Sierra history: Charles McGlashan’s amazing escape from death
Special to the Sun
TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Ever since the transcontinental railroad was constructed over Donner Pass in the late 1860s, Sierra Nevada railroad crews have fought blizzards, avalanches, accidents and derailments.
Despite their best efforts, there have been overwhelming storms that have blockaded the railroad for days, even weeks at a time.
Keeping the line open is a perilous job and not for the faint of heart.
Charles F. McGlashan is considered the patriarch of Truckee and was the longtime editor of “The Truckee Republican” newspaper.
During a severe snowstorm in January 1880, he climbed aboard a Central Pacific snowplow to see firsthand how railroad men removed snow.
The account of his near-fatal experience was published as “A Fearful Ride (on a Snow Plow)” in the Republican.
A ‘SUICIDE RUN’
Although this event happened 135 years ago, it is still a thrilling story. Before the mid-1880s and development of the rotary snowplow, engine crews called snow-clearing efforts a “suicide run.”
Pushing a massive plow shaped like a wedge through deep drifts at high speed could mean instant death. Powered by eight to 12 locomotives at full throttle, the bucker plow would often plunge into the first drift at speeds in excess of 40 miles-per-hour.
Hitting the dense snowpack was like ramming into a pile of bricks. Derailments were common as were shattered windshields smashed by flying chunks of ice.
McGlashan wrote: “Of late years no headlights are placed on the plows. From the moment the whistles indicate start, all in front is profound darkness. There is no limit to the speed of a snowplow train, and when flying into the teeth of a hurricane, it is impossible to face the darting snow granules, which cut and sting the eyes like needle points. Up over the plow come huge masses of snow which sometimes seem ready to bury one.”
A great sense of adventure ran deep through Charles McGlashan. On that stormy night in 1880, he went looking for action on a snowplow and found it: “Every throttle was wide open and each engine working under a full head of steam. The speed was something alarming. It not only cleared the track of snow, but also caused the engines to shoot clear through a long woodshed and far out into the storm and darkness.”
‘A RUSH FOR THE DOOR’
At this point the engines had to reverse to a protected location to refuel. Bucker plows derailed when backed up so it was uncoupled and left standing on the track while the engines went back to wood up.
The darkness was so intense that only the engineer of the first locomotive knew that the plow had been detached.
McGlashan described the confusion among the men working in the dark. He wrote, “While the engines were wooding up, another crew of men had come down and were standing inside the plow. But when the men heard engines coming they realized that a frightful collision would occur when the speeding train struck the (stranded) plow.
“With a rush for the door of the snowplow, each one endeavored to jump out into the snow by the side of the track. But the banks thrown up by the plow were from four to six feet in height and one could not spring upon them from the door. It was necessary to climb an iron ladder on the rear of the plow and to jump from there. One by one the six men in the car climbed the ladder and escaped.”
Once out, the crewmen scrambled to get a safe distance before the impending collision.
McGlashan happened to be the last man in line. He had just grasped the top rung of the ladder as the first engine struck. It crashed so violently into the snowplow that the force propelled the plow down the tracks as if “shot from a cannon.”
IN SLOW MOTION
Upon impact, all engines shifted wheels into reverse, but McGlashan never managed to escape. He wrote: “(I was) knocked from the ladder and struck some portion of the forward engine. In a twinkling I was rolled and crumpled in all conceivable shapes between the engines and the clean-shaven snow wall left by the plow. Perfectly conscious, I was nevertheless as helpless as a straw in a threshing machine.”
People who survive violent car wrecks or other near-death experiences often tell how the event itself seemed to happen in slow motion, giving time to consider the nature of mortality.
So it was with McGlashan as the screeching engines rolled over him in the darkness.
“Indeed, the principal thought at such a moment is a wonderful appreciation of the majestic power of a ten-wheel, fifty-ton locomotive,” he wrote. “Jammed and twisted and whirled and dragged, one has time to wish that a friendly squeeze of the cylinder head or a sudden clash of the walking beam would end the agony, rather than the cruel wheels should close the scene.”
But somehow Charles McGlashan survived unhurt, with no damage other than a torn overcoat.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Check out Mark’s blog: tahoenuggets.com.