Time seems to have speeded up – somehow it’s now 2011 and I’m left with a backlog of climate stories from 1910. If this was my day job I’d be in big trouble, but thankfully this is just a blog and there is no manager or editor looking over my shoulder and telling me to pull my socks up.
So imagine, if you will, that it is still 2010, and I’m not horribly behind with everything.
There are stories from 1910 that are very relevant to this era, as many of us have been experiencing yet another cold and snowy winter across the northern hemisphere, and these include accounts of the great avalanches at Wellington and at Rogers Pass.
During the winter of 1909-10 there were strong La Nina conditions prevailing, just as there are now, with heavy snowfalls across North America that were similar to those that have been plaguing the continent a century later. Starting on 16th February, Ohio endured a state-wide snowstorm that was reputedly the worst in its history, with 10-foot deep drifts and older buildings collapsing under the weight of accumulated snow. Even at the end of March, Santa Fe in New Mexico was experiencing heavy snow, according to the papers of the time, and Denver, Colorado, was struck by a storm that was “almost of the proportions of a mid-winter blizzard”.
And with the widespread snowfalls came a couple of major weather-related tragedies, in quick succession.
The scene of the Wellington disaster was a remote mountain pass in Washington State, where two trains from the eastern US to Seattle had become stranded, due to the thick snow, despite heroic efforts of the railroadmen to clear the line. Aside from shovels and sheer human grit and determination, they had at their disposal two huge rotary snow ploughs mounted on a locomotive, which could cut through snowdrifts up to 13 feet thick but used up coal at a prodigious rate; however, even with these state-of-the-art machines, they were unable to clear the line.
On 1st March 1910, during a lightning storm at night, a total of 96 people died when a great avalanche swept down off the mountainside and struck the stranded trains, crushing them down into a snow-filled canyon. Ironically, many of the people who perished were women and children sleeping in their railway carriages because everyone had thought they would be safest there.
It is an absorbing and tragic story, to which I clearly won’t be able to do justice here. I recommend that you read it on this blog by John J. McKay, where it is told in vivid and sombre detail. In terms of lives lost, this was the worst ever avalanche in the history of the United States. Later the town was quietly renamed Tye (after the nearby Tye River) and then abandoned and burned. These days it is just another peaceful stop on the scenic Iron Goat Trail – although some say the place is haunted.
I’ve just read that this month has seen heavy snow again in the Cascade mountains, and that the Wellington site – just as it was 101 years ago – has been inaccessible from the outside world.
On 4th March 1910, three days after Wellington, there was a similar disaster in Canada which took 62 lives, when a huge mass of snow slid down from Cheops Mountain and buried work crews of railroadmen who had been sent out to clear the debris of a previous avalanche from the track, along with their locomotive. A few men had lucky escapes, one man surviving after being blown out of the train by the strong wind that accompanied the avalanche. The bodies of the dead were buried under 10 metres of snow. Four of them could not be found at the time, and were recovered later in the spring when the snow had melted.
Like the Wellington event, this avalanche set a record and is officially the worst in Canadian history.
The dead included 32 Japanese, who had been employed by the Canada Nippon Supply Company and contracted by Canadian Pacific Railway. Last year, on 4th March there was a commemorative service in the mountain resort of Revelstoke, British Columbia, during which the 62 men who died were remembered and honoured. It was attended by three members of the Yamaji family, who had not known that an ancestor of theirs – Mannusoke Yamaji – had been one of the dead, until a researcher into the history of the disaster had contacted them shortly before the anniversary. At the memorial service were hundreds of well-wishers, Christian and Buddhist clerics and a gift of hundreds of origami cranes.
Nowadays it is perhaps difficult to fully imagine the challenges our forbears faced a century ago when combating the elements and striving to overcome the most intractable of natural obstacles using only the brute power of steam engines and human muscle, without the benefit of radio communications, modern power tools, the internal combustion engine or heavier-than-air flight.
These stories from a long-ago winter are a reminder of a side of nature – relentless, awesome and unpredictable – that even in these latter days, cushioned as we are by our technology and our fossil-fuelled wealth, we ignore at our peril.