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Thread: When the Snow Falls

  1. #1

    Default When the Snow Falls

    When the Snow Falls

    A Look at Winter on Stevens Pass

    by Martin Burwash

    A Creeping Cancer

    It begins as rain. Thick, gray doldrums blow in off the Pacific chasing away the warm blue skies of Indian summer. Ever so slowly the raindrops turn to flakes. Like a cancer, the white canopy inches its way downward, from the high peaks of the Cascades, to the river valleys carved through their spine.

    An early morning rain is falling on the town of Skykomish, Washington. It is a typical drab, dark November morning along the South Fork of the “Sky”. The snows of winter are loaming above the onetime rail center, creeping closer during the nights. Braving the raw dampness, the brakeman of an eastbound freight trudges across the wet ballast, guiding a three unit helper to a gentle coupling with the caboose. Air hoses connected, he and the train’s conductor will scurry into the rear unit and crank up the cab heater for the ride over the top.

    In less than an hour, this same helper set travels through a far different scene. Winter has arrived here in the higher elevations. The back country near Deception Creek is covered in white. The heavy wet snow clings to every conceivable surface right down to the old steel poles that once supported the catenaries of the Great Northern electrification. Straight ahead, tucked under the cloud layer shrouding Windy Mountain are the scares left by the old grade to Wellington. Up there it has been winter for a couple of weeks.
    What a difference a few hours and a few hundred feet of elevation can make. By late afternoon a second helper set has popped from the warm confines of the Cascade Tunnel at Scenic into the full fury of a Cascade storm. Wind blown snow swirls along the channel of Tye Creek and is forced into wild arches by the passing train. The temperature has plummeted. Snow that began to melt earlier has once again frozen forming icicles that hang from the timbers of the trestle.

    If the approaching snow level above Skykomish is a cancer, on this afternoon, Scenic is the heart of the tumor.

    When Snow Turns Tragic

    Like the fist of a drowning man, a rusted coupler juts from the icy waters of Tye Creek, frozen in a death clinch for nearly 100 years. It is a tombstone marking the spot where 96 people were carried to their deaths by snow.

    In the last week of February, 1910, the snow would not stop falling along the Great Northern line over Stevens Pass. Superintendent James O’Neill along with his field generals, Trainmasters Art Blackburn and Bill “Snow King” Harrington, armed with 4 rotary snowplows battled the storm for a week, bucking slide after slide. Two westbound first class trains, Number 27, The Fast Mail, and Number 25, a Spokane – Seattle overnight passenger became trapped in the storm at a town named Wellington.

    On March 1, at 1:48 AM, as the thunder and rain of a sudden warm Chinook rumbled through the mountains, the snow pack above the trains broke loose. In an instant, 35 passengers and 61 railroaders and postal employees were dead. Their lifeless bodies were shredded by the wood of the splintered cars which were shattered by the force of the sliding snow and logs propelled by the avalanche. Buried under tons of snow, tangled timber and twisted wreckage, it would take weeks before all were found.

    Little remains of that horrific night, save this one great artifact. Little, that is, except for the ghosts of those long past. Spirits hover thick around old Wellington. Spirits with names like Dupy, Jarnagan, MacDonald and Dougherty still gather in the wind that blows through the evergreens that obscure this graveyard. If you stand silent you will hear them talking of the old days. They talk of the great deeds done. Yes, stand still on this hallowed ground and you can hear them tell the stories of the hours and days each spent in the cabs of their engines and plows casting aside the snow that would eventually bury them. In the end, they talk of the tragic snow that in a moment of terror and pain, gave them their final, well deserved rest.

    One Long Snowshed

    The avalanche at Wellington taught the Great Northern a very costly lesson. A line pinned to the walls of Windy Mountain where snow slides were a constant danger from November to May was not a route that would insure a prosperous future for the railroad. The short term solution was covering nearly 9 miles of railroad with concrete and timbered snowsheds. Yet even as these mammoth structures were taking form, management knew a time clock had begun to tick. Even with constant repairs, the expected life of the wooden sheds was no more than 20 years. Twenty years was all the time given to arrive at an ultimate solution for the problem of winter on Stevens Pass.

    That solution was accepted by the Great Northern Board of Directors on Thanksgiving Day, 1925. Adopted that day was the recommendation made by legendary engineer and explorer, John Frank Stevens to bypass the troublesome old line up to Wellington with an 8 mile tunnel. With the west portal beginning at the lower flank of Cowboy Mountain a mile east of the Scenic Hot Springs Hotel, the line would exit the east portal in a hollow carved out by the channel of Nason Creek, below the existing line, near the small siding and station at Berne. Due to the continued high cost of maintenance and steady deterioration of the snowsheds on the old line, the tunnel had to be completed before winter’s end, 1929. On time and true to the $25 million price tag, the big electric motors of the GN began pulling trains through the tunnel on January 12, 1929.

    It can be argued that the elimination of nearly 15 miles of 2.2% grade was actually a secondary benefit produced by the Cascade Tunnel. For it was the snow of winter, the lives and revenue lost due to the slides along the old line up “Avalanche Alley” to Wellington that prompted the building of what was then the longest tunnel in the Northern Hemisphere. A lack of tractive effort to overcome the grades was never presented as a reason for such an expensive line change. At long last, in the height of winter, snow packs on the ground were more often measured in single rather than double digits.

    And so on the snow filled days of mid-winter trains make an easy passage across the pass. Working up grade they duck into the west portal and begin 8 miles of weather free travel, emerging from the east portal, still well below the deepest snow drifts accumulating in the higher elevations. Bored through the backbone of the mountains, the Cascade Tunnel, although no longer the longest tunnel in the Northern Hemisphere, is still the longest snowshed.

    Protecting the Assets

    In what appears to be a clear cut case of history trying to repeat itself, a General Electric Dash 9 44CW of the BNSF makes every attempt to recreate a scene common some 50 years earlier when the giant Class W GE electric motors of the Great Northern roamed these same mountains. However, in today’s scene, suspended over the locomotives are not the high voltage wires needed for power, but rather an intricate series of low voltage strands designed to protect the assets.

    There is little doubt that the second Cascade Tunnel significantly reduced the operating headaches over Stevens Pass, but it did not entirely eliminate them. Witness the elaborate overhanging slide detector fence at Mile Post 1725.5 between Skykomish and Scenic. Placed in a spot notorious for falling rock and sliding snow, more than once crews have been stopped by red signals only to find upon further investigation that line here was blocked with debris. Protection, not propulsion is the job of the overhead catenaries these days.

    When trouble does crop up, the first line of defense are often the track inspectors. A report from an eastbound train passing through the Cascade Tunnel tells of a large chunk of ice that fell off a previous train and now has a drainage ditch dammed. Water is already nearly up to the rail. “Putting on” in the snow at Scenic, a track inspector makes ready to head into the tunnel and “save the day” while yet another eastbound waits it out. The very structure designed to eliminate the problems of winter railroading is now contributing.
    Yet, in spite of everyone’s best efforts and of the millions of dollars spent over the years to protect the assets, Mother Nature still holds the upper hand. The scratched sides and bent pilot of the BNSF 984 are dramatic proof that even with slide detector fences and track inspectors patrolling the hill, just the vibration of a passing train can dislodge enough snow and rocks to cause considerable damage. One has to wonder if the men who battled the old grade to Wellington, the ghosts that linger around the Windy Point Tunnel high above the damaged unit, are looking down and getting a good laugh.

    Working the Dozer

    When things get really tough, when the snow is falling too fast, when the banks are getting too high for the ballast regulators normally employed for snow removal to operate, the BNSF has no choice but to call out its “big gun”. Not the steam driven rotary plows familiar to the men battling the great storm of 1910, the 8 mile tunnel spelled the eventual end to their careers. These days, the “heavy artillery” comes in the form of the snow dozer, stationed in Skykomish from November until whenever the snow melts in the spring.
    Outfitted with heavy, air operated wings, when spread and running along at 25 mph, this machine can move tons of snow per minute. Operating like a giant road grader, the extended wings push the built up snow from the right-of-way, sending large, frozen chunks cascading over the banks clear of the tracks. Often it takes as many as three to four trips to properly clear the snow and push back the banks so that room can be made for the additional accumulations sure to come with each storm.
    It is the final pass that is the most spectacular. Whipping along at track speed, the nose blades down, the dozer sends a stream of ice and snow 30’ in each direction as they clean out the build-up between the rails.
    With the west side of the hill clean, the crew chains up the wings for the trip through the Cascade Tunnel. Once on the eastside they will continue to work the “snow zone” down to Merritt.

    On the right is Roy Keenan. A long time staple working the dozer, many on the gangs and train crews refer to the machine as “Roy’s Toy”.

    Boys Will Be Boys

    Give a boy a little time on his hands, a little snow on the ground and mischief will soon follow. It seems to make no difference whether it be grade school kids out on the playground, or railroaders biding their time, stuck on a siding in the middle of nowhere. Witness the crew of an eastbound empty grain train, holding in the siding at Scenic for a series of opposing trains. Needing to get a little exercise, they loosen up their arms by taking aim at the passing westbounds. Firing snowballs with deadly accuracy, the unsuspecting crewmen inside the cabs naturally flinch and duck as the snowballs slam against the windows.
    A few years later, at the same spot, the engineer off the BNSF 1019 entertains himself by building a snowman. Both his eastbound train and the one lead by the 7853 are holding at Scenic, waiting for the Cascade Tunnel to be cleared of fumes left by yet another eastbound ahead. With the 7853 due to leave first, the hogger grinned and observed, “Ol’ Frosty here has some serious suicidal tendencies.”

    Winter can be harsh and troublesome, but in the end, boys will be boys.

    Silent Night, Quiet Morning

    An overnight snowfall weighs heavy on the community Christmas tree located in the town park west of the Skykomish Depot. It is early morning, the day after Christmas. Although the traditional holiday shut-down of the rails is over, the expected surge of traffic has yet to make its way into the mountains. The low drone of a single idling unit is barely noticeable and only the occasional release of built up air and the subsequent thumping of the air pump gives cause to notice the engine’s presence.

    The silent, holy night of Christmas has passed. Soon the quiet of the morning after will be disrupted by the din of the nation’s, the world’s commerce needing to get a move on. The mountains will again echo with whistles and rumble with prime movers doing their best to overcome gravity.

    The trains will come, just as sure as the snow will fall.


    Last edited by Martin Burwash; 02-10-2007 at 04:44 AM.

  2. #2


    Now that this thing is up and running, just a quick explanation. What you are seeing is the type of photo essay I would submit to one of the rail mags. The photos were scanned off 8 x 10's printed in Ilford Multigrade IV pearle and were printed exactly how I would for submission.

    In looking at the scans, I can see now, I have to approach printing for scanning on the internet very differently than for publication. At least on my monitor, the subtle details of the snow and clouds, indeed, any dense spot on the negative quickly shifts to nearly pure white. Next time around I'm going to have to make sure to burn in those denser areas of a negative significantly more that I would normally.

    Other than that, what I am interested in hearing is what areas of this essay are weak. What photo(s) and text should stay, what should be completely canned, what could stay but with what specific improvement.

    Finally, a big, big thanks goes out to both Aaron and Bob for their efforts in getting this thing posted.

    Martin Burwash

  3. #3
    paul@mwr Guest


    I read it. I love it. Here is one vote of approval so everyone can comment upon Martin's work.

    My favorite part is the 'Boys will be Boys' section. I read the text before the photos were posted and it was already great. The photos take it over the top.

    More comments later when I have a chance. Thanks for putting together an excellent essay Martin.
    Last edited by paul@mwr; 11-18-2005 at 01:28 AM.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    Zanesville, Ohio


    I read the essay yesterday, and downloaded the images early as well. I have been thinking for a little while of something to say about this essay. Apart from well done, excellent, etc.

    The writing is very well done, expansive and informative. The images are equally so, providing historical perspective as well as a more modern look. The people take the photography a step beyond the normal. My only wish would be to see something a little more intimate, asking the near impossible for sure. Just one shot a little tighter on the men of the mountain.

    Thumbs up. Won't be long before we see this one on glossy.
    Chris Crook

    pictures and yap

  5. #5


    Chris sez:

    "My only wish would be to see something a little more intimate, asking the near impossible for sure. Just one shot a little tighter on the men of the mountain."

    A good idea, and very do-able.

    Martin Burwash

  6. Default

    Martin - a terrific essay with lots of character and depth. Sound's like I'm describing a fine wine, eh? Anyhow, my only comment is that the 'cancer' metaphor in the beginning seems off to me. Too much of a minor key. Would you consider a more positive comparison? I don't mean to be critical - but the word 'cancer' just brings up bad memories for me. I really don't think of the 'Hill' that way.

    Now for clowns!

    That shot at MP 1725.5 must have been a heck of a hike in the snow. I've never ventured down the hill on foot, but know I'm motivated - but in warmer weather.

    Just great! I think you should give Jim Wrinn a call.

  7. #7


    Just remember Jon, snow is not a welcomed sight to the railroaders up there. To them, it is indeed a cancer with all of its negative meanings.

    Still for a magazine market, you make a good point.

    Maritn Burwash

  8. #8


    Oops, wrong track.

    I've moved this to the right category now. OK, so we have two categories called "human interest", so I had a 50/50 chance of hitting the right one... Maybe I'll do better next time.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  9. Default

    I enjoyed reading and looking at the photos in this essay - the dozer photos are quite interesting.

    Nice work.
    Dan Schwanz
    POSTCARDS FROM THE GORGE Website update 12.26.09

  10. #10
    KeithAlanK Guest


    I agree with Jon Bentz.
    The cancer reference made me want to avoid the whole essay, which would have been a shame since it's so darn good.

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