High country officer had his start in Hollywood
August 17, 2005
Mountain communities like Truckee rely greatly on a small but dedicated police force to protect our lives and property. When monster winter storms cause accidents and shut down roads, trains, or highways, law enforcement is first on the scene, rendering aid and securing safety. Old timers can easily recall stories from the big winter of 1952, or the proud excitement that heralded the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, but too often the silent heroes behind the headlines are forgotten. California Highway Patrol Officer John Henry Stinton spent a decade in service to the small towns scattered along Highway 40, patrolling from Auburn to the state line. Though few may remember his name, Officer Stinton played an important role in the rescue of passengers on a snowbound streamliner train west of Donner Pass in January 1952, and he supervised Truckee and Lake Tahoe traffic control for two events that strained infrastructure to the hilt: the 1959 North American Ski Championships and the 1960 Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley. Officer Stinton was a long way from home during his years on duty in the snow country of the High Sierra. Born in Southern California in 1911, he grew up in Venice and Santa Monica where he was an avid surfer. In high school he got a job as a swim club attendant and later became a lifeguard for the city of Santa Monica and Los Angeles County. Working at the swim club, John met many Hollywood celebrities like actor Buster Crabbe. Although Crabbe was a few years older than Stinton, the two swimmers became friends and trained together in the Pacific Ocean to build their physical endurance. Crabbe won a gold medal in swimming at the 1932 Olympics and went on to play Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers in a long and successful movie career. An athletic teenager, Stinton entered many competitive events such as the Long Beach to Catalina paddleboard race, in which contestants paddled with their arms on a narrow surfboard for 26 miles.A well rounded talent
His enthusiasm for sports did not end at the beach. After graduating from Santa Monica High School, the talented athlete earned a football scholarship to Loyola University, where he also played baseball and ice hockey. About the time of his graduation in 1933, a movie studio put out a call for ice skaters to perform in a movie with three-time Olympic gold medalist and world ice skating champion Sonja Henie. Due to a lack of suitable male ice skaters in Southern California, the studio talent agencies scouted out local hockey players. Tall and handsome, John Stinton joined her cast, and being one of the bigger guys, became one of her lifters. The ice skating movies were very popular and Sonja became a major Hollywood star. Sonja Henie started the first touring ice shows and Stinton performed with her skating company for about five years, traveling throughout the United States and Europe.In between gigs skating with Sonja Henie, Stinton worked as an extra for different movie studios. Trim and athletic, he performed challenging physical stunts like swinging through the trees in “Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn; jumping off ships in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Buccaneer”; and playing football in a film about the legendary Notre Dame coach, Knute Rockne. Stinton worked as an extra in other films as well, and after showing talent as a dancer, was cast in “Top Hat” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Stinton had learned to fly in a biplane while in college, and in 1939 he decided to pursue his love of flying in the military. The United States had not yet entered World War II, so like many other American pilots anxious to join the fight against Nazi Germany, he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Stinton stayed with the RCAF until he transferred to the U.S. Air Force to fly DC-3s. After the war, he stayed in the Air Force Reserves and continued to fly, including tours of duty in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. He retired with the rank of Colonel.From Hollywood to Truckee
Stinton returned home after World War II and joined the California Highway Patrol. Ironically, after years spent fraternizing with Hollywood celebrities and Olympic athletes, performing in movies, and most recently as a decorated wartime pilot, the rookie’s first assignment was as a resident officer in Truckee, a remote mountain hamlet on Highway 40. He and a few other CHP officers patrolled all the highways from Auburn to the Nevada border, as well as the Lake Tahoe region. Winter often brings extreme weather to the Sierra high country, but the winter of 1952 delivered more than its share. A seemingly endless procession of heavy snowstorms dumped 67 feet on Donner Pass that year, including one in January that dropped nearly 13 feet in eight days. Avalanches and blizzard-conditions trapped the luxury streamliner city of San Francisco for three days with more than 220 passengers and crew on board. Hurricane-force winds and deep drifts stymied all rescue attempts until the epic storm finally abated. When the weather cleared, the passengers were rescued and taken to the closest shelter, the Nyack Ski Lodge. Since no communication lines were open to carry reports of their status, a CHP patrol car was placed on a flatbed car of the rescue train. Clad in a parka and equipped with a walkie-talkie radio and snowshoes, Officer Stinton slogged his way to the Nyack Lodge by following the tops of the telephone poles. He found the passengers in good spirits with plenty of food and warmth. Stinton was able to radio to the officer in the patrol car on the rescue train, who then relayed the information to the CHP office. News that the passengers were all safe and alive was then broadcast to the nation and rest of the world. For his actions, Officer Stinton was awarded a commendation for outstanding performance which read in part: “After being on duty all night on Jan. 14, you volunteered for assignment to the rescue train and stayed on duty without relief or rest until 10:30 p.m. Jan. 16, relaying messages over the radio. The entire attention of the country and all news agencies were centered on your performance of duty.” Officer Stinton was later transferred to the Highway Patrol commissioner’s office in Sacramento where he worked as the commissioner’s administrative assistant. He was assigned to prepare a manual providing traffic control logistics for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. He and another sergeant were stationed at Squaw Valley to handle everything, including the opening day ceremonies and the arrival of Gov. Pat Brown. Sgt. Stinton ended up loaning his parka to the governor who was unprepared for the cold and blustery weather.
While at Squaw Valley John Stinton found time to enjoy the outdoor ice skating rink where a skinny little girl was practicing. He was once again sharing the ice with a future world champion, Peggy Fleming.Officer John Henry Stinton died July 16, 2002, and was buried at the Masonic Cemetery in Fallbrook, California, following a graveside service with military honors. The author would like to thank John Stinton’s wife, Pat, for her invaluable assistance.Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.