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Original Essays

A Fresh Chapter of History

by Gary Krist
"American history," James Baldwin once remarked, "is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it." That's true, of course, but it doesn't mean we can't keep trying. While no individual writer can ever hope to do justice to the full sweep of this country's history, we can at least contribute a few fresh chapters to the overall narrative — by bringing to light events that have somehow been lost in the great shuffle of pioneers, poets, and presidents. After all, the American adventure (or at least the post-Columbian part of it) has been played out over 500 years and across a continent's worth of territory. It shouldn't be surprising that it offers no end of forgotten stories.

The 1910 Wellington avalanche, I'd contend, qualifies as one of the most dramatic of these lost episodes in our history. Five years ago, I — like most Americans — had never even heard of it, despite the fact that it was by far the deadliest avalanche in American history. And the only way I found out about it was by sheer chance. Doing a Google search one day for information about the Duke of Wellington, I noticed a listing for something called the Wellington Disaster. Intrigued, I clicked on the link. A few minutes later, I knew exactly what I would be doing for the next three or four years of my life.

The story was extraordinary: two trains trapped for days in a storm high in the Cascade Mountains; an army of men and machinery working round-the-clock to free them; growing panic, dwindling supplies, an impromptu strike by snow shovelers, an insurrection among the trains' passengers. And then the final stroke — a giant avalanche that swept both trains off the mountainside into the valley below, killing scores of people. How had I never heard of this?

Here was an American story that clearly deserved to be reclaimed for 21st-century audiences. But was I the one to do it? At that point in my career, I was primarily a fiction writer; my first five books had been novels and short story collections. Even so, I had done a substantial amount of historical research for my last novel, Extravagance, and had taken to it instantly. A Wellington book seemed like a logical next step for me.

I knew from the beginning, though, that (my past as a novelist notwithstanding) I should steer clear of any fictional approach to the story. For one thing, the Wellington Disaster didn't need any artificial heightening — the dramatic arc of that week in the mountains already resembled something Sophocles or James Cameron might have come up with. And since there had been so little written about the episode by professional historians, I felt a keen obligation to be as true to the facts as possible. So I set strict rules for myself: The book would contain no invented dialogue, no extrapolated scenes, and no "composite characters" (too often a euphemism for "made-up people"). Of course, no writer on history can ever pretend that he or she will get everything right, but I was determined to stick as close to the solid historical record as I could. If I couldn't find a credible source for an episode or detail, I wouldn't include it.

Luckily, there proved to be a wealth of primary source material to draw upon. Thanks mainly to the diligent collecting habits of railroad enthusiasts, much has been preserved in private hands, including telegrams, diaries, legal department records, and the transcripts of the inquest and court trials that followed the tragedy. And thanks to the helpfulness of those same railroad enthusiasts, who were in some cases stunningly generous in sharing their collections with me, I was able to find a lot of this material much more quickly and easily than would otherwise have been the case. (It was a great pleasure for me to repay some of this kindness by providing a few collectors with previously lost documents that I was able to locate using a genealogist and the long arm of the Internet.)

But I also wanted to place the specific story of the Wellington Disaster in its broader context, so I spent years absorbing secondary sources on everything from the mechanics of snowslides to the politics of tobacco prohibition in the Pacific Northwest during the Progressive Era. The history of railroading was particularly fascinating. I had known the story behind the building of the first transcontinental railroad after the Civil War, but I was less familiar with what happened after that first golden spike was driven. The railroads that followed were what really won the American West, and that was a saga in itself, full of drama, wild incident, and larger-than-life characters. As luck would have it, one of the most colorful characters in this history just happened to be intimately involved in the Wellington story — James J. Hill, the so-called Empire Builder of the Northwest, who had built the Great Northern Railroad and in the process had opened up a huge swath of the country to settlement and industry. Hill is an intriguing character — one who in his day inspired both intense loathing and rhapsodic admiration — and his role as the presiding spirit behind the events at Wellington is an important element in the narrative.

Looking back, then, I have to say that the Wellington Disaster was one of the most remarkable discoveries of my writing life. I collect book ideas the way some people collect stamps or Fabergé eggs, but few other ideas have gripped me as intensely as this one has. It's a tragic story in the end, but one that I think vividly illustrates the unique combination of courage, opportunism, and sacrifice that helped to build the country we know today. spacer

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