Natural disasters follow a script in America, a maddening, though some might argue reassuring, drama that taps into our puritanical righteousness, our legacy of entitlement and our compulsion to right wrongs with regulatory legislation. Whether a hurricane is to blame or a blizzard, as in “The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche,” by Gary Krist, our outrage in retrospect seems matched only by our lack of foresight at the time. Set in 1910 on elegant Pullmans and drab boxcars held hostage by snow in the Cascade mountains, Krist’s account of an avalanche — which struck early on the morning of March 1 and killed 96 men, women and children — resonates because the particulars of such national tragedies have not, in fact, changed much.
The Great Northern Railway’s Cascade line, completed in 1893, was considered a marvel. The switchbacks and tunnels that cut through the snowiest region in the lower 48 were the handiwork of John F. Stevens, who would later become chief engineer of the Panama Canal. For the first time, Seattle, Spokane and Everett were efficiently connected to the rest of the country, allowing mail and other goods to travel from St. Paul to Seattle in just under 48 hours.
Watching over this line was James O’Neill, a 37-year-old golden boy whose career on the rails started at age 13. He became a favorite of the Great Northern’s owner, James J. Hill, a tycoon who once said, “Give me enough Swedes and whiskey and I’ll build a railroad to hell.”
O’Neill had been superintendent of the division for three years when, at the end of February 1910, an enormous snowstorm socked in the mountains, and he was forced to shut down the line until the weather improved. Six trains were on the tracks, but O’Neill’s main concern quickly became the two already deep in the Cascades, the time-sensitive Fast Mail train and the stately Seattle Express. Weather, Krist notes, was not the only villain here. As the hours and days passed, telegraph lines snapped and coal supplies dwindled. There were honest miscalculations, good intentions gone awry and corporate hubris aplenty, giving the story complexity and relevance.
Krist was fortunate with the cast of characters aboard these trains — stogie-smoking gents, an imperious dowager, a young and fashionable hair-care entrepreneur, an intrepid female journalist, a handful of adorable children — but he doesn’t use them to full effect. He’s a novelist and short-story writer, but in this, his first nonfiction book, he restrains his imaginative powers somewhat. He is hesitant to recreate scenes even when the story’s lagging pace begs for a bit of embellishment, and even though his source material — diaries, passengers’ letters and transcripts from the coroner’s official report — would seem to support some license. Krist rarely budges from his admirable detachment, and, as a result, portions of the narrative drag.
Wisely, though, Krist puts O’Neill at the center of the story: a man of swift and earnest action and company loyalty. Still, this is a case of disaster compounded by bad choices, and one that brought to light hidden agendas among the powerful, as well as the diffuse anxieties and suspicions Americans felt toward the industry titans of their time. Class warfare and bigotry emerged in the avalanche’s wake. Newspapers stoked gruesome rumors, one involved starving crew members killing and eating a cat. Years later, events were rehashed in lawsuits.
But for all the emotional familiarity of the tragedy and its aftermath, the victims are anachronisms. They are evidence that Americans have devolved in terms of civility, stoicism and patience. Most were too polite, too adaptable to make too much fuss. Though, one group did gather signatures for a petition requesting a meeting with O’Neill, who was too busy dickering with snowplows to oblige. And some passengers managed to hike down off the mountain before the avalanche struck.
O’Neill tried to shoulder the burden himself, but his commendable work ethic prevented him from evacuating the trains. Everyone on the mountain that week had a faith in man and machine so complete that they were willing to endure days in claustrophobic quarters among toddlers and the infirm and drinking polluted snow water.
Paradoxically, it is precisely our modern propensity for impatience and aggression, our tendency to freak out and then blame others, that could have saved these well-behaved men, women and children. Aren’t we too rude and cynical to stand for such shenanigans from Amtrak? Certainly the hundreds who died waiting bravely for assistance in New Orleans could belie that point. Or prove it, perhaps.