Sierra history: Top 5 snowiest winters ever for the Truckee-Tahoe region | SierraSun.com
Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Bonanza

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Sierra history: Top 5 snowiest winters ever for the Truckee-Tahoe region

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — These past few winters have been mild, but the Tahoe Sierra rightfully has a reputation for massive dumps of snow. Our region ranks up there with the best in North America, and sometimes the world.

For skiers and boarders who have lost faith, this article showcases the top five snowiest winters based on snowfall measured at Donner Pass. Central Pacific Railroad began collecting reliable snowfall data there in 1879 and precipitation in 1871.

In the list, the most recent season is 1951-52, which is more than 60 years ago. However, if you expand the list to the Top 10, it includes 1982, 1983 — and, yes, most recently the epic 2011 season. Superlative winters are rare by definition, but the Tahoe Sierra gets more than its share.

No. 5: Perfect Winter for an Ice Carnival — 1895

In early December 1894, the weather went gang-busters as relentless Pacific storm systems piled snow on the higher terrain. By the first day of winter, Truckee residents already shoveled 80 inches of snow, and the snowpack exceeded 10 feet at the Norden train station near Donner Pass.

The vigorous winter storm track roared right into January, bringing heavy snow to the Tahoe-Sierra. In Truckee, the snow was so deep that to cross the street; pedestrians had to climb from the sidewalks on steps cut into the snow. Restaurants had snow caves set up in the street to serve their customers outdoors on clear days.

The abundant snow was a blessing for Truckee's first winter ice carnival, organized to lure tourists. Southern Pacific Railroad ran weekend excursion trains to Truckee for winter sports enthusiasts.

On Donner Pass, nearly 22 feet of snow fell in January with a total moisture content of 25.80 inches of water, making it the second consecutive month with nearly three times normal precipitation.

The months of Dec. 1894 and Jan. 1895 dumped more than 50 inches of precipitation, meaning 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 mellow, but the epic storms of December and January contributed so much snow that the season total of 685 inches (57 feet) at Norden was enough to rank the winter as the fifth-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 Jan. and Feb. 1925 at the Paradise Ranger Station at Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington.

No. 4: Great Sierra Snow Blockade — 1890

In the fall of 1889, Tahoe-Sierra residents were praying for a wet winter. Dry weather plagued northern California for two years and smoke from forest fires had permeated the mountains.

By Jan. 1, 1890, an impressive 22 feet of snow had fallen on Donner Pass, with 15 feet in December alone. In Truckee, the snowpack measured just over seven feet.

In early January, a dome of high pressure poured cold air into the region. In Reno, the temperature plummeted to 19 degrees below zero on Jan. 8, still the all-time lowest reading there.

Two weeks later, low pressure systems roared in, and unrelenting blizzard conditions overwhelmed snow removal crews. Central Pacific Railroad mobilized 1,600 more men, many of them ethnic Chinese, plus more plows and locomotives. The battle for Donner Pass had escalated into all-out war.

On Jan. 15, a string of cattle cars derailed in a snowshed near Emigrant Gap. The shed collapsed into a pile of snow and splintered timber. The "Great Snow Blockade of 1890" had begun.

Thousands of men worked to clear the line, and 15 days later the blockade was raised and stranded passengers trains finally moved through the mountains.

Railroad traffic was blocked on and off for nearly two months that winter. In Truckee, total snowfall measured more than 36 feet. The incredible amount of precipitation in the mountains broke the drought.

In 1890, railroad crews battled a total of 776 inches — nearly 65 feet — of snowfall. That ranks fourth on the list. With 79 inches of precipitation, it is the 18th wettest winter since 1871.

No. 3: Hell on the Hill — 1880

Just before Christmas Day 1879, a strong Gulf of Alaska-bred storm surged into the Northern Sierra, bringing heavy snow. The storm left snow five feet deep at Blue Canyon with nearly 10 feet at Donner Pass.

Near the end of January, skies were clear, but the air was bitter cold. Temperatures at Truckee fell to minus-20 degrees, while traditional cold spots like Boca reported 35 degrees below zero.

By late March, the snow was nearly gone and Truckee residents were feeling optimistic that the nasty winter they had endured was finally over. Locals were already talking boats and fishing.

On April 1, the first of several unseasonably strong storms slammed the mountains. During the third week of April, a particularly intense low pressure system generated a grand finale super storm.

The extreme weather shut down the railroad for five days. As the storm churned on without a break, the snow reached incredible depths. More than 20 feet covered the ground on Lake Tahoe's west shore.

From April 20-23, an unofficial world-record 194 inches (over 16 feet!) of snow fell in just four days at the Norden train station near Donner Pass.

The endless parade of monster storms must have exhausted the Storm King as much as the railroad workers. The following winter (1881) with 153 inches of snow ranked at the top of the chart for the least snowy of record until the pitiful winter of 2015.

Donner Summit was hammered with 783 inches (65.25 feet) of snow in 1880, including an amazing 25 feet that fell in April. That winter ranks third snowiest on record, and with 80 inches of precipitation, it is the 17th wettest.

No. 2: A Winter to Remember — 1952

When it comes to benchmark Tahoe winters, 1952 generated the most headlines with a relentless series of powerful blizzards that spawned avalanches, trapped trains, closed roads and wrought havoc throughout the West.

Early storms piled snow six feet deep on Donner Pass by mid-December. On Christmas Eve, a powerful system from the Gulf of Alaska closed mountain roads and trapped tourists in Tahoe City and Truckee.

As the New Year began, skies were sunny, but near-record cold invaded the area. Truckee hit minus-18 degrees, while at Boca the temperature plummeted to 42 degrees below zero, just three degrees shy of the state record of minus-45 set on Jan. 30, 1937.

In mid-Jan. 1952, Southern Pacific Railroad's most powerful streamliner train rammed a dense snow slide east of Donner Pass and became stuck in blizzard conditions.

After three days, the storm broke and rescuers rushed to the stranded passengers who hobbled to safety along the tracks. The sick and weak were tobogganed or carried in stretchers. Miraculously, all 226 passengers crew survived their ordeal.

March brought another 13 feet, pushing the Soda Springs snowpack to more than 22 feet deep. On Tahoe's North Shore, drifts from 15 to 20 feet buried the lake shore road. U.S. Highway 40 (pre-dating Interstate 80) was closed for 30 consecutive days.

At Kings Beach, Nurse Audrey Welch had to shoulder a backpack of medical supplies and struggle through snow up to her neck to care for pregnant women on both sides of the state line.

The winter of '52 boasts a seemingly endless list of weather superlatives, including the deepest snowpack ever measured near Donner Pass at 26 feet, and the Summit's second greatest annual snowfall on record with 67.7 feet, just five inches shy of the 1938 all-time record.

The 83 inches of precipitation that winter ranks tenth.

No. 1: Tahoe's Snowiest Winter — 1938

The winter of 1938 started off wet and mild with high snow levels that left little snow in the mountains. Finally, at the end of Jan. 1938, a barrage of cold storms blasted the high country with 12 feet of snow in less than a week. From then on, the storms hit hard and fast, beginning a siege of extreme weather that would last for 21 consecutive days.

Tahoe City residents shoveled 17 feet of new snow in 16 days. There were no mail deliveries to Tahoe City for more than a week and no fresh food for twice that long.

In February, a week-long blizzard buried Tahoe communities with another nine feet of snow. At one point, Tahoe City was completely isolated with no automobile traffic and all communication cut off for two weeks.

By Valentine's Day, the snow was 20 feet deep on Donner Summit. During a rare break in the weather, the steamer that regularly circled Lake Tahoe with mail and deliveries arrived back in Tahoe City. The captain mentioned that fresh horsemeat was available at Glenbrook, Nev. Apparently, a caretaker there had shot his animal due to injury and was willing to share the meat if anyone was interested.

An erroneous story spread throughout California that snowbound Tahoe residents were running out of food and near starvation. Thoughts of the Donner Party tragedy began to crop up.

A San Francisco newspaper organized an emergency food drop at Tahoe City. Amused residents built signal fires in the middle of the Tahoe City Golf Course, and that afternoon two airplanes dropped boxes of bread, meat and vegetables. Half the boxes shattered when they hit trees, but the remainder were retrieved by cross-country skiers and distributed around the community.

The winter of '38 started late, but made up for it with powerful storms in February and March. By May, a record 819 inches (68.25 feet) of snow had buried Donner Pass, the greatest seasonal snowfall ever.

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