Weather Window | Top 10 dry winters and drought busters |

Weather Window | Top 10 dry winters and drought busters

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sierra Sun
A modified Sierra snow plow, circa 1930s, stands ready to roll.
Courtesy Nevada Historical Society |

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from “Snowbound: Historic Tahoe-Sierra Winters,” a book in progress scheduled for release in 2014 by Mic Mac Publishing. This is the first in a two-part series.

Since a Miracle March or an Amazing April didn’t save us this past winter, it appears likely 2014 will join the ranks among the Top 10 least snowiest winters at Donner Pass. Officially, we won’t know until Sept. 30 when the Sierra water year ends, but 2014 will probably be right up there with the smallest snow producers on record: 1881, 1977, 1924, 1885 and 2013. After a disappointing season, sometimes a revisit to a past winter can take the edge off and inspire hope for next year.

Compared to some of the other Top 10 winters of the Tahoe-Sierra, 1935 may come across as a bit tame, but the 55 feet of snow measured near Donner Pass that year ranks it securely as the eighth snowiest since 1879.

One event that did make national news early that winter was a New Year’s Day deluge at Los Angeles that dumped a record 7.33 inches of rain in just 24 hours. In the nearby San Gabriel Mountains storm totals approached 20 inches. The resulting floods destroyed hundreds of homes and killed nearly 40 people.


Weatherwise, the 1930s are best remembered for severe drought that plagued the western U.S. and the Dust Bowl era in the plains. Not only were the 1930s persistently dry, but temperatures were above average as well. In Reno, the annual mean temperature for 1934 was 54.5 degrees, smashing the long-term average by four degrees.

In late 1934 the water level at Lake Tahoe was at a record low, more than a foot below the natural rim. When the lake falls below the rim there is no surface flow into its outlet, the Truckee River. For several years large mechanical pumps had been used to transfer Tahoe water to the desiccated Truckee River. The prodigious snowfall that fell during the 1935 winter proved to be a drought buster in the Tahoe-Sierra, raising water levels and cooling bi-state tensions along the depleted Truckee River.

Drought-weary mountain residents had good reason to be thankful for Thanksgiving Day 1934 after a slow moving storm in mid-November dumped more than three feet of snow on Donner Pass. Members of the Tahoe Ski Club were jubilant that the precipitation raised Lake Tahoe by more than two inches and left 18 inches of snow in Tahoe City.


Extensive preparations for a successful winter sport season were already well underway with the first “Snow Frolic” scheduled for Jan. 7. Lars Haugen, a seven-time national ski jumping champion and the Tahoe club’s ski instructor, had recently arrived from his home in Minnesota and would be performing expert aerial leaps at “Olympic Hill” outside Tahoe City.

Winter travel over Highway 40 that crosses Donner Pass was still a novelty in 1935. California didn’t start plowing the road until 1932 at the insistence of skiers and officers at the Auburn Ski Club. The pre-Thanksgiving storm closed the highway for a day, stranding nearly 100 people before snowplows could clear the road for cars with tire chains. Plow operators also spent much of their time pulling or pushing cars from snow banks. Thirteen deaths were attributed to heavy rain in California, but the wet weather gave hope the long period of drought might be ending.

At the end of December, the same powerful New Year’s Day storm that pounded Los Angeles hit the North State nearly as hard, generating gale force winds along the coast and heavy snow in the mountains.


Winter sports enthusiasts at Lake Tahoe for the holidays rejoiced in the 44 inches of fresh powder that buried Tahoe City. Snow plows and highway equipment kept the road open from Tahoe City east to Brockway and south to Emerald Bay. New highway snow removal programs had completely changed winter travel to Truckee and Lake Tahoe, drawing tourists and their money by the carload.

More Pacific systems quickly followed on the heels of the New Year’s storm and, within a few days, the snow was 70 inches deep at Donner Pass. By Jan. 13 there was more than eight feet on the ground there. Over the next two days another 20 inches were added to the tally.

The abundant snowfall inspired the Tahoe Ski Club to host another “Snow Frolic” complete with a huge stadium constructed entirely of snow. The structure was 300 square feet with walls 12 feet thick. In addition to ski competitions and tobogganing, activities included a juvenile dog derby, an organized snowball fight and a baseball game played on snowshoes. More than 2,000 people were expected to attend, but a huge storm blew in that weekend and shut down all roads throughout the Tahoe-Sierra. The frolic was postponed. By Saturday, Jan. 19, more than 16 feet of snow blanketed Donner Pass.

Stay tuned for part two.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at Check out his blog:

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