The White Cascade (Gary Krist)

Disasters don’t always happen suddenly, like 9-11. Often they unfold over hours (think Titanic) or days (Hurricane Katrina). The longer, drawn-out tragedies start to look avoidable in hindsight. If only better preparations had been made. If only the crisis had been managed more competently. Some of these common themes played out in The White Cascade [LibraryThing / WorldCat], a riveting book by Gary Krist.

Krist’s book delves into the deadly Wellington Avalanche that rolled several trains down a King County mountainside in 1910. It was one of the worst railroad disasters in American history but is little known even in the Northwest. (I’ve known about it since I was a kid, but I’m a Northwest history geek, if there is such a thing.) This is the first time such a fluid, detailed narrative of the event has been published.

The Wellington disaster is rich in story lines, miscues, and chances to second guess. Ignoring the worsening weather and hoping to keep to its schedule, the Great Northern Railway pushed a passenger train into the high North Cascades. When a late February blizzard stalled the train, days of temporary delays became a week-long ordeal that stranded dozens of people on a precarious slope.

Passengers tried to make the best of their predicament, socializing and wandering the small railroad maintenance village outside. But they saw the weather worsen and fuel supplies diminish. They heard the frequent thunder of avalanches on nearby slopes. Snow clearing equipment broke down. Labor relations among the rail line’s work crews soured. Several passengers tried to convince the railroad to move the train cars to a safer location; others determined to hike out on foot. The railroad, personified by superintendent James H. O’Neill, declined any move, discouraged hikers, and forbade women passengers any attempts to venture away. All the while snow accumulated on the ominous slopes above. When the avalanche struck in the early morning hours of March 1, a week of inconvenience instantly turned to terror and disaster, followed by recovery and years of litigation.

Krist is a writer with three novels and two story collections to his credit, but he’s done a superb job with his first work of nonfiction. His research is thorough and gleaned from first hand accounts, letters, telegrams, and court records. He manufactures no dialogue in the process. He includes the need background, personal motivations, and suspense behind the drama. He introduces many of the passengers with a novelist’s sense of what’s important to the reader. He tells us why they were on the train and how they responded to events and interacted with each other. There are some horrific details, but Krist doesn’t overplay his hand even during the “reddened snow” chapter. He allows the facts to speak for themselves.

Although this is a story pulled from Northwest history, Krist has written a book for a national audience in the style of David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard [LibraryThing / WorldCat] and Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm [LibraryThing / WorldCat]. It’s nice to see this event finally told in a comprehensive, well organized narrative.

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