TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Sixty years ago Truckee-Tahoe residents were enduring one of the worst winters ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada. During the winter of 1951-52, vicious snowstorms pummeled the region for months on end. The relentless storms pounded hard-working transportation and railroad crews into submission, and ultimately closed down all travel over Donner Summit for weeks. Winter weather began before Halloween that year, and by Jan. 1, 1952, nearly 23 feet of snow had buried Donner Pass. Locals and travelers were overwhelmed, but the Storm King was just getting started.
On Jan. 10, a huge Pacific system loaded with moisture barreled into the Sierra. The storm slammed the mountains and then stalled. The blizzard it spawned raged for seven days. By the second day, nearly three feet of new snow in Tahoe City had boosted the snowpack there to 9 feet. U.S. Route 40, the only year-round trans-Sierra highway, was closed for 30 days when an avalanche buried several vehicles just west of Donner Lake. Despite the violent weather, Southern Pacific trains continued to run through the wooden snowsheds and long granite tunnels that made safe passage possible. The heroic fight was lost on Sunday, Jan. 13, when SP's finest and most powerful streamliner train rammed a deep snowslide east of Yuba Gap. Pride of the fleet, this beautiful passenger train was known as the City of San Francisco. Three 2,250-horsepower engines powered the 15-car train, but engineers could not back out of the slide. Even so, passengers and crew didn't expect to be there very long.
The marooned passengers' laissez-faire attitude turned angry when they were still snowbound on Monday. Later that day the diesel fuel ran out and the passenger compartments were pitched into a cold eerie darkness. Howling wind and furious snowfall hampered the extensive relief efforts, dubbed, “Operation Rescue,” now underway. On Monday night, a dozen Sierra Club volunteers arrived in two snow-cats laden with 400 pounds of canned food. Four critically ill passengers were evacuated by snowcat. By now the wire services were aware of the situation and the stranded streamliner was national news. The media wondered if the passengers on board were suffering the same grisly fate as the victims of the Donner Party.
On Tuesday, 27 passengers became seriously ill when butane-fueled space heaters fouled the air. The only physician on the train was Dr. Walter Roehill of Middleton, Ohio. Although he was assisted by several army nurses, heart attacks, frostbite and other ailments kept them all busy. More help arrived that same day when Dr. Lawrence Nelson of Truckee managed to reach the train by dogsled. Unfortunately, the deadly weather prevented any passenger evacuation.
Even as the blizzard raged, rescue efforts were inching their way toward the stranded train. One train carried dogsled teams while the Sixth Army sent in trained arctic rescue squads from San Francisco. A rotary snowplow manned by Engineer Roland Raymond of Sacramento finally broke through to within a quarter mile of the buried train. Raymond had climbed down from the plow to survey the hazardous conditions when suddenly an avalanche roared down the mountainside, killing him. Another rescuer died of a heart attack.
When the deadly storm finally broke on Jan. 16, relief parties rushed in. The cold weary passengers hobbled to safety along the tracks while the sick and weak were tobogganed or carried in stretchers. The rescue was staged during one of the worst storms in Sierra history — nearly 13 feet of snow fell on Donner Summit that week. The critical mission had taken three days and two lives, but 226 passengers and crew members survived to tell the story.
Stay tuned for the conclusion.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org