Mark McLaughlin

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September 13, 2005
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Winter not always a wonderland for trans-Sierra trains

For decades after Joseph Gray built a toll station and rest stop for travelers in 1863, residents of Truckee relied on the railroad, timber, and commercial ice harvesting industries to survive. During the 20th century, the timber and ice businesses faded into the background of the region's colorful history, overtaken by tourism and winter sports as the contemporary economic pillars of the community. Truckee's popular Commercial Row retail district relies on its close proximity to the tracks of the transcontinental railroad to sustain the heritage and romance of the Iron Horse, a transportation technology celebrated each year with the annual Truckee Railroad Days event. In the not too distant future, rail fans of all ages may have more to cheer about if Truckee is successful in its attempt to develop the historic railyard property just east of town into a permanent railroad museum. Train travel in the western United States today is often recreational, an adventure by rail that feels quaint and nostalgic. But for passengers in generations past, before modern high-speed highways crisscrossed the nation, the train was often their only option. Until 1930 or so, the only way to cross the Sierra range during winter months was by train. The highway over Donner Pass was usually closed by deep snow, so automobiles were loaded onto flatbed cars in Reno or Sacramento, depending on your direction of travel, and then hauled over the mountains. Modern trains are luxurious behemoths, powerful machines that carry passengers in safety and comfort. When winter storms in the Sierra bury the rails with deep snow or avalanches, an army of personnel operates an armada of track-clearing equipment to keep the line open. Testament to the efficient, often heroic work these men and women routinely perform, rarely do trains get stranded in the high country due to snow, but it does still happen. Caught by epic storms last winter, on Jan. 10, 2005, 220 Amtrak passengers spent a night stuck in their snowbound train west of Donner Summit.

Snow-stoppedConsidering that winter travel over storm-wracked Donner Pass has been an ongoing operation for nearly 140 years, the number of trapped trains or prolonged snow blockades are relatively few. Central Pacific Railroad crews, who built the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad, found out first-hand that Sierra winters are usually severe and often deadly. During construction, the Central Pacific workforce struggled during the tough winters of 1866-67 and 1867-68. During the winter of 1867, 44 storms dumped nearly 45 feet of snow on the Sierra's upper west slope. One avalanche wiped out an entire work camp: When the bodies were discovered the following spring, work tools were still clutched in their frozen hands. Heavy snow the following year crushed hastily built snowsheds and again avalanches took many lives. In response to one slide that killed eight Chinese laborers on March 6, 1868, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise observed "A great number of Chinese have been killed and crippled by accidents this winter at various points on the road." On March 12, a Wells Fargo agent reported "The white mantle is within two feet of the telegraph wires, making it 22 feet deep on the level." The brutal winter storms and slides in the High Sierra forced Central Pacific to build miles of wooden snowsheds to protect the trains and track from drifts and avalanches. When the line was closed for 10 days in 1869 due to heavy snow, the railroad extended the "snow galleries" into an almost unbroken stretch of 40 miles between Blue Canyon and Truckee. Violent blizzards in February 1874 generated a series of destructive avalanches that crushed whole sections of snowsheds and stranded several passenger trains that had bogged down in the overwhelming snowdrifts. Despite valiant efforts by railroad crews to clear debris and plow the repaired sections of track, the line was blockaded for about five days.

'Great Snow Blockade'The winter of 1889-90 is notable for its cold and stormy weather, with frigid temperatures approaching 20 below zero in Reno, and 22 feet of snowfall on Donner Pass by New Year's Eve. In Truckee, nearly 25 feet of the white stuff fell between Dec. 1, 1889, and Jan. 31, 1890. To battle the Storm King, C.P. mobilized 1,800 men, all available bucker snowplows and locomotives, as well as its recently purchased "Rotary Steam Shovel," which was developed in Canada in 1884. The railroad company's efforts paid off and despite delays and short sporadic closures, trains continued to roll through the mountains. All was lost on Jan. 15, however, when a string of westbound cattle cars rumbling through a snowshed derailed and ripped out hundreds of support posts. The spinning blades of the rotary snowplow were useless against the combination of wood, ice, rocks and train wreckage. The "Great Snow Blockade of 1890" had begun. Central Pacific rushed another 3,500 men up from Sacramento and Reno to help dig out the buried tracks. Passenger trains were stranded for days, and provisions of food, blankets, and fuel for heating stoves were hauled in by hundreds of men on snowshoes. The drifts grew so deep that it became impossible to throw snow over the canyon-like banks bordering the tracks. Three tiers of wooden planks were built into the sides of the snowbanks. A shoveler at the bottom would pitch snow up to a second, who would pitch it up to a third, who could finally throw it over the top. At last, on Jan. 30, the shovelers and snowplows were able to clear the final stretch of track and break the two-week long blockade. In 1936 a series of intense winter storms pounded the mountains and built up an unstable snowpack on the slopes above the train tracks. On Monday, Jan. 15, a massive slide consisting of hundreds of tons of snow and rock came crashing down upon the westbound Pacific Limited. The powerful avalanche smashed through a snowshed, sweeping 50 feet of the fractured structure into the chasm below. Two Pullman cars were pushed off the tracks and the train's observation car was buried under tons of rubble. It took Southern Pacific crews nearly two hours to free the trapped passengers in the observation car.

City of San Francisco trappedA snowbound train made national news in 1952 when the City of San Francisco streamliner was trapped with 226 passengers and crew members on board for more than three days west of Donner Pass. Flagship of the Overland Route between Chicago and San Francisco, it cost $2 million to build in 1936. Known as the train of superlatives, its six giant engines generated 5,400 horsepower, more than double other contemporary power units. On Sunday, Jan. 13, 1952, the luxury train met its match when it abruptly rammed into a snow slide and became stuck near Yuba Gap. Fierce blizzard conditions precluded any rescue attempt until the storm broke, but a dozen Sierra Club volunteers hauled in 400 pounds of canned food using a snow tractor while Truckee physician Dr. Larry Nelson traveled by dog sled to bring medical supplies and assist the sick and injured. Fumes from portable propane-fueled generators had nearly asphyxiated occupants in the two Pullman sleepers. Finally, on Jan. 16, skies cleared and all passengers and crew members were saved. Two men died in the extremely dangerous rescue effort, a Southern Pacific engineer and a Pacific Gas & Electric employee, two more heroes in the long railroad legacy of selflessness and sacrifice in the face of danger. 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 Sep 14, 2005 03:40PM Published Sep 13, 2005 12:00AM Copyright 2005 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.