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Great Northern Railway Company Wellington Disaster records, 1907-1911

Overview of the Collection

Creator
Great Northern Railway Company (U.S.)
Title
Great Northern Railway Company Wellington Disaster records
Dates
1907-1911 (inclusive)
1910 (bulk)
Quantity
.42 cubic feet, including 12 photographs, (2 boxes)
Collection Number
1995.51 (accession)
Summary
Great Northern Railway Company records, including photographs, from the avalanche disaster near Wellington, Washington
Repository
Museum of History & Industry, Sophie Frye Bass Library
Sophie Frye Bass Library
Museum of History & Industry
P.O. Box 80816
Seattle, WA
98108
Telephone: 206-324-1126
Fax: 206-780-1533
library@mohai.org
Access Restrictions

The collection is open to the public by appointment.

Languages
English.


Historical NoteReturn to Top

On February 23, 1910 , two Great Northern Railway trains--the "Seattle Express" local passenger train No. 25 and Fast Mail train No. 27--were stalled on the tracks at the Cascade Tunnel Station on Stevens Pass, thwarted by heavy snows and slides. By late the following evening, crews were able to move enough snow to allow the trains to pass westward over the summit through the Cascade tunnel, where they were stopped again just past Wellington, a small railway town where many Great Northern employees lived. As the train sat under the slope of Windy Mountain and above Tye Creek, crews worked around the clock to clear the snow but were unable to keep up with the continuous heavy snowfall and frequent slides. The situation was complicated by insufficient coal to run the plows, tired and underpaid snow shovelers walking off the job, and the loss of communications when telegraph lines went down. On the last day of February, an electrical storm arrived, bringing winds, thunder and lightning, all threats to the stability of the varied layers of snow on the mountainside. Previous clear cutting and forest fires had cleared the slopes above the tracks, contributing to the ideal conditions for an avalanche. During the early hours of March 1, either thunder or lightning caused a break in the integrity of the heavy top slab of snow; as the weaker layers below gave way, the enormous slab began to slide down the slope, carrying with it everything in its path. The avalanche pushed both trains 150 feet down into the Tye River Valley, where the cars were buried in snow and debris. Ninety six people died--thirty-five passengers and sixty-one railroad employees-- making the Wellington avalanche one of the worst train disasters in United States history. Over the following days, rescue crews transported bodies down the mountain on toboggans; the injured were taken to Wenatchee. The last of the victims was not recovered until the end of July.

The Great Northern Railway Company spent three weeks repairing the tracks before trains were able to run over Stevens Pass again. In the aftermath of the disaster, the town was renamed Tye to avoid the negative associations of the name Wellington. By 1913, the Great Northern had constructed snow-sheds over the nine miles of tracks between Scenic and Tye to protect trains from snow slides. The depot at Wellington was closed with the opening of the New Cascade Tunnel in 1929.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, accusations against Great Northern by the survivors, the labor unions, the press and the public became so intense that a coroner's inquest was held to determine officially whether human fault played a role in the disaster. Though the verdict placed the cause of the accident "beyond human control," it also listed three points of criticism--the insufficiency of coal, the laborers' low wages, and the decision to place the train in an unsafe location--which could be used for future lawsuits against Great Northern. Indeed, the company subsequently had to contend with a flood of legal claims from victims' relatives, freight customers, and employees. The company resolved some of these claims without admitting liability by making humanitarian payments to families. Eventually the Great Northern legal team brought a test case to trial--a $40,000 claim brought on behalf of a child whose father died in the disaster. Though the jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the verdict was reversed on appeal, and the Great Northern Railway Company was ultimately found not negligent or liable for the disaster at Wellington.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

The collection consists of Great Northern records, most or all of which appear to have been generated by the Legal Department. These include twelve photographs of the aftermath of the disaster, clippings, and a legal file consisting mainly of correspondence among various Great Northern attorneys, and between attorneys and claim agents. The correspondence from the days immediately following the disaster concerns the sorting out of the facts and responding to criticism and questions of liability; it includes coded telegrams sent between company officials, some of which include handwritten translations of coded words. Some of the correspondence concerns the coroner's inquest; a statement of the verdict is also included. Later correspondence concerns specific claims by various parties--employees, victims' relatives, and companies with goods being shipped--for compensation from the company in the months following the incident.

Among the correspondents are J.D. Armstrong, Great Northern's assistant general solicitor in St. Paul; D.H. Kimball, General Claims Agent; and Louis W. Hill, President of Great Northern and son of railroad "Empire Builder" James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway.

Though the photographs in the collection are not attributed, they are believed to have be taken by J.A. Juleen. Juleen took photographs of the scene soon after the avalanche; he may have been working for the Great Northern Railway Company.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

Alternative Forms Available

Copies of the original photographs and a photocopy of the legal file are available for viewing.

View selections from the collection in digital format by clicking on the camera icons in the inventory below.

Restrictions on Use

The Museum of History & Industry is the owner of the materials in the Sophie Frye Bass Library and makes available reproductions for research, publication, and other uses. Written permission must be obtained from MOHAI before any reproduction use. The museum does not necessarily hold copyright to all of the materials in the collections. In some cases, permission for use may require seeking additional authorization from the copyright owners.

Preferred Citation

Great Northern RailwayWellington Disaster Records, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

Administrative InformationReturn to Top


Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.

Photographs, 1910 MarchReturn to Top

Juleen, J.A.  ( photographer)
12 photographs
5" x 7"
Container(s) Description Dates
Box/Folder
1/1
1995.51.1: Man among wreckage
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.2: View of wreckage
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.3: Men pulling body on sled to Wellington
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.4: Remains of rotary snowplow
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.5: Bodies wrapped in blankets lined up on shelves, probably in depot baggage room
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.6: Men working among wreckage
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.7: View of wreckage
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.8: Men working among wreckage
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.9: Wreckage of train car 8201
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.10: View of wreckage
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.11: View northeast towards Wellington, showing depot, Bailets hotel and wrecked cabin
1910 March
1/1
1995.51.12: Men working on slope above wreckage of train car 8201
1910 March

Legal department correspondence and other recordsReturn to Top

Container(s) Description Dates
Box
1
1995.51.29: Legal file No. 1372, Part 1
approximately 220 pages
Largely correspondence among Great Northern lawyers, and between lawyers and claim agents, regarding claims for loss of personal baggage, shipping losses and for compensation by families of victims of the disaster. Also includes two letters predating the disaster (1907): a letter from Superintendent W.D. Scott recommending the building of snowsheds between Scenic and Leavenworth and a detailed reply outlining railway responses to recent slides in the area.
A photocopy of the legal file (in Box 2) is available for research.
1907 February; 1910 March 2-November 18
Box/Folder
1/2
1995.51.26-.28: Lawsuit correspondence, depositions and brief
Possibly Part II of File 1372 described above. Includes file for lawsuit (Rosen & Herman and Fichel Bros. vs. J.C. Fargo as President of American Express Company) regarding a shipment lost in the Wellington disaster; file includes correspondence and depositions. Also includes files for case Railroad Commission of Washington vs. Great Northern Railway Company regarding the deaths of railway workers at the Wellington site; and other correspondence regarding legal claims in the aftermath of the disaster.
1910 July-1911 July
1/3
1995.51.13-.14: Memos
2 memos
Memos signed W.C. Watrous, forwarding the text of telegrams from railway superintendents. The first quotes Superintendent James O'Neill's telegram notifying company officials of the avalanche, and the second contains the text of a telegram from Superintendent Bowen (?) reporting the death of watchman Fred Johnson in a slide at Drury.
1910 March 1-2
1/3
1995.51.15: Cost of Washington Snow Slide
On Great Northern Railway Company Legal Department letterhead, a list of total amount paid out to employees in settlements, for funeral expenses and other expenses (totaling $37, 114.02)
1911 April 11

Newspaper file, 1910 March 2-19Return to Top

File of front pages of Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the aftermath of the avalanche. The newspapers are between covers printed with "Great Northern Railway Legal Department." Small stickers on each paper indicate that they came from the office of R.I. Farrington, 2nd Vice President of the Great Northern Railway.

Container(s) Description Dates
Box/Folder
1/4
1995.51.19: Headline: "Sixty swept to instant death by avalanche"
1910 March 2
1/4
1995.51.20: Headline: "First official list of dead, missing and injured in avalanche"
1910 March 3
1/4
1995.51.21: Headline: "Ten persons taken alive from excavated car"
1910 March 4
1/4
1995.51.22: Headline: "Long funeral trains with bodies of slide victims start for the outside"
1910 March 5
1/4
1995.51.23: Headline: "Ninety-two dead and fourteen are injured in Revelstoke slide"
1910 March 6
1/4
1995.51.24: Front page article: "Coroner to find if human fault aided avalanche"
1910 March 9
1/4
1995.51.25: Front page article: "Avalanche due to act of God, says railroad"
1910 March 10