks between Wellington and Seattle unpassable.

The passengers whiled away the time writing letters, entertaining their children, smoking cigars and complaining. A few got out by hiking and sliding down to the next station. Then, shortly after midnight on March 1, following a period of heavy rain, a freak winter thunderstorm dislodged a huge swath of cement-like snow. It plunged onto the trains, crushed them and swept them over a precipice. There was "a grinding and roaring and crashing," wrote one of the few survivors. "We went down very rapidly."

Krist's chapter on the aftermath of the avalanche -- the blood-reddened snow, the ever-fainter cries for help, the heartbreak of a mother pinned on top of her slowly suffocating infant -- is utterly gripping, all the more so for his restrained style. Equally riveting is the courtroom drama that ensues as two juries and then the Washington State Supreme Court determined whether God or the railroad was to blame.

The main problem with the book is the pacing -- the tight, clipped initial chapters setting the scene and period give way to a frustrating lull when the trains stall and little happens but more snow, boredom and leaden attempts to build suspense. By the time disaster strikes, the victims have grown fuzzy in our minds. The most memorable figure, and the most sympathetically drawn, is the tireless, beleaguered superintendent O'Neill -- which also poses a narrative problem, since he was never on the trains when they were snowbound. By making O'Neill his flawed hero, Krist shifts the emotional focus away from the victims.

As a weather nut, I was also disappointed with how little meteorology there is here -- no discussion of the genesis of the disturbances that piled up epic volumes of snow, nothing on what triggered the freak thunderstorm, no more than a passing glance at the physics of snow slides. Krist is clearly more fascinated by trains than by weather -- and readers who share this interest will love his portrait of the despotic Hill and the many digressions into the challenges, dangers and arrogance of sending fast trains through untamed mountain passes.

The Wellington avalanche, like all natural disasters, was compounded by human frailty. Perhaps the signal contribution of The White Cascade is how deeply and delicately Krist probes the moral complexities of this fatal combination. ยท

David Laskin is the author of "The Children's Blizzard" and "Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather."

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