The Great Northern Railroad was one of those engineering triumphs that opened up America’s Pacific Northwest.
From the Rockies, its final stage crossed Washington State from Spokane to Seattle, switch backing through the steep defiles of the Cascade Mountains. The curves were dizzying. Trains crossed terrain too difficult for any living creature except goats – so in the US and Canada they were known as ‘iron goats’.
In 1893 at Stevens Pass, locos labored round 19 km (12 mi) of track to travel just 4 km (2.6 mi) forwards. Then, in 1900, the Cascades Tunnel was driven from Berne in the east to Wellington in the west, emerging on the lower slopes of 1,615 m (5,000 ft) Windy Mountain.
The blizzard had begun by the time the passenger express and the transcontinental mail trains left Spokane. It took them two days of delays to struggle as far as the tunnel and through it to Wellington. The line ahead was closed by heavy snow and the company’s specialist snow ploughs had run out of coal to power them. Usually trains would back up into the tunnel for shelter, but passengers were terrified of being blocked in as the storm raged for four more days. Fear proved fatal. On the fifth day, snow changed to rain as a massive thunderstorm hit Windy Ridge, towering above the trains. Lightning cracked and thunder boomed, shaking the earth until suddenly, in the darkness, a huge snow shelf 3 m (10 ft) deep, 400 m (1,250 ft) wide and 800 m (2,500 ft) long creaked once and broke off; and with a hissing roar swept both trains, like toys, crashing 50 m (150 ft) into the canyon torrent of the river Tye below.
In 1900, Americans believed in trains as representative of their civilizing mission to create technology capable of taming nature.
The disaster stung the nation’s pride.
When was The Iron Goat Disaster: March 1 1910
Where was The Iron Goat Disaster: Wellington, Windy Mountain, Washington, USA
What was The Iron Goat Disaster death toll: officially, 96 people died and all 23 survivors were injured, in all probability many more died, because the Wellington depot – wiped out with the trains – was crammed with undocumented, immigrant work gangs drafted in to keep the line open, and the company didn’t want the blue riband for ‘deadliest train wreck’. It even changed the depot’s name from ‘Wellington’ to ‘Tye’ to avoid the association.
You should know: In 1929, ‘Tye’ was abandoned after a new, longer Cascades Tunnel was built elsewhere. Recently, heritage organizations have developed the old railroad grade into one of the best interpretive hiking trails in America’s West. Thousands of volunteers have created three trailheads – at Wellington, Martin Creek and Scenic. It’s called the Iron Goat Trail.