The creation of the train routes through the Western Washington Cascade Mountains proved a monumental challenge. The conflict arose between the engineering capabilities of man and the treacherous topography and inclimate weather of the region. The nine miles of track connecting the towns of Stevens Pass, Wellington and Scenic, Washington ultimately proved a failure for the Great Northern Railway. The Iron Goat Trail that retraces the former routing is a popular hiking destination. The trailhead is easily accessible by car. The well-maintained path leads you through traces of two ghost towns that were obliterated by avalanche.
In the last decade of the 19th century, railroads were the primary mode of transportation for transcontinental passenger travel and freight. Previously isolated and inaccessible portions of the country became connected. Geographical impediments were merely obstacles to overcome. As profits swelled, ambitious and bold routings were designed and realized. During the 1890s, construction innovations enabled greater travel and more direct routes. These projects, employing tunneling and snow sheds, began lining the mountainous stretches immediately past Stevens Pass on the route to the Everett and Seattle stations.
Immigrant laborers cleared the hillsides of mammoth trees. They drilled and blasted rock to create a flat grade. Camps were required for the hundreds of workers to maintain the tracks and keep them operational during the winter snows. Snowdrifts on the mountains often piled as high as 25 feet on either side of the tracks, creating artificial canyons and muffling warning noises. Snow slides often trapped and delayed trains for long periods of time until snowplows and large crews could manually shovel the paths.
Crossing the Western Cascades in winter was a daunting trek. Initially, the lush forests offered protection from avalanche perils. Over time, logging, grade construction and fires cleared the landscape making them vulnerable to heavy snow slides. Sparks emitted by the passing trains often ignited the forest.
Along the Stevens Pass corridor between Wellington and Scenic, eight snowsheds and tunnels protected trains from the perilous conditions. Under these shelters, trains and passengers were considered safe. Exposed areas made trains susceptible to danger.
Construction on the snowsheds began in 1893. Each were framed with untreated Douglas fir, hemlock and Pacific Silver Fir beams and reinforced with concrete. The interior of the structures however, created residual problems, often trapping smoke and hindering visibility. The summer heat caused the timbers to become dry and less resistant to sparks from passing trains.
Maintenance costs skyrocketed during the winter months. The massive snows and periodic avalanches sometimes caused lengthy closures and worse fatalities. Derailments, destroyed bridges and the human risk factor made the decision to abandon the menacing stretch an economic necessity by 1921. Construction began in December 1925 of an alternate lower elevation extended tunnel route that remains today. Upon its completion, the doomed stretch between Stevens Pass, Wellington and Scenic was abandoned to the elements.
The snowsheds and tunnels remain as relics. They have continued a slow but steady deterioration, crumbling and becoming defaced with graffiti. Their existence is a threat to the curious who enter due to unpredictable falling debris and flash flooding.
Danger aside, imagination is stirred when entering these relics. On envisions a bygone era where the speed of transport was relative. A voyage by cross-country train does not match the speed required by contemporary travelers. In their silence and emptiness, the vacant tunnels and snow sheds resemble tombs depicting casualties of time.
An irony persists that the most accessible remnants of this era were constructed within the decade following the most devastating catastrophe in American railroad history.
In 1910, Wellington was a miniscule mountain town that existed exclusively due to the Great Northern Railway. Constructed in 1893, the town was the operational headquarters for tunnel construction, tunnel electrification and general maintenance along the line. It was also an important coal, water and rest stop for trains on route to Everett, Seattle and Tacoma.
The edition details the massive storm and landslide of March 1, 1910 that obliterated the town and killed 96 railroad passengers, the worst fatality count in American railroad history.