WELLINGTON, Wash. – This railroad town wasn’t much to begin with and now no longer exists.
Too many ghosts.
All you’ll find at the town site just west of Stevens Pass are a parking lot, a restroom and some odd concrete ruins, including a tunnel’s slowly eroding mouth and the tall pillars of an abandoned snowshed curving off into the distance.
But especially on a gray, wet day, Wellington still has an unsettling story to tell.
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“Whenever I’m hiking through that old concrete snowshed, I always think about what happened there in 1910,” said Tom Davis, a trails coordinator for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
“Just to me, it’s a little spooky.”
A short walk inside the shed cut into the steep hillside, there’s a sheltered place to reflect on a mostly forgotten but terrible March night a century ago, when a massive wall of snow swept two Great Northern passenger trains into the Tye River, killing 96 people – the deadliest avalanche in the nation’s history.
These days Wellington, or what’s left of it, is the eastern end of the Iron Goat Trail, a decades-long effort by Volunteers for Outdoor Washington and other groups to turn the long-abandoned railbed of the Great Northern Railway into a pathway. They’ve done an excellent job, creating a trail that combines mountain scenery, the glory of steam railroading, a tragic story and more step-for-step history than almost any forest walk in the Pacific Northwest.
The trail, on the national forest and in the Stevens Pass Historic District, is off U.S. 2 about 53 miles east of Seattle – an easy break on a road trip or a worthwhile destination for a day of exploring.
There’s much to absorb, starting with some history.
In 1893, after three years of difficult and dangerous work, the railroad completed its line across the Cascades, connecting the 41-year-old city of Seattle with the Midwest. From the start, the route was trouble: Trains with engines on each end had to struggle up switchbacks to reach the summit. Steep grades and sharp curves limited speeds and required huge amounts of coal and water to feed locomotives. Worse, snow would pile 25 feet high in places, often immobilizing trains for days while hundreds of shovel-wielding laborers battled to keep the tracks open.
The problem eased somewhat in 1900 when a 2.6-mile tunnel was finished with its western portal at Wellington. But there still was winter.
In late February 1910, heavy snow stymied both mechanical plows and men with shovels, stalling the two trains at Wellington for a week. Early on March 1, the thick, wet snow on Windy Mountain gave way, barely missing the town but sweeping away the trains, passengers and crews on board. The last body wasn’t recovered until late July.
After that deadly night, the railroad built Wellington’s snowshed, one of many it was forced to erect to protect track and trains. The bad publicity also persuaded it to rename Wellington as “Tye.” Faced with huge and unending maintenance costs, the Great Northern ultimately gave up, digging a 7.8-mile tunnel beneath Stevens Pass that’s still used today. When it opened in 1929, the old tracks and towns were abandoned, just 36 years after they were built.
Volunteers for Outdoor Washington began restoring the grade in the 1980s. Trail construction, much of it by weekend work parties, began in 1992 and with help from other organizations, the state and Forest Service, was substantially completed by 2007. Plans now are to link the trail to the newly created Wild Sky Wilderness.
West of Wellington, trailheads are at Martin Creek and the old town of Scenic. A 12.5-mile loop takes in all the trail, but it’s divided into shorter walks, many wheelchair-accessible.
Everywhere you’ll sense the enormous work it took to carve the grade out of the mountainside, often by hand, often in miserable weather.
The trail widens in spots where camp and section towns such as Corea and Embro once stood. Look closely and you’ll see decaying iron debris and long-junked gear, and the strange rows of rusty iron spikes that emerged where wooden ties rotted. Archaeologists have sifted through the sites, tracing the history of the line and those who built and maintained it.
All along the trail are remnants of snowsheds, mostly long concrete backwalls reaching 30 feet high, their wooden roofs long rotted away and rivulets from melting snow seeping through their cracks. There also are several ruined tunnels, but stay out – the ceilings are collapsing.
The trail’s best mid-May through late October. Obviously, VOW and the Forest Service urge you to stay away once it snows.
Two years ago, says VOW’s Dennis Evans, a 15-foot-high avalanche destroyed a bridge and buried hundreds of feet of trail. “If there was anyone there, no one would survive,” he says.
Though tough for locomotives, the constant grade is easy for humans. Walking along, it’s hard not to reflect on the futility of this attempt to conquer nature, which in a few short decades took back all but the hardiest ruins. Nowhere more so than at Wellington, peaceful in a soft rain.
It doesn’t take much to picture the killing cold and snow, the cries of the hurt and dying, the heroic and mostly hopeless efforts to save them.
“It is a bit eerie just to imagine what happened there,” Davis said.
“It’s not a place I’ve ever really wanted to camp overnight.”
If You Go
GETTING THERE: To reach the Wellington trailhead, take U.S. 2 to milepost 64.3, just west of the Stevens Pass summit. Turn onto the Old Cascade Highway, then onto Forest Service Road 050 after 2.8 miles. The parking lot is at the end of the road. Coming from the west, it’s safer to go to Stevens Pass, turn around and return to milepost 64.3.
The Iron Goat Interpretive Site at Scenic is at milepost 58.3 on U.S. 2, 10 miles east of Skykomish. The Martin Creek trailhead is at milepost 55; turn north on the Old Cascade Highway, then take Forest Service Road 6710 and go 1.4 miles.
BEST TIME: When the trail is snow-free, usually mid-May through late October. Check trail conditions at http://bit.ly/YGQmY
PAPERWORK: You’ll need a Forest Service pass to park at Wellington or Martin Creek, but not at Scenic, which is managed by the state. Passes are available at ranger stations in Skykomish or Leavenworth, or online at www.fs.fed.us/r6/passespermits/index.shtml.
WATCH FOR: Great scenery through gaps in the trees. Remnants of tunnels and massive concrete snowsheds. Old railroad junk at your feet. Numerous interpretive signs with history and interesting facts.
BE SAFE: Stay off the trail in winter because of high avalanche danger. Check the risk at the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center’s Web site, www.nwac.us or its hot line, 206-526-6677.
“The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche,” by Gary Krist (Holt Paperbacks, 2008). A compelling account of heroics and hubris, worth reading even if you don’t hit the trail, good to bring if you do. Krist’s Web site: users.starpower.net/gkrist/
“The Iron Goat Trail – A Guidebook,” by Becky Wandell. Available online at www.irongoat.org/guidebk.html
“Vis Major: Railroad Men, an 'Act of God’ – White Death at Wellington,” by Martin Burwash (iUniverse, 2009). Check out his blog: ramblingwest.blogspot.com/
Bob Kelly’s Wellington disaster Web site. Concise history and a great collection of photos: home1.gte.net/mvmmvm/index.html.
Iron Goat Trail: www.irongoat.org
Volunteers for Outdoor Washington: www.trailvolunteers.org