Hell on the Hill | SierraSun.com

Hell on the Hill

Mark McLaughlin

Since it didnt snow very much this winter, some of us have been worried that the missing storms would come back to haunt us this spring when bicycles and boats have replaced skis and snowboards. True to form, an active Pacific storm pattern this April has been delivering weather systems every few days like clockwork, freshening up the slopes for the diehards who are savoring their last runs of the season.

The calendar may say April, but in the volatile climate of the mountainous West, spring weather can still pack a wild punch. In late March 1880, Truckee residents were enjoying a series of mild sunny days and were feeling optimistic that the heavy winter they had endured was finally over. Their optimism faded quickly, however, when 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 yea r as witnessed 125 years ago in the phenomenal spring of 1880.

The hard winter of 1879 80 had been a tough one in the Sierra and Western Nevada, 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 Truckee locals were already talking boating 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 to be brewed 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 a cruel April Fools Day joke to play on residents in the region. On April 1, a vigorous storm slammed into the region which 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 Railroads 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. Hundred of railroad men were deployed to shovel the tracks to get the line reopened.

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 snowshed 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, Nevadas 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 citys total for the water year. The late rains were beneficial for farmers and ranchers in drought-stricken Nevada, but it was the railroad workers up on Donner Summit that took the brunt of it.

The responsibility for maintaining train traffic through the mountains rested squarely on the burly shoulders of experienced Central Pacific Railroad crews. In the desiccating heat of summer, they fought forest fires or locomotive smokestack sparks that often threatened to burn down the extensive, and expensive, wooden snowsheds that protected the track. In the frigid wonderland of winter, they battled avalanches and shifting drifts with every weapon in their arsenal. The stretch of track between Truckee and Blue Canyon is the worst on the line, and in the early days, the only mechanical way to remove the snow was with a Bucker snowplow. By stacking six to 12 locomotives behind a giant V-shaped snowplow made of wood and weighted with iron, crews could clear the rails of deep heavy snow. Even without the added danger of deadly avalanches or precipitous cliffs, operating a wedge snowplow took guts and nerve. Central Pacific engineers called it a suicide run because they were never sure if they would survive the impact. Locomotives were backed up for a quarter mile to gain running room before all throttles were thrown open and the train roared down the track. Plow crews had to brace firmly before hitting the first snowdrift at 40 mph and then duck when huge chunks of snow shattered the glass windshield. Thick wooden boards were later added to protect the glass, forcing engineers to stick their head out of the side window to see ahead.

A particularly intense storm blasted the Summit on April 20 and 21, 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 throughout the region. More than 20 feet of it covered the ground at the McKinney estate on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe. John McKinney reported that more than 36 feet fell at his place near Sugar Pine Point that winter, with nearly 17 feet in April. Several massive avalanches as much as half a mile wide roared into the Truckee River canyon north of Tahoe City, destroying homes and temporarily damming the rushing waters of the Truckee.Travel in the mountains became a life and 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 him two days owing to fresh 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 McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, and Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.