Thursday, June 24, 2010

Heritage: The Iron Goat Trail

The double-track concrete snowshed constructed at the site of the Wellington, Washington disaster still stood over the Iron Goat Trail on 23-June-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Since 1929, when the "new" 7.8 mile Cascade Tunnel opened underneath Steven Pass, the Great Northern, Burlington Northern, and BNSF railways have been avoiding the worst of winter weather by passing underneath the crest of the Cascade Mountains at an altitude of about 2,900 feet. That wasn't true when the Great Northern was first constructed in 1893, employing switchbacks to travel over the full height of Stevens Pass at about 4,000 feet. To bypass the switchbacks, the "original" 2.6 mile Cascade Tunnel was opened in 1900 underneath the summit, but the approach to this first tunnel still faced severe winter operating conditions.

The western portal of the original Cascade Tunnel was viewed near the historic site of Wellington, Washington on 23-June-2010

Those conditions were most ferocious in the winter of 1910. A severe snowstorm struck the Cascades in February. Two trains, one passenger and one mail, from Spokane to Seattle, Washington were first stranded east of the tunnel and then proceeded through the tunnel to Wellington, where they were again trapped on 23-February-1910 as eleven feet of snow fell in one day and the maintenance crews could not keep up. On 28-February-1910, the snow turned to rain and conditions became precarious. In early morning hours of 1-March-1910, an avalanche came down Windy Mountain and destroyed both trains, killing 96 people. It was the most deadly avalanche in the history of the United States. For more on the Wellington Disaster, see the article on HistoryLink.

In the wake of the Wellington disaster, concrete snowsheds were built at the site of the avalanche, the town of Wellington was renamed Tye, and most importantly, the Great Northern decided to build a new, lower tunnel. In 1929, the original Cascade Tunnel line was abandoned, saving 9.5 miles of distance, an hour of operating time, and avoiding most of the conditions that had led to the disaster.

Kathy and Chuck Gleich posed at milepost 1713 (from St. Paul, Minnesota) on the Iron Goat Trail near Wellington, Washington on 23-June-2010

The disaster and the railroad was far from forgotten, however. In 1976, the Stevens Pass Historic District was designated by the state of Washington, and the Volunteers for Outdoor Washington subsequently constructed the Iron Goat Trail mostly on the original railroad right-of-way between the west portal of the "new" Cascades Tunnel at Scenic and the portal of the "old" Cascades Tunnel near Wellington. The trail is fully accessible in many sections, and offers the opportunity to see how the Great Northern was constructed and re-constructed in over 35 years of service.

An adit to one of the "Twin Tunnels" along the original Great Northern route over Stevens Pass was viewed from the Iron Goat Trail on 23-June-2010

The Iron Goat Trail offers the opportunity to see the remains of support structures at Wellington, tunnels, and snowsheds along the route, as well as the views that passengers would have seen when taking the route prior to 1929. Some of the structures are quite interesting, including the extensive concrete snowsheds built on the site of the Wellington Disaster in 1911, collapsed wooden showsheds, and an adit (horizontal shaft) into one of several tunnels on the route. Interpretative signs are located throughout the route.

Indian Paintbrush were amongst the spring flowers in bloom along the Iron Goat Trail in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state on 23-June-2010

In this 100th anniversary year of the disaster, my family did not walk the trail near the winter anniversary, but instead did it in the spring, affording the opportunity to view wildflowers along the trail, including trillium, Indian paintbrush, and lupin. For its historical significance and a glimpse of mountain railroading the way it was a century ago, the Iron Goat Trail is a significant resource less than two hours from Seattle.

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