Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Stump and The Log

If I ask those who regularly explore the canyon below old Wellington if they walked by "the stump", they immediately know what I am talking about. "The stump" is probably the most recognized image taken at the time of the Wellington slide. Featured on the front page of the Seattle Times only a few days after the avalanche, it was widely claimed that the pipes wrapped around its circumference held captive the lifeless body of a small child. Historians to this day argue the validity of that claim. I don't believe a word of it as there is no evidence of the pipes being cut, or the stump chopped away to release the poor soul. I also take into account, this same newspaper was reporting as fact that the local wolf population was feasting on the remains of those killed. Public outcry to that claim became so vocal, the Times quickly had to print a retraction.

To this day, "the stump" looks much as it did nearly 100 years ago. That is what makes it so fascinating to me. Here is one spot where a close study can reveal just what happened at 1:43 AM March 1, 1910. Yet, it is not just the stump that tells the story.

Laying alongside the stump is "the log". It was the remains of a huge old growth fir tree. Its bark is still black from the forest fires that burned the hillside above the siding at Wellington the previous summers. Under its mass is part of the underframe of a rail car known as the queen pin. Queen pins are specific in design for specific cars. By looking close and comparing this model to old photos it becomes clear this example came from one of the short express mail cars used by the Great Northern.

And so, thanks to the stump and the log, the picture takes form. High above, where the tracks once were, Train 27, the Fast Mail was parked on the outer siding, next to the drop off. On the next track over was Train 25, the Spokane-Seattle overnight passenger. When the slide came down from the mountain above, it first hit the cars of the passenger train, tipping them onto the adjacent mail train. The relentless force of the snow slid the coaches over the mail cars and carried them on down the slope.

Now flipped on its top the remains of this mail car was spun 90 degrees as it too was being carried down into the canyon. Somewhere in that rolling wall of snow a log log was propelled across the bottom of the car like a battering ram, shearing off the steam pipes, air lines and one of the queen pin assemblies. Only when the entire mass slammed against a tree snapped off by the avalanche did it come to rest, but not until the pipes were wrapped around the stump like a set of logging cables.

That is mechanics of what happened, but that is not story. The story is much more disturbing. You see, inside that car were not just sacks of first class mail. Inside that mail car, and all the mail cars of Train 27 were the railroaders who had so desperately tried to open the line. For the first night in over a week men, real people, Lou Ross, Al Dougherty, Milt Hicks and Benny Jarnigan to name a few, were finally able to catch a nap somewhere other than in the cabs of their engines and snowplows.

If the vision of the destruction of this car seems violent, how much more appalling was the death of the men sleeping inside? Wood car decking exploding into splinter's, giant logs crashing down through the snow, and yes the snow, the unmerciful weight and suffocating cold of the snow battered the bodies of these men.

I think too of those railroaders that survived. I think of them as they had the grim task of digging out the shredded remains of men that were their friends.

This is the story the stump and the log tell me.

If the coupler jutting out of Tye Creek speaks of the defiant nature of the men of the Great Northern, the stump and the log tell me of the violence and death brought upon them that terrible night.


SDP45 said...

It is still amazing that there are chilling remnants of that fateful day 98 years ago.

Thanks for keeping the memories of all those killed alive.


Don said...

A touching explanation full of facts that take the reader back and into the horrible scene on the GN. It's always worthwhile to read anything written by Mr. Burwash. He's a class act.

Don Forsling
Ames, Iowa