A Train Ride to Eternity

This article is full of mistaken assumptions, a lesson waiting for recovery beneath the ice of ignorance. For instance, I always assumed that Stevens Pass was named by good old George McClellan, as if he took time out from his trout fishing ever to really explore ways to get across the Cascades when Washington Territory’s first governor (and railroad route scout), Isaac Stevens, ordered him into them hills to locate a pass for a railroad to use. (By the way, if you’re interested in what the fishing was like around Yakima in the 1850s, McClellan’s journal will tell you. McClellan never got far. He glanced at the frowning cliffs above the Tieton River and turned around, reporting that a pass didn’t exist.) I started the article by claiming that a plaque memorialized the Reverend James M. Thomson in the basement Scout Room of St. James Presbyterian Church in Bellingham, Washington. But in a fact checking expedition this weekend, I discovered that I was mistaken: no such plaque exists. Now, I wonder why.

A grainy portrait of Reverend James M. Thomson was found in the 1909 history of the local Presbyterian Synod.

James Thomson was not a Boy Scout, and the Stevens for whom the pass was named was a railroad surveyor working for entrepreneur James J. Hill, whose Great Northern Railroad fearlessly scraped out a series of  switchbacks on the faces of seemingly impassible peaks. A bit of fear might have been in order.

My mother used to like to take her children into the mountains to hike and camp during the summertime. A fair portion of these trips took us into the peaks and valleys of the North Central Cascades, outside Leavenworth (a somewhat tawdry town in the days before it went Bavarian). One of our favorite campsites was at Fish Lake, another was the Presbyterian Church camp Tall Timbers, beyond Lake Wenatchee. It was on one of these outings that we visited the site of Wellington, by then a vacant patch of gravel and earth with scrubby forests struggling to regain footing. The great thing about Wellington to my pre-adolescent mind was the abandoned railroad tunnel. You could flee the heat of the summer sun for the cool, inky interior of the tunnel. You could grope your way over the uneven rocks, through drips and puddles, for a considerable distance before you came to a strong wall of corrugated steel beyond which the University of Washington was conducting some sort of experiment. Curse them. I really wanted to go through the whole three miles of tunnel to come out again at another abandoned railroad town on the eastern end. The tunnel was great!

It was only after we came out again that my father told us about the big train wreck. He had read a book by Ruby Hult called Northwest Disaster, detailing the tragic deaths of 96 passengers and railroad workers who were trapped in trains at Wellington in the winter of 1910. Sure enough, when we hiked towards an old concrete snowshed and peered over the brink of the right-of-way, we could see rusty remains at the bottom of the valley. My morbid enthusiasm led me to read the same book when I got back home, and I marveled over the story.

I’m marveling again. I just finished reading Gary Krist’s exposition of the same disaster, The White Cascade. Krist goes much deeper into the story, bringing to life the people involved in it. He introduces James H. O’Neill, dedicated and tireless supervisor of the Cascade Division for the Great Northern, whose decisions for better or worse contributed to the tragedy. I found myself wondering how I would react in his situation, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t have just thrown up my arms and quit: there was really no way out. As a boy I remember assuming the railroad was to blame for not having the train backed into the tunnel for safety. Krist’s book explains how dangerous that tunnel was for steam trains. Smoke and gases from the combustion of coal on the engine might have asphyxiated everyone aboard the train. There were just no good answers for Mr. O’Neill, and who could have anticipated the extraordinary series of calamities that befell the makeshift community surrounding the stranded trains? The snowstorm itself was unprecedented in its severity and yield. The best machines available, the rotary snowplows, kept failing. Slides swept down the steep mountainsides as if hurled by some malevolent deity, crushing buildings, killing men, destroying equipment. Then there was rain to saturate immense fields of standing snow, and a virtually impossible thunder storm that eventually triggered the half-mile-wide avalanche that swept two trains, a rotary snowplow and Mr. O’Neill’s private car into the abyss. As I read the book I kept commenting to my wife that I’d never believe the script if Hollywood put this on the screen. Yet it happened, a hundred years ago next month.

So what does all this have to do with that plaque at St. James Presbyterian Church in Bellingham? Krist mentioned that there was a Presbyterian minister on board the passenger train who hailed from Bellingham. He held a prayer meeting for fellow passengers one evening when spirits were low. Reading that, I knew I had to find out more. There is a small library at St. James, containing a cosmopolitan mixture of meeting notes from the women’s club in the 1930s to biblical criticism, church history and philosophy of religion. When I putter around in there, I have a couple of favorite books to peruse. One is a volume published in 1909: a bright blue cover with a drawing of Marcus Whitman and fancy lettering declaring this to be the History of the Synod of Washington of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America 1835-1909. Last Sunday I went into the library and found the book. James Thomson’s name was in there. In fact, there were at least two, or maybe three, James Thomsons (depending on how you might spell the name).

The one that interested me was the Reverend James M. Thomson, whose entry discussed the missions and schools the Bellingham Presbytery had set up at Bellingham, Sauk, Clearbrook, Lookout, Belfast and Rome. Having refused to write about himself, Thomson left it to another to describe his own career. Rev. Thomson held pastorates throughout the northwest, from Brownsville, Oregon, to Skagway, Alaska. It is a life in brief, neglecting the passion and dedication of this clergyman. According to the journal of an early church member, Mary McLeod,  Rev. Thomson boasted of his Irish Presbyterian heritage, saying, “I have been Presbyterian for 200 years.” Rev. Thomson arrived to become pastor of what was then called Fairhaven Presbyterian Church of Bellingham in 1905. It wasn’t long before Thomson recognized that churches in the north were overshadowed by sister congregations in Seattle. He is credited with battling to form the new Presbytery of Bellingham in 1906 (to the chagrin of the Seattle Presbytery).Thomson then resigned his pastorate so he could become the superintendent of Home Mission churches, like those he described in the synod history. When the Presbytery of Wentachee was established, Rev. Thomson assumed a similar position with it, holding the positions in Bellingham and Wenatchee at the same time.

He must have been traveling back to Bellingham from a trip to Wenatchee when the train he was riding on was blocked by a howling blizzard and 30-foot drifts of snow at 3, 105 feet above sea level near the summit of Stevens Pass. Although some other passengers elected to escape through unpredictable avalanches and miles of treacherous trail in a blizzard, Rev. Thomson decided to remain with the train. Scraps of letters that were found in the wreckage indicate that he considered the hike, but decided it was the wrong thing to do. Was it fear or courage that kept him on the train? Or perhaps it was a sense of duty: it was Rev. Thomson who held a prayer service on the night of February 28. Survivors describe an evening of entertainment, almost celebration, after the service. Perhaps his ministry had some effect.

After days of blizzard, that night a cold rain closed in on Wellington. As the stragglers from card parties climbed into their cots a lightning storm began. Thunder woke one of the workers awoke in a bunkhouse at Wellington. Fearing an avalanche the man ran from the house in time to witness the beginning of the tremendous slide that swept the trains off the tracks and into the creek bottom 150 feet below. Inside the cars several passengers were still awake when it happened. Those who survived described the surreal feeling of the entire car being lifted and tossed like a toy. Rescue efforts began immediately, but even so, only 23 people survived the wreck. Thirty-five passengers and sixty-one railroad employees died.

A history of St. James Church, written by Dorothy Koert, describes how when the news reached Bellingham, the pastor of Bellingham’s First Presbyterian Church rushed off to Wellington to search for Rev. Thomson. It was to be a fruitless journey, and he returned home by the following Sunday. A few days later Rev. James Wilson, who had assumed the duties as pastor of Fairhaven Presbyterian Church, arrived to continue the search, this time accompanied by Rev. Thomson’s son. Recovery workers discovered Rev. Thomson’s body after five days, the seventeenth corpse extracted from the wreck. The last body wasn’t located until the following summer.

Rev. Thomson’s body completed his journey home, first by dogsled, then by train through Everett where a somber committee from the local church awaited. The funeral service was held at Fairhaven Presbyterian Church the following morning, after which Rev. Wilson accompanied the family and the casket on another train ride, this time to Seattle. Wilson delivered a final elegy over the coffin as it was interred at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. Not far away the bodies of other victims of the Wellington disaster, unclaimed by their families, are also interred.

Rev. Wilson was beloved by his congregation. He served the church for several years before retiring due to ill health in 1911, but he returned again the following year. He remained at the pulpit until 1918 when he felt the call to accompany the American Expeditionary Force to France in World War I. Upon his return in 1920, Rev. Wilson continued to preach at St. James Church until his eventual retirement in 1939. Rev. Thomson’s son, another Rev. Thomson, delivered the farewell sermon for the Reverend James Wilson.

Fairhaven Presbyterian Church in Bellingham was renamed in honor of the three pastors who had served it who all shared the name James. From 1898 to 1905, James A. Laurie, Jr., was pastor. He was succeeded by Reverend James M. Thomson, who remained until the Bellingham Synod was formed. Reverend James Wilson followed, and remained a key influence in the church for decades thereafter. As Rev. Wilson prepared to go overseas with the troops in 1917, the congregation of Fairhaven Presbyterian Church voted to rename their church St. James Presbyterian Church.

Wellington is no more. Not long after the disaster, the Great Northern Railroad decided to rename the community to avoid negative publicity. The new name, Tye, remained in use until the town was dismantled following the opening of a new railroad tunnel, still in use. For a while the site of Wellington lay neglected. Then signs were erected and a trail system was put into place to describe the terrible history of the avalanche and to mark out the remains of the community. Then a flood occurred, when ground water impounded within the tunnel suddenly burst out in a flash flood, excavating a trench through the trails. Warning signs discourage you from entering the tunnel now. The remains of this troubled place rest uneasily.

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