Saturday, February 10, 2007

"The White Cascade"

William Grimes has a good review, in yesterday's New York Times, of Gary Krist's The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche.

It opens:
On Feb. 21, 1910, snow began falling heavily in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Snowfall in winter was nothing unusual for the Cascades, but this storm was different. Rather than the usual one- or two-day blast, it raged on and on, dumping snow at the rate of three feet a day on mountainsides already buried under a full winter’s load. Meanwhile two trains, one carrying the mail, the other carrying Seattle-bound passengers, sat idle on a narrow ledge midway down a steep mountainside, waiting for snowplow trains to clear the tracks ahead.

These are the essential dramatic ingredients of “The White Cascade,” Gary Krist’s measured, hour-by-hour reconstruction of a horrifying accident that claimed nearly a hundred lives in a matter of minutes. With a sickening rumble, as lightning flashed and thunder roared, a wall of snow detached itself from the mountainside and flung the two trains hundreds of feet into a ravine. Most of the cars, one witness later recalled, looked “as if an elephant had stepped on a cigar box.” The last of 96 bodies, buried deep under the snow and scattered across the landscape, would not be discovered until the end of July.

The Wellington disaster, named after the little railroad town where the ill-fated trains spent their final hours, held the front page for weeks, and then, like most news stories, it disappeared into the past. Precisely why Mr. Krist decided to resurrect it is the big question hovering over this book.
Read on to learn the answer to the big question.

Related items here on the blog: there is a link to Krist's list of the five best books about natural disasters. And Krist's contribution to the Page 69 Series will appear soon.

--Marshal Zeringue