History: The 1952 snowbound streamliner passenger train
January 13, 1952 was the third day of a major winter storm in the Sierra, with 100 mph winds and blowing snow. For the crew of the luxury diesel-powered City of San Francisco passenger train, it wasn’t a typical day on “the Hill,” but it wasn’t unprecedented either.
The previous day’s City had been stopped by a snowslide about 10 miles west of Donner Summit, dragged back to Norden by a cab forward steam engine, and sent down the eastbound track to complete its journey to Sacramento. Two other cab forwards with rotary plows sent to clear the westbound rails had derailed and were still blocking the westbound track, so today’s streamliner would have to follow the same detour.
At 11:23 a.m., veteran engineer Tom Sapunor eased the 3-unit diesel out of the snowshed-covered Norden siding and down the eastbound tracks. The train crawled downgrade through a canyon of ice and snow to Crystal Lake, about 15 miles west of Donner Summit, where it crossed over to the westbound track. Wedge plows and rotaries had been working to clear the tracks constantly throughout the storm, but as the City skirted the open ridge enroute to Yuba Pass, it was pushing through 6 to 12 feet of drifted snow. The engines strained against the load, but the train slowed to a crawl and then stopped. Sapunor reversed the engines to back up, but the train was stuck — unable to move in either direction, with its wheels quickly freezing to the track.
In 1952, most trains did not yet have two-way radios. Between stations, train crews were on their own. When the City became stuck, roadmaster J. T. Fulbright, who had been riding in the cab with Sapunor and fireman Gordon Painter, donned his boots and coat and trudged through the snow to Yuba Pass. There, he was able to telephone for help, and in a short time, cab forward #4188 was enroute from Emigrant Gap with a rotary plow. 4188 plowed up the eastbound track past the frozen train, crossed over to the westbound track at Crystal Lake, and plowed back to the City. There the crew hand-shoveled the last few feet between the trains, coupled up, and tried to drag the snowbound streamliner back up the hill. It wouldn’t budge. Then an air pump failed on the attached rotary plow, and it could no longer operate.
Cab forward #4245 and another rotary plow headed down the eastbound tracks from Norden past the streamliner. 4245 crossed over at Emigrant Gap and plowed back to the front of the stranded City. The tracks were now at least temporarily clear, but the train was still frozen and now half-covered with drifting snow. More power was needed to back up to the City and pull it loose.
For most of the 226 passengers and crew, that first snowbound afternoon was an adventure. There was plenty of food and the train’s diesel steam generators kept the pipes thawed and the heating system working. A doctor on board attended to anyone with medical issues. Conductor Clyde Baldwin and trainmaster R. D. Spence kept the passengers informed about rescue efforts, and spirits remained high.
The morning of Jan. 14 was bitterly cold, and the blizzard raged on. Cab forward #4245, with its rotary plow pointing east, backed down the westbound tracks toward Emigrant Gap to clear the track for additional engines to get to the streamliner and free it from the ice. About half way, #4245 itself was stopped by a massive drift. Another cab forward, sandwiched between two rotary plows, came down the eastbound tracks from Norden, but it was hit by an avalanche and one of the rotaries overturned. Engineer Rolland Raymond was buried under the overturned plow and killed.
The westbound tracks were now blocked on both sides of the stranded streamliner, and the eastbound track was blocked as well. It became clear that the city of San Francisco was not going anywhere soon, and getting the passengers to safety was top priority. The Army loaded tank-tracked “weasels” on flat cars and tried to reach the train from Emigrant Gap, but the weasels floundered in the wet snow. PG&E’s Sno-Cat did get through with some supplies, but didn’t have the capacity to take 226 people out.
The City’s steam-heat generators gave out that night. Cab forward #4188, still stuck behind the train, took over the heating job, with crew shoveling snow into its boilers to make steam. Snow-clogged exhausts on the Pullman cars caused carbon monoxide gas to build up inside the train, and at least 30 passengers had to be rescued from locked sleeping compartments and carried to fresh air. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.
It was still snowing on the 15th, but there were breaks in the storm. A dog sled team carrying Truckee doctor Larry Nelson rendezvoused with the PG&E Sno-Cat and was taken to the train, and four passengers needing medical attention were evacuated. Additional food and supplies were dropped by helicopter. A rescue train had made it to Colfax, and the Highway Department (predecessor to Caltrans) was making progress on clearing Highway 40. A team of section hands labored day and night with shovels to dig out the passenger cars and clear a quarter-mile path down the steep mountainside to Highway 40.
Despite the progress, tensions and frustrations mounted inside the train as the steam heat ran out, battery-powered lights dimmed, pipes froze, and toilets backed up. As temperatures inside the train dropped, passengers wrapped themselves in tablecloths and window curtains.
A reporter and photographer made it to the train on skis and brought back reports of the rescue operation and of the passengers’ welfare. Accounts of the unfolding drama were reprinted in newspapers across America. Some included vague allusions to the Donner Party, several of whom had perished not far from the streamliner’s location more than 100 years earlier.
Jan. 16 dawned clear and cold. Shovelers had completed the packed snow trail down the hillside to Highway 40, which the Highway Department had opened early that morning. Highway Department vehicles and private cars from Nyack Lodge crawled up the road and waited to take the evacuated passengers to safety. Bundled in blankets and with their faces covered by pillowcases with eye holes cut in them, the tired passengers made it down the slippery path to the waiting vehicles. A few had to be carried, but no one was seriously ill or injured. By 8:50 p.m., all of the passengers were on board the rescue train and it departed for San Francisco.
Southern Pacific crews worked for three days before the City of San Francisco was finally freed from the ice by Caterpillar tractors belonging to Sacramento area contractors. Another storm on the 22nd closed the mountain again. It wasn’t until the 27th that operations returned to normal.
Some have pondered whether the events of January, 1952 could unfold again in a current-day “perfect storm.” Amtrak engines, while more automated and more reliable than the diesels of 1952, are not much different with respect to their ability to plow through snow. Union Pacific still uses rotary plows to fight the biggest Sierra storms, and they only have two in service today versus the six that fought the storm of ’52. Climate change has made the Sierra warmer and drier overall, but according to recent studies has also increased the likelihood of “megastorms” that could include epic snowfall.
Probably the biggest factor that makes a modern-day “stranded streamliner” scenario unlikely is that today’s passenger trains are not the critical transportation systems they were in the 1950s, and Amtrak can afford to be much more conservative in terms of cancelations in dangerous weather. As a case in point, the California Zephyr between Reno and Sacramento was canceled twice due to storms during Christmas week, 2021. Also, I-80 is seldom closed for more than a few hours, so if a passenger train did become stranded, evacuation by highway would be an immediate option.
About the author:
Daniel Cobb is a railroad modeler, amateur historian, and volunteer with the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and an avid historian of our railroad history. He lives in Tahoe Vista.
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