Battling blazes on the Central Pacific Railroad |

Battling blazes on the Central Pacific Railroad

Courtesy of the Truckee Donner Historical SocietyThis 1875 photo is of the second roundhouse built by the Central Pacific Railroad.

Even before the completion of the Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Truckee was a major railroad town.

The need for extra engines to cope with the steep grades, the heavy snow and the immense amount of freight generated by the lumber and wood industry required a large roundhouse. It was one of the first major structures the railroad built in Truckee.

In addition, Truckee was just the right distance from Sacramento so that train crews ended their shifts and turned their engines around. These locomotives were slow, traveling at only about 10 mph. This level of activity required a large roundhouse that could house up to 20 engines at a time. In January of 1869, more than 40 engines a day were coming and going through Truckee.

The roundhouse also housed repair shops. Despite the slow speed, the great number of accidents on the line required a lot of repairs to the locomotives and rolling stock. Huge quantities of fuelwood were loaded onto the tenders as well. It was quite a busy place in 1869.

On the night of March 29, 1869 the Truckee roundhouse caught on fire. A nearby sawmill worker, H.H. Moran, and the roundhouse night watchman spotted the fire and began yelling to raise an alarm. A workman had been repairing the engine Paiute, and had gone to the storeroom just a few minutes before. These early engines of the Central Pacific had names not numbers.

The men attempted to quench the flames, but found that lumber and wood shavings under the east wing of the building were burning furiously, as if they were soaked in oil. The fire had gotten such a headway that it could not be put out with the water supply at hand. By the time they went around to the front of the roundhouse, a crowd had gathered.

Engineers were summoned, and they began to run out the locomotives. They got three engines out when the locomotive Gorilla got stuck on the turntable, and for a time it seemed that the rest of the engines would not escape the inferno.

Chief engineer. P.B. Campbell arrived at this time and assumed command of the growing crowd. Under his orders the Gorilla was moved by hand off the turntable and the other engines were fired up and moved. Three of the engines were cold and it took a superhuman effort to get them moving and out of the burning building.

The last locomotive out was the Unicorn, and it was covered in burning cinders. Several people burned their hands by helping to push the cold engine out as the roof began to collapse. Eleven locomotives of the 12 in the house were removed. The 12th engine, the Paiute, was in the area where the fire started and could not be moved.

After the engines were out, boards were pulled off of the storeroom and oil barrels were removed. The workmen took out as many other supplies as possible from the wooden structure. Lumberman Elle Ellen had roughly 1,400 railroad ties piled up against the back of the building. Twenty-seven of his mill workers were woken up and they quickly moved them away from the fire. The sounds of fire, engines whistling, and yelling men created a very chaotic sound that woke up the rest of Truckee.

Railroad hands were employed in moving large amounts of railroad supplies and stores from the numerous outbuildings. The nearby iron house, oil house, and several smaller buildings were also consumed by the flames. The light breeze blew embers to the roofs of nearby houses but the new fires were put out with wet blankets and a few buckets of water.

At the time in Truckee, and in the railroad yards, there was only a meager water supply and a handful of water buckets. A fire train had yet to be put into service by Central Pacific. Had it not been for the great efforts of Truckee citizens, the loss to the railroad company would have been much greater than $40,000-plus destroyed in the blaze. H.H. Moran and William Haller had their hands injured, but they quickly recovered.

The very next day, the debris was sifted through and removed. The granite foundation was undamaged, so construction on a new roundhouse was started immediately. One hundred and fifty carpenters were hired to build a replacement. The new roundhouse was very similar to the old one and was completed by June of 1869. The new roundhouse would serve until 1884, when the granite roundhouse replaced it. Despite severe damage the Paiute was rebuilt and continued to run until 1886.

Truckee citizens responded by resolving to purchase a fire hose cart. A meeting was held and storeowner Fred Burckhalter was empowered to purchase one. Truckee businessmen William Campbell and George Schaffer drew up papers to form a water company to provide a decent water supply to both the town and the railroad. Plans had already been formed to pipe water from a spring on the north side of Truckee and these plans were quickly put into action.

The railroad had suffered smaller fires at their numerous buildings around Truckee and up on Donner Pass, and more were to come. It would not be until June of 1872 that the first fire train, the Samson, would be stationed on the rail line at Truckee.

In the meantime, more fire barrels were placed on the roofs of the railroad buildings. That would be enough to keep the second roundhouse from burning for the next few decades. Several fires did start at the replacement roundhouse, but were quickly put out.

Rumors circulated about town that the roundhouse fire was arson caused. Over the next few months, a series of fires occurred along the rail line ” at the Cisco bridge, the Rocklin woodshed, and a major snowshed fire just east of Donner Pass that burned 8,000 feet of sheds. Railroad detectives and area lawmen were constantly investigating vandalism and arson cases along the tracks. Several arrests occurred in the fall, two near Truckee, and the men were held in Auburn until charges were dismissed a month later for lack of evidence.

In January of 1870, railroad worker D.J. Hickey was charged with setting the Truckee roundhouse and Cisco bridge fires. He was held on $5,000 bond. Hickey had told other railroad workers that he was upset at the Central Pacific for hiring the Chinese, and he wanted to make sure there was plenty of work.

Hickey was tried in Nevada City, with other railroad workers testifying against him. His defense was successful, as the jury could not reach a verdict. A second trial also ended in a hung jury and Hickey was set free.

The railroad continued to expand its presence in Truckee, and still maintains work forces in the railyard. The future of the once industrial site will be the focus of many workshops and discussions over the next several months.

Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at The e-mail address is You may leave a message at 582-0893.

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