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.