Mark McLaughlin

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January 3, 2005
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'Snowball Express' brings first of winter tourists

The sight and sound of 19th century steam engines puffing and snorting through the dark tunnels and along the sheer granite cliffs of the High Sierra can only be imagined today, but those diminutive locomotives opened the spectacular Sierra snowscapes to thousands of winter sports enthusiasts. Before the transcontinental railroad sliced through the region in 1868, there were few winter visitors to this snowbound wilderness. But once the tracks were built, the Truckee region became an accessible winter wonderland for anyone looking to enjoy its charms. By stacking eight to 12 locomotives behind V-shaped snowplows made of wood and weighted with iron, the Central Pacific Railroad amassed sufficient power to clear the snow-covered rails. It was the Iron Horse that first opened the door to safe winter enjoyment of the northern Sierra, and the technology changed the West forever.Historians tend to deplore the greed and profiteering associated with the nation's railroad monopolies, but for flatland Californians living below the snowline, Central Pacific was their ticket to a fantastic winter wonderland. Even before the line was completed east to Truckee, citizens in Sacramento were clamoring for train rides into the snow country.In December 1867, despite stormy weather with heavy rain and rising snow levels, 700 people jammed aboard 10 Central Pacific passenger cars for a special "Snowball Express" train ride into the Sierra. The excursion was a fund-raising benefit for the Sacramento Pioneers Association, and the first public train trip ever into the heart of a Sierra snowstorm. Young and old, the snow-seekers rode in comfort and safety to Summit Station near storm-shrouded Donner Pass. (Only 21 years earlier, nearly half of the emigrant Donner Party wagon train had starved at the lake just east of that pass.) Many of the children on the train had never seen a snowflake, let alone a blizzard with 5-foot drifts. Rain and snow lashed the passengers as they peered from the platform railing. After a brief snowball fight, the engineer fired up the boiler, and the Sierra's first casual winter visitors reluctantly returned to their rain-soaked valley.

There were no more Snowball Express rides into the mountains that winter, but by springtime, community demand for another trip to the snow was peaking. In April 1868, Charles Crocker placed an ad in the Sacramento Union:Grand Excursion to the Snowy Mountains! The Central Pacific Railroad Company, having been earnestly solicited by many citizens to run an Excursion Train to the Mountains while the snow is still at its greatest height, and thus afford an opportunity for ALL to see the Sierra's clad in wintry garb, will run an excursion train from Sacramento to Cisco. This will probably be the only opportunity this season to enjoy the swift transition from the flowers in the valley to the Arctic realm of the Sierra. There is greater depth of snow than was ever before known, and the scenery between Colfax and Cisco is grand beyond description.

Selling the 'winter experience'Entrepreneurs living in the mountains saw the public's profound interest in the "winter experience" and attempted to encourage "healthful" mountain excursions by horse-drawn snow sleigh. Word spread that the stage route from Dutch Flat to Donner Lake was "rather romantic and pleasant" for winter travel. One tourist staying at Donner Lake House wrote: "I think it a pity that the citizens of Sacramento and San Francisco should remain in ignorance of the pleasant source of amusement within such easy reach of them as a 12 or 15 hours ride ... a skating pond could not be accomplished anywhere within our state borders so well as at this lovely [Donner] lake. It is a fact that amusements, delightful and healthful, await you here. You may suppose the weather to be very cold here, so near the Tip Top, but it is not as cold as in New York at this season, and residents from the western prairies express their astonishment at the comparative mildness of the winter atmosphere."It is interesting to note the lengths to which this 19-century correspondent goes to alleviate visitors' possible concern about being "cut off from the world" during a winter retreat in the mountains. He added: "The California Company's stages pass us each way daily on their way to and from Virginia City and, by the way, they are generally filled to capacity. We also have a telegraph office; so, you see, that when visitors come here from the outside world they do not find themselves cut off from all communication with it." The patriarch of Truckee, Charles F. McGlashan, was an intelligent and energetic jack-of-all trades. Among his many accomplishments, he practiced law, served as school principal, wrote the first authentic history of the Donner Party, and was the longtime editor and owner of the Truckee Republican newspaper. He was a scientist, inventor, legislator, astronomer, entomologist and correspondent for several California newspapers. He was also prescient in his vision that Truckee, and eventually Lake Tahoe, would become major attractions for people looking for winter sport excitement. In the 1890s, McGlashan exhorted the Truckee community to organize an ice carnival to attract tourists during the region's snowbound months. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle explains how the town's citizens responded to his innovative idea: "The people of this little mountain town are particularly enterprising and energetic and do not live for themselves alone. When any project is inaugurated that will benefit the people, they work together harmoniously, and their efforts are invariably crowned with success."

The residents of Truckee built a large, elliptical ice palace, using wooden posts with wire netting stretched from pole to pole. When temperatures fell below freezing, water was sprayed over the entire structure, giving it a dazzling appearance. Inside, skaters glided around the oval rink while musicians entertained them. Over time the Central Pacific Railroad was assimilated by Southern Pacific, which began scheduling Snowball Express excursions to Truckee on a regular basis. The train left San Francisco after midnight, and returned the next evening around the same time, giving tourists most of the day to frolic in the snow. There was no doubt that the Truckee Ice Carnival added prestige, as well as a big boost to the economy, for the little railroad town.As one early promoter proclaimed to those living below the snowbelt: "Get out of the mud! Mount up to the hills, where all nature is clothed in spotless white; where we daily tramp glittering diamonds under our feet. Come up in the pure air and dwell nearer heaven." More than a century later, no matter how they arrive, the community of Truckee still welcomes its winter guests with sincere mountain hospitality.Mark McLaughlin's column, "Weather Window," appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, "Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly" and "Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2" are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jan 3, 2005 02:34PM Published Jan 3, 2005 12:00AM Copyright 2005 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.