Northwest NEWS

March 13, 2000

Features

Remembering Wellington and the Northwest's worst avalanche

Bob & Hal Strandrud

Bob and Hal Strandrud remember Wellington.

Strandrud home

The Strandrud family home in Wellington, marked with an "X."

wreck #1

Locomotive #1156 after being removed from the wreck on the runaway track in August 1910.

wreck #2

A wreck on the runaway track in August of 1910.

Tye #2

A look at Wellington (Tye) from one of the original switchbacks.

wreck #3

An engine derailment.

by Carol Edwards

   Ninety years ago, on March 1, 1910, people across the country were horrified to learn about an avalanche that swept a passenger and mail train off its tracks in Wellington, a community two miles from Stevens Pass. The disaster killed ninety-six passengers and crew.

   For the Strandrud brothers, Bob of Woodinville, Hal of Seattle, and their sister Mamie, this tragedy is part of their family's history, not in the loss of life, but that Wellington was their home town.

   A small Great Northern railroad town, Wellington was located on a flat area on the western slope of Stevens Pass in the Cascade Range. In 1900, the railway completed the first Cascade tunnel and Wellington was at the west portal. The town served as the headquarters for Great Northern's tunnel construction and maintenance. Track maintenance crews and other personnel lived and worked in the small community. There was a hotel, general store, bar, and cabins.

   "Our father, Alfred H. Strandrud, worked for the railroad and built a house in Wellington. He lived there with our mother, Elizabeth Jane Mead," said Hal, one of the five Strandrud children.

   "I was born high in the Cascade Mountains near the top of Stevens Pass. The snow was so deep every winter that it almost covered the houses. We had to have lights turned on all day because the windows were covered with snow and no daylight came in. Almost every building in town was connected by a snow shed so that people could walk to their neighbors, to school, to the one combined store and post office, and to the depot, in spite of the deep snow," wrote Mamie.

   The winter of 1910 was particularly harsh, bringing heavy snowfalls one right after another, and then a warming trend that produced numerous avalanches.

   The last week in February, two trains, #25 and #27, left Leavenworth for Seattle, but became stranded for days at Wellington as terrible snowstorms in the pass came one right after another. The railroad had two rotary snowplows working in the area, but one broke and the other one was immobilized when an avalanche blocked it. There was no way to keep the tracks cleared.

   The passengers and crew were nervous, and a debate ensued as to whether they would be safer in the snowshed or out on the tracks. It was decided that the train would stay on the tracks.

   It was shortly after 1 a.m. on March 1, 1910, that a shelf of snow began to slide down the slope, quickly snapping off trees as it increased in velocity. The avalanche then reached the trains and carried the cars into the canyon below.

   The book Northwest Disasters, by Ruby El Hult, published in 1960, documents the Wellington disaster (as well as the Great Idaho fire) from survivors and eyewitness accounts. The name Wellington was so tied to the tragedy that shortly after the disaster, the Great Northern company changed the name of the town to Tye, named after a stream in the canyon. A snowshed was built and completed before the next winter.

   "The winter of 1916, the snow piled up very deep on all mountains surrounding Tye, just as it had in 1910. One afternoon, my mother became very worried about the people who lived two hours away right on the root of Old Eagle, the mountain just the east of us. My mother took me with her, and we walked up the steps and through the snow shed to the Jensen's and the Hunter's houses. We almost had to crawl part of the way, because the snow had shifted into the shed," Mamie reported.

   She detailed the incident of the families and Mrs. Hunter's visiting mother hesitantly agreeing to come to visit after dinner. But the finally did arrive later, played cards, and listened to the rumblings of the avalanches nearby.

   "Mama put blankets on the floor for us children and persuaded the grown-ups to stay in my brothers' bed and my bed for the night. They all agreed, except one man. Mr. Jensen said he was going home to keep the fire burning in both houses so that the water pipes would not freeze and burst. He was not gone very long. When he came back, he said that both houses had been completely destroyed by a snowslide," Mamie wrote.

   The ladies, children, and Mrs. Hunter's mother left the next day and never returned. The men stayed in the hotel until they could dig out their home and see what they could salvage.

   "The table where they had been sitting was a homemade one with sturdy legs. The legs of that table had gone right through the floor. The dishes on that table were flat and in a thousand pieces. Their piano was beyond repair. The men quit their jobs on the railroad and took their families to Southern California where they bought citrus fruit ranches," Mamie wrote.

   In 1926, much of the town burned. The covered walkway that protected people during the snow now carried the fire to the residences. In 1929, the town was abandoned. The railroad built a new Cascade tunnel in 1929 and relocated the tracks to a lower grade.

   Today, there is little left to see of Wellington except for the abandoned railroad grade, old snowshed, and tunnel portal.

Tye #1

Wellington (Tye) with the snow shed and railroad tracks.

Tye School

Tye School with the pedestrian walkway.

All photos are courtesy of the Mamie Strandrud-McIntyre Collection.