Another snowy close call on the Sierra Valley Road
The Sierra Valley is a large, mostly agricultural valley 30 miles north of Truckee. The valley has always been an extended part of Truckee’s economic and cultural community. It was very true in the 1870s and 80s, as the freight and passenger traffic to and from the valley was routed through Truckee as the major railroad transfer point. As a result people traveled the road year round, regardless of the danger from bad weather.Of course this was in a time without weather forecasts, cars, cell phones, and modern clothing. Not only were the men tough and resourceful, but so were the women. The Truckee Republican newspaper in March of 1873 reported an incident that occurred that emphasized the danger of traveling the road unprepared. A snowy startA party of four persons – stage driver Sam Williams; Mrs. John F. Moody, whose husband owned and ran the original Truckee Hotel; their eight year old daughter Minnie; and a Mrs. Johnson, left Sierraville in a two-horse sleigh at one o’clock in the afternoon. It was snowing some when they started for Truckee, but it kept increasing steadily.The wind blew, the snow drifted, and the road filled in rapidly. The horses were unable to travel faster than a walk. The road was mostly in the timber belt, well packed underneath, and marked with shingles nailed on the trees. The stop at Corey’s Station, just south of the Little Truckee River, was a welcome break, though short. Rather than stop there until the storm subsided, they continued on.
Troubles beginAt eight o’clock, well after dark, they reached a point a mile and a half from Prosser Creek, and about six miles from Truckee. At that point their troubles began to mount. The wind blew fiercely, and the wind-driven snow descended on them with a blinding fury.It was now dark, with no moon, and the road left the timber belt. At the time the road went to the intersection of Prosser Creek and the old road from Truckee to Reno, the old Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road, which now under Prosser Creek Reservoir. To add to the seriousness of the situation, the horses were exhausted from fighting the deepening snow and started falling down. It was impossible for them to keep on the unmarked road, and they could make no headway at all in the three to four feet of snow. There was no human habitation closer than the road house of rancher William Prosser at Prosser Creek. That was still a mile and a half further on. The small party could not turn back, nor could they go ahead with the sleigh. To remain out all night would be almost certain death, as the Prosser Creek region is one of the coldest in the Sierra Nevada. Decision timeIn this serious dilemma “a council of war” was held. It was necessarily short, for time was precious, and whatever they did, they had to do it quickly.
The jaded horses were unhitched from the sleigh, and Williams, the lone male of the party, led the team. He tried to keep the road underfoot as best he could. On foot now, Mrs. Johnson followed immediately behind him, then Miss Minnie, and Mrs. Moody brought up the rear. The party struggled along bravely and kept up courage by cheering on one another on with words of encouragement and hope.Frequently, the poor horses would fall down and flounder in the drifts. They seemed unwilling to make any further efforts to wallow through the powder.At one time Williams thought he would forsake his team and have the ladies – who were greatly exhausted, yet full of courage – remain wrapped in blankets where they were as he pushed forward for help.But the plan was given up, for a moment’s reflection convinced Williams that on account of the darkness and blizzard conditions, it would be doubtful if he could find his way back to the same spot before daylight.Again the little party, in single file, plodded its way through the darkness and snow, some of the time completely lost. Only the senses of the horses, now freed of the sleigh, kept them on the road.The little girl, Minnie, never whimpered nor asked for help, although towards the last of the struggle she could scarcely stand alone. Her mother guided her as best she could by placing her hands on her shoulders and guiding her along.
A formidable lotAfter struggling to walk two and a half hours, they reached the Prosser Creek House and found help and safety. It was needless to say that each one in the group knew they had escaped a seriously dangerous situation.Nothing but a courageous, determined fight saved them from greater suffering, if not death. The ladies were extremely exhausted and sore, their clothes being soaked from being dragged through the snow. After drying their garments for a couple of hours by an excellent fire, a team and sleigh were furnished them by Mr. Prosser, and they arrived in Truckee about two o’clock in the morning. They were none the worse for wear, except perhaps from fright and fatigue. The horses that traveled the Sierra Valley Road regularly knew the route and frequently saved the lives of the travelers. The women of old Truckee were a formidable lot, as the Moody and Johnson women showed on this trip.Gordon Richards is the president and research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives.
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