Trapped in the Columbia Gorge: Documenting a Train Rescue during the Great Winter Storm of 1884–1885

December 15, 2020

By Laura Cray

Following a heavy snow in the Columbia River Gorge, which brought avalanches that trapped 148 people on a passenger train, relief crews were dispatched from Portland and The Dalles to rescue the passengers. Photographer Carleton E. Watkins joined one of those trains, documenting their experience. This image titled “Relief Train at Bridal Veil” is part of Watkins’ Great Storm of the Winter of 1884–5 photo album held in OHS’s research library collections. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93, plate D113.

On Wednesday, December 17, 1884, Colonel L.S. Howlett left the warmth of the dining room at the Umatilla House in The Dalles, Oregon, to join a weary group of 148 passengers and crew as they bundled against the bracing cold of a heavy winter storm to board a Portland-bound Pacific Express passenger train. Led by a snow plow and three locomotives, the train began its slow 85-mile journey through the Columbia River Gorge. They would not arrive at their destination for another 21 days. Wind and heavy snow brought avalanches down on the tracks, trapping the train and its passengers with little food or fuel onboard.

As the weeks wore on and the winter storm maintained its icy grip on the Gorge, four snow plows and over 1,000 people worked to clear the tracks and deliver food to the trapped train. Trains leaving from Portland and The Dalles brought workers to shovel snow and restore damaged tracks from both directions. They made little progress, and many of the relief trains also became trapped due to the intensity of the storm. Photographer Carleton Watkins, his own travels delayed by the storm, was on one of the relief trains from Portland. He brought his camera along and documented both the relief efforts and the Gorge encased in ice. On January 6, 1885, the workers cleared the final section of the tracks and the beleaguered passengers of the Pacific Express at last made their way into Portland. During his time trapped on the train, Howlett maintained a daily journal of events, which he published in the Oregonian and other regional newspapers following his ordeal. It was his hope that by sharing his experience he could:

teach others how much can be endured when a cracker is a blessing and a potato a luxury; when the snow in the Cascade mountains is forty-five feet deep; when there is nothing warm among a hundred passengers excepting human sympathy, and nothing light but hope and a tallow candle (Oregon Sentinel, January 17, 1885).

Miraculously, despite facing starvation, frigid temperatures, illness, avalanches, and navigating steep, icy terrain to replenish supplies, all of the passengers on the train survived. The creek near where the train was trapped became known as Starveout Creek and is today Starvation Creek State Park.

OHS library staff recently digitized an album of the photographs that Watkins took during the storm, which is now available on OHS Digital Collections as part of the Carleton E. Watkins photographs collection. Charles H. Prescott, manager of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co., originally owned the album, and it features 30 photographs of relief train workers, winter landscapes, and waterfalls turned to ice. Below is a slideshow of selected images from the album.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Clearing the Track of the OR&N RR from Rooster Rock to Oneonta Falls.” OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93, plate D104.

As conditions in the Gorge continued to worsen, long lines of men worked with picks and shovels to clear the snow and ice from buried tracks. Over the course of the three-week ordeal, over 1,000 people contributed to relief efforts.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Clearing the Track of the OR&N RR from Rooster Rock to Oneonta Falls,” Great Storm of the Winter of 1884–5.
OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93, plate D104.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Relief Train Passing the Needles.” OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93, plate D118.

A relief train passing through the Needles on their way to rescue people trapped in the snow during the Great Winter Storm of 1884–5.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Relief Train Passing the Needles,” Great Storm of the Winter of 1884–5.
OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93, plate D118.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Crystal Veil of the Cascades.” OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93, plate D122.

While working on the relief train, Watkins took the opportunity to capture the ice formations from the frozen waterfalls in the Gorge.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Crystal Veil of the Cascades,” Great Storm of the Winter of 1884–5.
OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93, plate D122.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Lower Multnomah Falls,” plate D126, and “Lower Multnomah Falls,” mammoth plate 424. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93.

Watkins’s return to Oregon during the winter of 1884–5 gave him an opportunity to revisit some of the locations of his iconic previous photographs. In these two photographs, Watkins captures Lower Multnomah Falls frozen over from almost the same location as during his trip in the summer of 1867.

Carleton E. Watkins, “Lower Multnomah Falls,” Great Storm of the Winter of 1884–5, plate D126, and “Lower Multnomah Falls,” mammoth plate 424.
OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 93

“Snow Blockade on the Columbia,” The West Shore (Portland, OR), January 1885, p. 28–29.

This illustrated page of relief workers digging through heavy snow to bring aid to trapped train passengers was published in the January issue of “The West Shore.”

“Snow Blockade on the Columbia,” The West Shore [Portland, OR], January 1885, p. 28–29.

Sources

L.S. Howlett. “Out of the Snow,” Oregonian, January 8, 1885. Rpt. in Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville, OR), January 17, 1885. https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn84022657/1885-01-17/ed-1/seq-1/

Nancy Moller. “Starvation Creek,” The Oregon Encyclopedia. https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/starvation_creek/

“Snow Blockade on the Columbia.” The West Shore (Portland, OR), January 1885, p. 28–29. https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/2012260361/1885-01-01/ed-1/seq-28/

Terry Toedtemeier and John Laursen. Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867–1957. Northwest Photography Archive, 2008.

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