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Ghost train: Oak Harbor man investigates disaster at Stevens Pass

Oak Harbor resident Bill Robards is co-producing a documentary about the 1910 avalanche at Wellington, Wash., that killed nearly 100 people. The film also looks into whether the site of the tragedy is now haunted. - Photo illustration by Liz Burlingame. Archival photo of Wellington courtesy of the Northwest Paranormal Investigation Agency.
Oak Harbor resident Bill Robards is co-producing a documentary about the 1910 avalanche at Wellington, Wash., that killed nearly 100 people. The film also looks into whether the site of the tragedy is now haunted.
— image credit: Photo illustration by Liz Burlingame. Archival photo of Wellington courtesy of the Northwest Paranormal Investigation Agency.

Oak Harbor resident Bill Robards is making a documentary movie about the tragedy at the small Washington town of Wellington nearly a century ago. An avalanche killed 96 passengers on two trains that were stuck in a snowstorm.

The 100-year-old story is compelling on its own, but it’s modern footage that makes the movie-in-progress something unusual. Armed with cameras and audio recorders, Robards and his cohorts went to the eerie site of the tragedy to meet the victims.

That’s right, the souls of those who died still haunt the area, or at least some people believe so. Robards said Wellington is considered one of the most haunted places in the state. He decided that the upcoming anniversary of the March 1, 1910 accident and the current fascination with ghosts in popular culture made it an ideal time to tell the story.

“I am by no means a ghost hunter,” he said. “I just put together this group of people to make a documentary.”

The movie will be called “Avalanche of Spirits: The Ghosts of Wellington.” The filmmakers invited paranormal experts, media and friends to a Halloween party at the site last weekend to celebrate the completion of filming. At least a couple of apparitions joined the party, which Robards said became evident when he and a friend went for a walk in the pitch black night.

“At exactly the same time, we both heard a child’s voice,” he said. “That was kind of strange.”

Robards is producing the film with Karen Frazier, a paranormal reporter for the popular magazine “Paranormal Underground.” Her husband, Jim, is also involved with the project.

Robards, a novice in ghost-hunting circles, is the narrator of the movie. He said he began the project skeptical about the existence of ghost, spirits and other things that go bump in the night.

But now he’s become a believer.

“Honesty I didn’t expect to find anything. I was just interested in telling the story,” he said. “But I experienced some things I couldn’t explain. There was a couple of times I was totally freaked out.”

Robards is an aspiring actor; show business is definitely in his blood. He’s appeared in a couple of low-budget films, “Loved Ones” and “Allure.” In fact, he said his second cousin is the late, great Jason Robards — though the two never met.

The documentary, Robards said, will focus on the terrible tragedy, which is the worst avalanche in the nation’s history. The haunting tale begins with the desperation of the passengers on the two Great Northern trains that were stuck during a nine-day snow storm on the mountainside. Wellington, which was later renamed Tye, was a unincorporated railway town at the west portal of the original Cascade tunnel.

A lightning storm rolled through the mountains and soaked the blanket of snow. It triggered a giant avalanche that swept the two trains about 200 feet down the mountain. Officially, 96 men, women and children died, though Robards thinks the death toll was much higher. Newspapers at the time reported that as many as 118 people were killed. Miraculously, 27 people survived.

Robards said he and Frazier have gathered archival photos, court documents, telegrams, newspaper stories, letters and other materials to tell the story of the tragedy.

To explore the alleged haunting, Robards said he invited two paranormal investigative teams to go to the site and see if they could find evidence of apparitions. The Northwest Paranormal Investigation Agency is a Gold Bar-based group founded by Bert and Jayme Coates. Robards said the couple is fascinated by the site and visited about once a week over the last five years, gathering evidence of unearthly activity.

“There is literally no one more knowledgeable about Wellington,” Robards said.

In addition, Robards said he tapped the Auburn Paranormal Activities Research Team to investigate the accident site.

“The two teams have very different methods,” he said. “It was really interesting to follow them around.”

Frazier said that, as a reporter, she’s normally somewhat skeptical or at least non-biased about the unusual things she writes about. But in this case, she’s pretty certain that the area is indeed haunted. Events at the recent Halloween party at Wellington reaffirmed her feelings.

“For the first time ever, I actually saw a full-bodied apparition,” she said.

That night, the Coates captured what appears to be a ghost peeking out from behind a pillar on video. It’s posted at their Web site, www.nwpia.com.

There’s not much left of Wellington itself. Robards said there’s a parking lot and some crumbling foundations of the buildings. The mountainside is still littered with debris from the trains. The creepiest thing of all, he said, is a giant snow shed that was built to protect trains after the tragedy. It was abandoned long ago when the trains stopped traveling through Wellington.

Some folks think translucent souls have taken up residence in the unholy structure. Robards claims that both teams found convincing “class A” evidence of paranormal activity, including photos and audio recordings.

“We have audio of a man singing in Italian,” he said, noting that some train workers were Italian immigrants.

The next step is to edit and the footage and record Robards’ narration. Robards said they hope to have the documentary completed by the beginning of the year.

Then they hope to have the film distributed by the time the 100-year anniversary rolls around.

“It’s an important story we wanted to tell in a different way,” Robards said.

To find out more about the project, visit www.avalancheofspirits.com, or www.billrobards.com.

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