March 1st marks the anniversary of one of the saddest occasions in Washington State History. The review below is of the new historical novel about the event and will be one of the main features of the programs scheduled throughout the County on the topic.
“Vis Major – Railroad Men, An Act of God – White Death at Wellington” a novel by Martin Burwash, (iUniverse, 2009)
Colorful dialog and personalities make up this fictional account of the struggle to keep the rail line open leading up to the Wellington avalanche on March 1st 1910. One of the grimmest tragedies of the 20th century was the avalanche at Wellington station that occurred after 10 days of wet snow storms near Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains. Passengers of the Great Northern Railroad heading west over the Pass just came through the Cascade Tunnel when the train was forced to stop and wait for a plow to reach them to clear tracks ahead. The novel vividly describes normally laborious but routine equipment and track repair and plowing that rapidly became life-threatening. The conditions of the work gradually worsened as the men futilely shoveled twelve foot drifts and slides sometimes hundreds of feet long. They repair boilers and giant rotary plows to keep the track clear not knowing that this storm would continue for six days before the weather conditions caused the avalanche.
Wellington was a station on the Great Northern rail line that just opened 17 years earlier providing transcontinental rail services to Seattle. Many of the men who lived in this rough and isolated place at about 3264 ft elevation had families in Everett or were single workers. Rail expert and author Martin Burwash begins the story with practical jokes and a mock trial on the part of the rail men – the trainmaster, brakeman, conductor, saloon keeper, telegrapher, the engineer, and the Superintendent, the major characters who live out the impending tragedy. As the story progresses, details of rail operations and of working in these critically dangerous conditions are played out by the workers who express their frustrations with management, making the “right” decisions, overcoming obstacles in managing the setback as well as making the best of terrible circumstances.
There were many lawsuits of families, employees and business that were settled by the Great Northern over the following years. Ultimately the real life lawsuit on behalf of a young boy who lost his father in the accident claiming Great Northern to be negligent was won in a lower court and appealed by the railroad. A judge then declared the event to be an “Act of God,” or in legal terms “Vis Major,” declaring the Great Northern RR not responsible though it was criticized for low wages of workers leading them to walk off the job, not having enough fuel available to run the trains to keep tracks clear and for placing the trains in a potentially dangerous place on the tracks.
The book is a detailed, riveting read novel based on real accounts with a wealth of information to answer the questions it raises about the real event. Reading the novel with the real names of the railroad men can be enhanced by the photographs on the website of local railroad historian and expert, Bob Kelly at his website and the Washington State University Libraries resources
Thursday evening – Feb 18th 2010, 7 pm – Author Martin Burwash will read from, discuss, and sign his latest historical novel
“Vis Major: Railroad Men, an ‘Act of God’ – White Death at Wellington”. Sponsored by
Monroe Branch of the Sno-Isle Libraries [directions].
Wednesday evening Feb 24th, 2010, 7 pm— Author Martin Burwash will read from and discuss his new book Vis Major: Railroad Men, an ‘Act of God’ – White Death at Wellington. This program will with an introductory remarks by Snohomish County Historian by David Cameron. Sponsored by the League of Snohomish County Heritage Organizations at the Sno-Isle Libraries Lynnwood Branch [directions]
Saturday February 27, 2010 – Wellington Commemoration
Skykomish Historical Society will host a Commemorative Event for the 100 year anniversary of the Wellington Avalanche. The Event will be held in the Skykomish School at 1:00 pm.
Speakers at the program will include Gary Krist, author of “The White Cascade” and Martin Burwash, author of “Vis Major” and other railroad related books. Other authors and local historians are also expected to be part of the program with related displays.
Sunday Feb 28 2pm – Gary Krist, author of “The White Cascade: the Great Northern Railway disaster and America’s deadliest avalanche”, commemorates the centennial of the Wellington avalanche disaster.
Everett Public Library Auditorium (Downtown Main Library)