When I wrote Avalanche of Spirits: The Ghosts of Wellington, I mentioned Nellie Sharp briefly, telling readers she was a young, divorced freelance reporter who was on the train writing a story for McClure's magazine about train travel in the Wild West. She was 26 years old when she died.
As I wrote that brief passage about Nellie in Avalanche, what I failed to mention was that from the first I'd heard about her, I'd felt a growing connection to her. I was trying to learn more about her. Little did I know that it would take five years to finally come face to face with Nellie Sharp with the help of some pretty amazing friends.
At the time, I couldn't really tell you why I was drawn to Nellie Sharp. As I searched for her in the early days, I caught intriguing glimpses that strengthened the connection. Of course the natural connection was this: we are both writers. But it went deeper than that for me. Just like I was drawn to Wellington, I was increasingly drawn to Nellie Sharp.
Unfortunately, I'm not great at digging really deep. My early searches were limited to books, newspaper accounts, and genealogy websites. Nellie Sharp is a pretty common name from the time. Her married name, McGirl, was also quite common. All I had were her names, as well as her date and place of death. After learning a little, the trail grew cold.
After that initial search, I only knew slightly more than what I'd written in Avalanche. One of the train's passengers, Sarah Jane Covington, wrote letters home to pass the time on the trains. The letters were recovered from the avalanche wreckage. Sarah spoke of people on the train in her letters, and her words provided my initial glimpses of Nellie.
Nellie was somewhat of an adventurer, it seemed. She hung out with the "smart crowd" (that's what Sarah called them) on the train - a group of people thrown together in frightening and frustrating circumstances who sought comfort and entertainment from one another as they sat for nine days on a small train and watched avalanches come down around them. Nellie's "smart crowd" was a group of younger people traveling without families who would gather in the train's smoking car and share whiskey, tobacco, and laughter. Among the group, Nellie quickly became known as "Wild West Girl" for her adventurous spirit. In Northwest Disaster, author Ruby El Hult also mentions Nellie briefly, saying she probably helped wait tables at Wellington's local eatery, Hotel Bailets, while the train was trapped by snow.
Of course the other thing I knew about 26-year-old Nellie was that she was divorced - or at least in the process of getting a divorce. When you consider that it was 1910, this in itself was a rather unusual state of affairs. Nellie, it seemed, wasn't afraid to buck convention.
After gleaning that smidgen of information about Nellie, I grew frustrated with my search. I had reached a proverbial dead end, and I really didn't know where else to look. Over the next few years as I felt my connection to Nellie grow stronger, I made several more attempts at finding more information, only to remain stuck in the same spot.
At the same time I was searching for Nellie, I was also promoting Avalanche of Spirits. I appeared on many radio shows talking about the book and the haunting. If you know much about paranormal radio shows and the paranormal field in general, then you won't be surprised to hear this. On many of those shows, as well as at the conferences where I spoke, I ran into a lot of psychics. Many of those psychics had the same thing to tell me as I shared the tale of Wellington: "You were on that train."
I've always been fascinated with the topic of reincarnation. I'd read a great deal of literature on the topic and had come to the conclusion that a preponderance of evidence suggests reincarnation is very likely. So when several people told me, "You were on that train," I didn't really dismiss the idea. It could explain the compulsion I had to learn more about Wellington from the very first time someone mentioned the story to me.
Still, I remained skeptical. While I certainly believe reincarnation is a distinct possibility, I doubted I would ever be someone who would find someone whose body my soul used to inhabit. Then came the night at Wellington I described in Dancing with the Afterlife. It was the confluence of all of these diverse threads of information I'd been following with regard to Wellington, the haunting there, and many other subjects I'd pursued in my afterlife research.
While I describe the events leading up to this in detail in Dancing with the Afterlife, I'll summarize them here. In the summer of 2012 at Wellington, a new presence made himself known to me. A gentle giant of a man, every time I was at Wellington this presence who was called "Bear" would insert himself in my space. He'd stroke my cheek and tell me over and over again, "You know me. You know me." He was very persistent, and it made me quite uncomfortable.
I was at Wellington one night in late summer with a psychic I knew. It was her first time at Wellington, and she claimed she had completely refused to read or hear anything about it until she'd experienced it herself. She claimed she hadn't read my book, and she'd avoided all my talk about Wellington. She hadn't read the lists of people who had died. She said she was a blank slate as far as her knowledge of Wellington went.
That day at Wellington, several of us watched that psychic put on a rather impressive performance. As she walked through the site, she came up with specific names and information about Wellington, the passengers, the rail workers, and the avalanche itself that were remarkably specific and accurate. Late in the afternoon, we were standing in the snow shed when the now familiar presence of Bear approached me. I finally said to the psychic, "Who does this guy think I am?"
Her answer about knocked my legs out from under me. "Nells."
I actually collapsed a little into Jim, so shocked was I with the answer. "Do you mean Nellie?" I asked.
"Yes. But he calls her Nells."
Needless to say, my fascination with Nellie suddenly made a little more sense. As we sat on the observation deck at Wellington that evening, I told my psychic friend about Nellie and my fascination with her. I shared with her my fruitless search to glean more information.
A friend knew of my interest and lack of ability to find much about Nellie myself. Fortunately, she was better at it than me, and she quickly found Nellie's family, learned Nellie's ex-husband's first name, and began relentlessly tracking Nellie throughout her brief 26 years of life. After her initial research, I posted these findings.
My friend wanted to get a picture of Nellie for me, and she promised she wouldn't quit until she did. In the process, she made numerous telephone calls to people all over the United States. Slowly, she fleshed out the details of Nellie Sharp's life.
Nellie was born in Bloomington, Illinois in December of 1883. She was the youngest of a whole herd of siblings, and her parents were George and Minnie Sharp. George was a railroad engineer. Nellie was a musician who played the clarinet. She worked for a short time as a telephone operator. She was also a writer who'd written for local newspapers and covered events such as the St. Louis World's fair. She was a golfer, as well.
Nellie's family valued education, so she attended a few different colleges. She met and married John T. McGirl when she was 21. They moved to California together, but we all know how that marriage worked out. February 1910 found Nellie in Spokane, Washington with her friend, Mrs. Herbert Tweedie. The two were heading in separate directions on trains so they could write about their adventures for McClures. They drew straws to see who went in which direction. By this simple twist of fate, Nellie Sharp McGirl wound up on Great Northern Railway's Local No. 25, headed for Seattle. An avalanche waylaid the train, which was stuck in the North Cascades of Washington State for the next nine days as snow storms raged around them. At 1:42 AM on March 1, 1910, a lightning bolt struck the hillside above the trains, and Nellie was aboard as the trains were swept down the mountainside and deposited on the banks of the Tye River. Nellie was one of at least 96 people killed.
When Nellie was killed in the avalanche, John McGirl was still listed as her next of kin. He took the money the railroad provided so the families of the victims could bury them, but he left Nellie's body behind at Wellington. Instead, two of her sisters came from the Midwest and claimed Nellie's body. Without the funds from the railroad, the family couldn't afford a headstone, so Nellie is buried in an unmarked plot.
That is the story of Nellie Sharp's brief life.
About six weeks ago, my friend's quest to find a photograph of Nellie Sharp came to an end. Although she apparently told everyone I know she had the picture, she didn't tell me because she wanted to surprise me. It turns out my friends are good at keeping secrets.
The search for Nellie is complete. I know her story now, and I know her face. I may never truly know why I have such a deep connection with Nellie, but it is there. Two early descriptions I read of Nellie both really resonated with me. In The White Cascade, Gary Krist called Nellie, "A decidedly stout young woman of ebullient good humor." Ruby El Hult described her as "Short, broad, and irrepressible." It seems as if she was a creative spirit who pursued her life with passion and gusto. She's my kind of gal. While her life was short, I have a hunch her heart was huge. Whatever our connection, I know this for sure. Nellie was a cool chick. And she looks like my grandmother.
Karen Frazier is a writer, musician (she plays flute and a few other instruments), and a golfer (she loves the game but is terrible). Born in December, Karen was first married at the age of 21 and divorced by the time she was 23. Now she's remarried to a wonderful bear of a man, although his name is Jim and not Bear. She's been on the Spokane to Seattle train a few times, although Amtrak runs it now and not the Great Northern Railway. She currently works as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.