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The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche Hardcover – February 6, 2007
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In February 1910, a massive blizzard trapped two trainloads of passengers high in the Cascade Mountains. Crews from the Great Northern Railway worked around the clock to rescue the trains stranded on the edge of a precipice near Wellington, Washington. Then an avalanche half a mile wide descended from the pinnacles, forcing the trains and their passengers down the mountainside. Bodies were scattered all over the area, some buried as deep as 40 feet. The last body was found in July, 21 weeks after the avalanche. The lost passengers included business leaders, women, and children, but nearly two-thirds of the 96 fatalities were trainmen, railway mail clerks, and track laborers. Many others were injured and a few were unharmed. Krist's research includes documents such as telegrams and diaries, newspaper articles of the time, court affidavits, and corporate archives. To his credit, Krist has avoided using any invented dialogue or other undocumented re-creations. The book is an astonishingly rich chronicle of this catastrophe. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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The book is well organized and easy to follow - we learn about the Cascades, the history of railroading in the Cascades, the backgrounds of some of the key passengers and railroad employees, the conditions that led to the trains' being stranded, and the conditions that ultimately caused the avalanche. This is followed by a description of the various civil lawsuits that faced the Great Northern railroad after the avalanche, some of the subsequent safety measures put in place as a direct result of the avalanche, and details about the lives of the people who survived and the families of those who didn't.
I am giving the book four stars because I felt that it dragged a little bit. The lead-up the avalanche itself took up more than half of the book. The background is necessary to understanding why the trains were stranded in such a hopeless position, but it did get pretty dry in a few spots.
However, that being said, it is still, overall, an interesting thriller, and it is a lot more than just a disaster story. It is a disaster story in the context of rapidly changing times in a rapidly changing area. It's got a little bit of everything: labor relations, changing attitudes towards railroads, the role of the railroad tycoon, the beginning of a regulatory environment for an industry that previously operated unchecked, and even, to some extent, a look at how women and foreign laborers were perceived. All of this was interspersed throughout the story, compensating for some of the dry spots in the book and making me really excited to get back to the book once I put it down.
Also - two recommendations: 1.) Bookmark the pictures in the middle of the book and go back to them - they are all clustered together and if you look at them all and read the captions, there are some spoilers. 2.) Google the old Cascade tunnel and the Wellington snow shed when you are done with the book - there are some interesting pictures of it as it stands today, and it is interesting to view 1910 structures as they exist today.
I learned so much, about trains, about the era, and about avalanches in this terrific book. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes to read about disasters.
I wondered about Jim O'Neill, the GN Division chief, being a little bit eulogized throughout the book. I think he was more like " a flawed hero" (as a previous reviewer characterized him) than a guy who always made the correct decisions.
If there was a main hero in the story it was O'Neill, but I really wonder about his initial decision to allow the two trains, The Seattle Express and the Fast Mail, to continue all the way up to Wellington in the first place.
I believe that was the original mistake that ultimately resulted in the trains being careened over a steep mountain side by a monstrous avalanche.
He knew ahead of time that there was extremely bad winter weather up in the Cascades. Yes, it was a unique and rare storm, but I really feel that he made a serious error in judgment in permitting the trains to go as far as they did.
The story itself, is riveting, and I thoroughly enjoyed how the author laid out an historical account of a real-life train disaster.
This is a great read!
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