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Review: _The White Cascade:_ The chronicle of an avalanche in the high Cascade mountains

When I find a good historical account, of well, anything, I tend to jump right in. I spent a good portion of my childhood in Washington state, where the Cascade mountains are a constant presence. Every summer, my granparents would load up their VW van with paintings and off we go over the mountains to an annual art show in the town of Wenachee. I loved going up and over Stevens pass, and one year we took the train. Well, that memory fueled my reading of this book.

In 1910, snowslides trapped two trains of what was called then The Great Northern Railroad in the Cascades, near the train stop of Wellington. Wellington existed only as a maildrop and stop for railroad workers who worked keeping the line clear and maintaining the tracks. Usually the journey from Spokane west to Seattle was a routine thing, but the late winter of 1910, snow was rather heavy, and built up on the slopes surrounding the tracks. Buildings known as 'snowsheds' were located throughout the route, giving some protection but the avalanche that roared down on Wellington was massive enough to sweep the two trains off of the tracks and down into the depths of the canyon below. Without any means of communications to the outside world, word of the trains and passengers aboard would take days to get out.

Krist writes an informative story of the Great Northern, the people who built her, and especially about John O'Neill, the superindent of the section that Wellington was in. It was up to him to clear the lines, organize rescue, and see to both the dead and injured. Nearly a hundred people would perish, and the retrieval of the bodies would take nearly six months. Tales of the survivors, newspaper accounts, and the court records that would follow form the base of Krist's story, and his narrative is easy to follow if on the rather flat side.

In any case, I was enthralled by the story, my memories helping to flesh out the visuals that were forming as I read. The story was quick and easy to follow, and it took just a day or two to read. There are some photographs, happily, not that gory, and several maps that detail where the trains were, and the overall route of the Great Northern. Notes, sources, an appendix listing all of the injured and killed are also provided.

I would recommend this one to anyone who has an interest in the Pacific Northwest or railroading. The story is very complete, and manages to capture both the dangers and the romance of railroad travel in the early twentieth century. Four stars overall, and recommended.

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche
Gary Krist
2007; Henry Holt and Company, LLC
ISBN 978-0-8050-7705-6

Rebecca Huston asserts her rights as the sole owner of this review.

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LeaPea2417 wrote on January 5, 2016, 11:31 PM

That sounds like a good book. I have always thought how I would hate to die in an avalanche.

msiduri wrote on January 6, 2016, 7:50 AM

*sigh* This site is flaking out again. But the review is as excellent as one has come to expect from you. As a kid I once traveled from Duluth Minnesota to Spokane, WA by train. I remember the moutains well. It was summer, and it was bit later than 1910, but I can only imagine the horror that must have been. Thanks for another wonderful review.