Novelist Krist (Chaos Theory, 2000, etc.) turns to nonfiction for a familiar tale of Man-vs.-Nature. As usual, Nature wins.
The avalanche that killed 96 Great Northern Railway passengers and crew on March 1, 1910, was the result of a freak late-winter storm combined with an even rarer winter thunderstorm that triggered the slide. It’s doubtful any human effort could have prevented it, so the narrative has an inexorable feel that’s slightly deadening. The author holds our interest nonetheless with thorough reporting and easy, readable prose. The tragedy unfolded high in the treacherous snowbound Cascade Mountains of western Washington State. A Seattle-bound passenger train was stranded by a three-day blizzard that dumped more than 30 feet of snow on the steep mountain slopes. Great Northern’s 37-year-old Cascade Division superintendent, James H. O’Neill, a railroader since he was 14, personally rushed to the scene to supervise the rescue dig. But not even the railroad’s massive snow-plowing locomotives could clear the line, and eventually, the snow pack gave way, sweeping most of those on board to their deaths. Krist does a good job of introducing many of the doomed passengers and railroad workers. The most memorable character is O’Neill, who remained haunted by the tragedy despite his dogged rescue efforts. Others include train conductor Joseph Pettit, who labored mightily to calm the agitated passengers and entertain their small children. Also noteworthy is the Great Northern’s gruff, haughty owner, 71-year-old James J. Hill, an old-fashioned captain of industry without Carnegie’s philanthropic heart.
A treat for American-history and railroad buffs, though lacking dramatic fireworks.