Don’t be surprised if April storms smash the Sierra |

Don’t be surprised if April storms smash the Sierra

Weather Window, Mark McLaughlin
Illustration provided by Mark McLaughlinThis Harper's Illustrated illustration depicts the storm of April, 1880 in a scene probably located west of Donner Summit.

Enjoy the sunshine, but keep your shovel handy. The calendar may say spring, but in the mountainous West, the weather can still pack a punch. In late-March 1880, Sierra residents thought winter was over, until a relentless barrage of April storms dumped a record 25 feet of snow on Donner Summit.Winter-weary residents in the Sierra Nevada traditionally look forward to April as the beginning of spring when the snowpack melts and days grow warmer, but weather-wise locals know that late-season storms often sweep in from the Pacific Ocean. “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb,” claims the old weather adage, but early western settlers learned the hard way how misleading this flatland folklore can be in the mountains.Throughout all four seasons, the atmosphere attempts to equalize arctic and equatorial temperature imbalances, but this battle is especially fierce in the spring. Infusions of subtropical moisture often clash with intrusions of maritime polar air, producing prodigious amounts of rain and snow. Indeed, these highly unstable atmospheric conditions can generate the most severe weather of the year – as witnessed more than a century ago in the phenomenal spring of 1880.The heavy winter of 1879-80 had been a tough one in the Sierra, so by the end of March, everyone was enjoying the first blossoms of spring and anticipating warm sunny days ahead. The snow was melting fast, and locals were talking boats and fishing.Residents in western Nevada had also been feeling good about the welcome spell of spring-like conditions. In Carson City, journalist and weather-sharp Dan De Quille asserted “There is no longer any doubt but that the spring rise is upon us.” One saloon owner ordered a double quantity of beer for the coming week. He expected to be selling 500 kegs a week to thirsty miners and teamsters by the middle of April.Despite the prevailing optimism, the Storm King had other intentions. On April Fool’s Day, a vigorous storm slammed into the region and smothered the Sierra Nevada west slope at Cisco Grove under four feet of snow within 24 hours. The rapid buildup caused a massive snowslide near Emigrant Gap, which buried Central Pacific Railroad’s tracks under 75 feet of snow, ice and rock. Racing to the scene, a repair train smashed into a stalled passenger car, nearly killing several occupants asleep in their berths.The powerful storm was only the first of several major low-pressure systems barreling in from the Pacific Ocean. For three weeks, blizzard conditions raged in the Sierra, where the storms dumped a record 298 inches of snow on Donner Summit. Deadly avalanches caused by the continuous heavy snowfall destroyed miles of snowsheds and blockaded the vital trans-Sierra train route for days. Shattered structural timbers and large boulders incapacitated train plows and created the need for hundreds of hired laborers to shovel the tracks by hand.In Nevada, blustery, downslope winds generated hazardous conditions. In Carson City, wind-whipped dust and dirt reduced visibility to 20 feet and airborne gravel stones stung pedestrians and horses like hail. Several women were bowled over by the fierce gale. Professor Charles W. Friend, Nevada’s first professional weatherman, measured wind gusts in excess of 40 mph. Behind the wind was rain and lots of it. Rain and snow lashed western Nevada for days. More than five inches of rain soaked residents in Carson City, which significantly boosted their previously lackluster season to 11.30 inches. Reno picked up three inches of precipitation that month, nearly half of that city’s total for the water year. The late rains were beneficial for farmers and ranchers in Nevada, but it was the railroad workers up on Donner Summit that took the brunt of it.A particularly intense storm blasted the Summit on the 20th and 21st, which was described as “the heaviest and most protracted one ever encountered on the line of the Central Pacific.” Fighting the worst weather in its 13 years of operating over the Sierra, Central Pacific maintained a frantic pace trying to keep the tracks clear. Rushing to a snowshed cave-in, a special plow train manned by 80 men jumped the icy rails at high speed, ripping through hundreds of feet of snowshed timber. Amazingly, no one was hurt. Later that same day, fate was kind again, when a large avalanche overran a stranded train, sweeping five freight cars into a deep chasm but missing several occupied passenger cars.Giving no respite, potent storms continued to hammer the mountains. For three days during the middle of the month, two feet fell every 24 hours, completely inundating Truckee. By the third week of April, with the town buried under 16 feet of snow and the ice measuring 10 feet thick on Donner Lake, the Truckee Republican newspaper proclaimed the storm to be unequaled in living memory.As the storms churned on without a break, the snow reached incredible depths. More than 20 feet of it covered the ground at the McKinney estate on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe. Several massive avalanches, as much as a half-mile wide, roared into the Truckee River canyon, destroying houses and temporarily damming the rushing waters of the Truckee.Travel in the mountains became a life-or-death struggle as the snowstorms continued their assault. After making his scheduled delivery to Tahoe City, Truckee mailman John Hyslop became besieged at Lake Tahoe by blowing and drifting snow. After three frustrating days of waiting out the storm, he grew determined to return to Truckee, daring to challenge the elements. Sinking to his knees despite skis 11-feet long, his perilous journey over avalanche paths took two days, owing to snow 12-feet deep on the roadway.As May approached, the weather finally cleared, leaving a snowpack nearly 31-feet deep. Donner Summit received almost 67 feet of snow that winter, and more than one-third of it fell in April.Springtime in the Sierra enjoys a well-deserved reputation for beautiful sunny days, but the April showers that bring May flowers sometimes arrive wrapped in a blanket of white.Mark McLaughlin’s award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at:

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