Sierra history: The epic Tahoe-Truckee winter of 1890 (part 2) |

Sierra history: The epic Tahoe-Truckee winter of 1890 (part 2)

Central Pacific Railroad spent $55,000 to hire snow shovelers in 1890.
Courtesy Nevada Historical Society |

Editor’s Note

This is the second in a three-part series from Mark McLaughlin on the winter of 1890. You can click here to read Part 1. This part is excerpted from Mark’s upcoming book: “Snowbound: Legendary Winters in the Tahoe Sierra.” Look for Part 3 in April.

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — A series of dry winters in the late 1880s generated serious drought conditions in the Tahoe-Sierra as regional water levels fell and wild fires raged through mountain timber.

Truckee residents began to wonder if the big winters of yesteryear were over for good, but it turned out that the Storm King was just teasing them.

The winter of 1889-90 came on fast and furious and by early January nearly 24 feet of snow had buried Truckee. Day after day, hundreds of railroad men labored mightily to keep the tracks over the Sierra clear.

Avalanches piled snow up to 40 feet deep on the wooden snow sheds that protected the tracks, which required extra crews to shovel off the heavy loads.

Central Pacific Railroad mobilized 1,600 more men, a dozen more snowplows and 45 additional locomotives. Each wedge-snowplow required six to ten engines for motive power.

The battle for Donner Pass had quickly escalated into all-out war.


Central Pacific utilized its new rotary snowplow to cut paths through 15-foot drifts to keep Donner Pass open.

Three 600-horsepower engines powered the rotary’s spinning blade, which cut through snow and tossed it aside.

To awed onlookers, these roaring behemoths seemed invincible. The machine threw tons of snow hundreds of feet into the air, which forced residents in nearby houses to board up their windows for protection.

During one rotary test run in downtown Truckee, a snow plume broke the second-story windows of the Whitney Hotel, 200 feet from the tracks.

The battle against the relentless storms raged for weeks. For a while, the sheds held, and despite delays and sporadic closures, freight and passenger trains continued to wind their way safely through the storm-ravaged mountains.

On January 15, CP’s hopes of keeping the line open were dealt a mortal blow when a string of cattle cars from Nevada derailed in a snow shed.

The lurching train ripped out hundreds of support posts and the long wooden structure came crashing down.

The “Great Snow Blockade of 1890” had begun.


Central Pacific rushed more men up from Sacramento and Reno to dig out the buried tracks. The men worked rotating eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, trying to keep up.

The snow grew so deep that it became impossible to throw it over the canyon-like snow banks bordering the tracks. Three tiers of wood planks had to be built into the sides of the banks.

A shoveler standing on the tracks at the bottom pitched snow up to a second, who pitched it up to a third, who would finally throw it over the top.

At the height of battle, there were 2,500 shovelers fighting the relentless storm. Augmenting regular railroad crews, these “flatlanders” risked their lives and toiled heroically for $2 a day.

On payday, many of the men crowded Truckee saloons in their quest for refreshments and a good time.

The snow continued to fall heavily on an almost daily basis. An avalanche mid-month near Cisco wiped out a stretch of telegraph poles shutting down communication between the railroad’s mountain division and Sacramento.

In western Nevada, where 52 inches of snow had fallen in Reno so far, all the trains of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad had been abandoned on the tracks.


By mid-January, the depth of snow at Truckee ranged from eight feet on the level to drifts of 20 feet deep. Residents spent much of their time shoveling snow off their homes and buildings.

In Tahoe City, the snowpack approached nine feet. Lake Tahoe had risen 15 inches and the spring melt was still months away. At Cisco, a blanket of white 15 feet deep covered the countryside with up to 20 feet in higher terrain.

Meanwhile, Truckee’s doctor watched helplessly as a contagious influenza called “La Grippe” spread among passengers on the stranded trains.

One car was transformed into a hospital where the patients were cared for as well as possible by fellow passengers.

Temperatures in the minus 20s, overcrowded conditions and a lack of medicine combined to take several lives. One woman died of diphtheria despite her surgeon husband’s best efforts.

Among the victims was Lucia Zarate, famed as the world’s smallest human, who was on her way to San Francisco for an exhibition where she would earn $1,000 per week for a 10-week engagement.

Only 20 inches tall, Zarate weighed less than five pounds as an adult woman. She had appeared with P.T. Barnum’s Great London Circus in 1886, but her life of showbiz ended in a Truckee blizzard.

Zarate’s manager claimed her death by gastric fever was caused by eating canned food, furnished by the railroad’s Pullman buffet, and exposure caused by the snow blockade.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at Mark can be reached at Check out Marks blog:

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