TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series about the advent of winter sports and play in the Truckee-Tahoe region. Find the first installment here. This article is adapted from “Snowbound: Legendary Tahoe-Sierra Winters,” a book in progress scheduled for release in 2014 by Mic Mac Publishing.
Winter sports have deep roots in Truckee and North Lake Tahoe, and the annual SnowFest! Winter Carnival celebrates that heritage each March.
Unlike this year, the birth of Truckee’s original Winter Carnival in the winter of 1895 hit an auspicious note, due to that winter’s extraordinary 685 inches of snowfall measured near Donner Pass. Virtually all the snow that season fell in just two months, but the year’s total of 57 feet was enough to rank it as one of the Top 10 snowiest winters of record since 1879.
Truckee’s first winter carnival grew out of economic desperation among the town’s business community. The demise of logging, commercial ice harvesting, and the collapse of the Comstock silver boom in the 1880s was devastating to the whole region.
To promote the town’s unique position as a destination for winter sports with easy access by railroad, in the fall of 1894 local workmen built a massive ice palace containing a large indoor skating rink. A tall wooden scaffold toboggan run came next, and the plan was that if there was enough snow, the town could stage dog-sled races, toboggan and horse-drawn sleigh rides, ski races, and moonlight skating parties on Donner Lake.
Initially, Truckee residents were worried if they would have any snow for their inaugural winter carnival on Commercial Row. During the first half of December, relatively mild Pacific storms doused the town with rain, but in the higher mountains snow piled up. Luckily, later that month snow levels dropped and residents were soon cursing as they labored to shovel a total of 12 feet by New Year’s Day. More than 20 feet fell near Donner Pass.
At lower elevations, periods of very wet snow and heavy rain hampered the commercial ice harvesting operations downstream from Truckee near Floriston. The pond ice was thick and ready for cutting, but a foot of slush covered the good ice, rendering it inaccessible. Efforts to use horse-pulled scrapers proved fruitless. Persistent rain in Reno made dirt roads there a muddy, impassable mess for wagons and pedestrians.
Conditions became so bad that city commissioners passed an ordinance for sidewalk construction to keep pedestrians out of the mud. The law also mandated street gutters dug along principal thoroughfares to drain water into the Truckee River.
so much snow
On Jan. 18, a vigorous cold front dumped five feet of snow in 24 hours along the Sierra crest. The heavy buildup stalled train traffic and forced Southern Pacific Railroad to deploy its massive rotary snow throwers in an effort to keep the line open. More snow over the next two days raised the storm total to seven feet.
An avalanche at Sierra City north of Truckee carried away a slaughterhouse and caused a panic among the population as many people fled from their homes with their frightened children in tow.
Rapid fire storm systems kept the snow machine pumping (107 inches fell in Truckee that month) and by Jan. 31, businesses and railroad crews there were dealing with a snowpack nearly 10 feet deep. To the west, railroad crews at Donner Pass reported 21 feet. The cold Alaskan-born storms drove snow levels way down. At the low elevation foothill town of Gold Hill, residents were overwhelmed by a structure-crushing snowpack five feet deep.
On Donner Pass nearly 22 feet of snow fell in January, with a total moisture content of 25.80 inches of water at the Norden gage, making it the second consecutive month with nearly three times normal precipitation. In fact, the months of December 1894 and January 1895 dumped more than 50 inches of precipitation, meaning that Donner Summit was blasted with nearly a whole winter’s worth of snow and rain in just eight weeks.
The rest of the winter of 1895 was below average, but the epic storms of December and January contributed so much snow that the season total of 685 inches (57.1 feet) was enough to rank the winter as the sixth snowiest of record. The 503 inches (42 feet) of snow that fell in those two months is just one inch shy of the United States record for a two-month time period, measured in January and February 1925 at the Paradise Ranger Station at Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington.
In between the storms, people came to Truckee from throughout California and western Nevada for the carnival festivities. There were fireworks and the town decorated itself in red, white and blue bunting.
The first carnivals lasted only three years before the Ice Palace was torn down and the idea temporarily abandoned. By 1909, however, the carnival was back, being run by a community organization and holding activities across the Truckee River at Hilltop, where it would soon flourish again.
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. Check out his blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.