At the end of October, a small group of people enjoyed a very special day at Wellington. For years, the spirits there have been asking for a memorial that lists the names of the dead and remembers the sacrifice of the rail workers who fought so diligently to save the Wellington trains from certain destruction. As you know, many of those rail workers and train passengers died.
Recently, two very generous donors (who wish to remain anonymous) created three signs designed to the Forest Service's specifications and placed them at Wellington. The signs memorialize those who died, as well as the hard work and sacrifice of the rail workers. I am so grateful to those donors. They heard the plea of the Wellington spirits and gave them what they most wanted. Now, perhaps, the spirits can finally find their way Home. It is my deepest hope this is so. It's been a long century. They deserve to rest.
That's why, one sunny day in late October, a group of us descended upon Wellington to celebrate the spirits there. We dedicated the lovely signs with a prayer from a Lutheran minister. It was an emotional day, but a beautiful one as well.
Will Wellington's story end here if the spirits return Home? I don't believe it will. Regardless of whether the spirits return Home, the truth of Wellington is this: while it is the story of an avalanche and of people who died and survived, it is so much more. Wellington has touched many people, and each one has become an important part of the story. Wellington is, and has always been, as much about those people who love it as the spirits who have spent over a century there. Wellington has put people in contact, set lifelong friendships, healed broken hearts, and allowed people to believe something happens after we die. For many of us, it has brought out the very best of who we are.
If you have been touched by Wellington in any way, then it is your story, too. That is the legacy the ghosts of Wellington will leave behind when they return Home. It has been the most profound experience of my life. I'm not sure why the spirits there chose to tell their story through me, but I am so humbled and grateful they have. Now, I pray they can truly rest in peace.
My friend Elaine Davison managed to come up with a class photo that has Nellie Sharp in it. So now we've laid eyes on Nellie, even though we don't know which one she is.
The avalanche at Wellington was big news in 1910. Below are links to several of the newspaper accounts at the time.
Omaha Daily Bee, (March 3, 1910)
Centralia, WA Daily Chronicle (March 3, 1910)
Chicago Tribune (March 2, 1910)
Chicago Tribune (March 3, 1910)
Everett Herald (March 2, 1910)
Everett Herald (March 3, 1910)
Harper's Weekly (March 9, 1910 - contains photos of the disaster)
Oregonian (March 3, 1910)
Oregonian (March 6, 1910 - contains photos of the disaster)
Seattle P-I (March 2, 1910 - contains photos of Sara Covington, a passenger killed in the avalanche)
Seattle P-I (March 3, 1910 - contains photo of George and Thelma Davis, a father and daughter killed in the avalanche)
Seattle P-I (March 4, 1910 - contains photos of avalanche victims including Rev. James Thomas, Lucius Anderson, and James McNeny, as well as one name I can't read.)
Seattle Star (March 2, 1910)
Seattle Star (March 3, 1910 - contains photo of rail workers who went down in slide but survived)
Seattle Star (March 5, 1910 - contains photo of AJ Mackey)
Seattle Times (March 2, 1910 - contains photos of Sara Covington, George Davis, and Thelma Davis)
Seattle Times (March 3, 1910)
Seattle Times (March 7, 1910 - contains photographs)
Spokesman Review (March 4, 1910) - contains photographs of Catherine O'Reilley, Ida Starrett, Lee Ahern, AB Hensel, Sara Covington, George Hoeffer, and RM Barnhart)
One of the people involved in the Wellington avalanche has always intrigued me. I write about her at length in Dancing with the Afterlife. Her name was Nellie Sharp McGirl. She was 26-years-old at the time of the avalanche that killed her.
When I first wrote Avalanche of Spirits, I knew little about Nellie other than she was a young divorcee traveling on the railroad to try and write a story for McClure's Magazine. Her fellow passengers called her Wild West Girl because of her adventurous spirit as she set out west from Spokane to explore the wilds of the West. In The White Cascade, Gary Krist describes Nellie as a "short, decidedly stout young woman of ebullient good humor.
I tried to dig a little into Nellie's past. She wasn't easy to find. Then my friend, Elaine Davison, got involved. She's a whiz at this type of thing, and she's been able to dig up tremendous amounts of information about Nellie Sharp McGirl.
Nellie was born in December of 1883. She was the youngest of seven or eight siblings. Her father, George W. Sharp was a railroad engineer himself, running out of Chicago and Bloomington, Illinois. Her mother's name was Minnie. Nellie was born in Bloomington. The Sharp family lived in several places, including Missouri, Texas, and Oklahoma. George and Minnie valued education, and several of their children attended college. We've never been able to confirm for certain whether Nellie did or not.
As a young adult, Nellie worked as a newspaper reporter. She was in St. Louis for the World's Fair. At the age of 21, she married John T. McGirl. The couple moved to San Francisco and were there for the earthquake of 1906. By 1910, Nellie and John had separated, and Nellie was traveling with her friend, Mrs. Herbert Tweedie. In Spokane in mid-February of 1910, the two drew straws to determine who would go east and who would go West. Nellie wound up on the Great Northern Railroad's Local No. 25 heading West to Seattle to write an article. She never made it.
Reports from avalanche survivors suggest Nellie hung out with "the smart crowd" on the train. They were a group who would gather and laugh, drink, and smoke cigars. Some reports suggest she also helped out waiting tables at the local restaurant in Wellington, the Hotel Bailets, when train passengers ate their meals.
Nellie's body was in the first wave of those found. Like other 95 who were killed in the avalanche, she was wrapped in a Great Northern blanket and stored in a temporary morgue. The GNR gave the families money for burial. According to the family, Nellie's estranged husband took the money for burial but didn't claim her body. Instead, her two sisters came to claim Nellie's body, but the family couldn't afford to give her a headstone because her husband had taken the burial money.
Elaine and I have both been diligently seeking a photograph of Nellie Sharp. Elaine has talked with descendants of the Sharp family, cemetery employees, and historians. We've been able to flesh out much of Nellie's history on genealogy sites such as ancestry.com, where we've found interesting tidbits such as Nellie's marriage certificate (she signed her name on the certificate as Nellie G. Sharpe) and census records. While a picture is emerging, I hope to find more about this interesting woman.