Friday, April 15, 2016

Wicked City

Though I often take issue with the editorial pages of The Leavenworth Echo, my home-away-from-hometown newspaper, I do enjoy the weekly “Along the Wenatchee” by longtime columnist/historian Pat Morris. She simply never disappoints. A recent column focused on Tunnel City near Stevens Pass, the “wickedest place in the world.”

Yep, incredulously, in Chelan County, Washington. Today, such a label conjures visions of Las Vegas, New Orleans and Miami Beach. But in 1900, as the Great Northern Railway tunnel in the North Cascades neared completion, Tunnel City attracted notoriety from around the world, thanks to a story by a reporter for The New York World.

Located just south of Glacier Peak (above) in the North Cascades, the “city," much like nearby Trinity, was basically an encampment. As was their custom in those days of yore, Eastern reporters tended to embellish their stories for effect. But even Wenatchee newsman Frank Reeves agreed: “Cascade Tunnel is indeed a wicked place.”

This far corner is remote. The nation's deepest snowpack smothers craggy slopes near Stevens Pass; winters are dark and foreboding, with only fleeting sunlight, and steep hillsides optimal for avalanches. In 1910, a massive avalanche buried a Great Northern train, killing 96 people in what remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history.

Reeves offered a qualifier, and some perspective: “I am not a sponsor for the good behavior of Tunnel City. Bad though it may be, I do not acquiesce to its unwarranted slander. Conditions there are favorable to the rough side of life and men and women are the same the world over. None is absolutely spotless or absolutely void of good.”

Unfortunately, its reputation as a town outstanding for its lawlessness would come to an abrupt and convincing end. A fire swept through the business district, incinerating the wood frame structures in Tunnel City. With no insurance, the frontier town, much like Sodom and Gomorrah, vanished from the face of the Earth.

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