Sierra history: The epic Tahoe-Truckee winter of 1890 (part 3) | SierraSun.com
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Sierra history: The epic Tahoe-Truckee winter of 1890 (part 3)

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Bonanza
The rotary snowplow made its impressive debut in the winter of 1890. Its blade was propelled by three 600 horsepower engines.
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. Click here to read part two. This part is excerpted from Mark’s upcoming book: “Snowbound: Legendary Winters in the Tahoe Sierra.”

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — The winter storms that ravaged the Tahoe Sierra 125 years ago in 1890 were unprecedented for the region. For two months straight, the weather was unrelenting.

Residents at Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe’s western shore recorded fresh snow every day from December 2 to January 30, with an incredible total of 40 feet.

Avalanches, crushed snowsheds, and train wrecks closed the vital transcontinental railroad over Donner Pass for 15 days.

The extended railroad blockade nearly foiled popular New York newspaper journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, best known by her pen name Nellie Bly, in her attempt to circumnavigate the world in order to beat the fictional voyage portrayed in Jules Verne’s wildly popular book, “Around the World in Eighty Days.”

“Railroad crews and the army of hired shovelers battled a grand total of 776 inches — nearly 65 feet — of snow in their herculean efforts to keep trains rolling through the High Sierra.”

In November 1889, she traveled by steamer to Europe, crossed Asia by train, and reached San Francisco in January 1890. The bold 23-year-old adventurer had used 68 of her 80 days. Speed was of the essence, but news from the mountains warned of a protracted snow blockade.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 72 DAYS

It seemed to Nellie, that after circling most of the globe, a California snowstorm was going to ruin her mission. A delegation of Bly’s New York associates heading for California to meet her was stuck in Reno by the blockade.

One of Nellie’s editors John Jennings, however, had been traveling two days in advance of the delegation.

Jennings convinced Central Pacific officials to let him ride with a rotary snowplow, but they had not gone far before the plow was buried under an avalanche. Every window in the cab was shattered, but luckily no one was hurt.

The rotary was out of commission, but Jennings bought a pair of skis and hired a guide to lead him out of the mountains. The two men traveled all night in bitter cold amid crashing avalanches.

The next morning, Jennings broke past the blockade and boarded a California-bound train. Still carrying his new skis, Jennings stated, “I have seen snow and blizzards in New York, but the people back there don’t know what snow is.”

Jennings and Bly met near Stockton, Calif., and took a train south into Arizona.

Fear that the altered train route would ruin Nellie’s tight schedule cropped up in newspaper headlines, but she arrived back in New York City on January 25, having traveled 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes in her epic, world-encircling journey.

ANOTHER STORM’S A COMIN’

Meanwhile, back in the Tahoe Sierra, after 15 days of nonstop operation, Central Pacific’s recently purchased rotary snowplow broke down with only 200 yards of track left to clear the blockade. Snow shovelers were deployed to finish the final stretch.

At last, on Jan. 31, the railroad was finally able to open the road. Some 1,000 stranded passengers cheered the blue skies and heroic efforts of the workmen as the trains headed to the Golden State.

The incessant snowfall had taken a severe toll on man and machine, but the Storm King wasn’t finished yet.

On February 16, a crashing barometer indicated another monster storm was on its way. Once again, thick clouds enveloped the granite crags of the Sierra as gale-force winds piled more snow into the freshly plowed train cuts.

Hundreds of men were still working in the mountains removing icy cornices over-hanging the tracks.

The new storm quickly overwhelmed them and the exhausted shovelers soon surrendered in defeat. Just two weeks after the lifting of the blockade, all train traffic over the Sierra was again halted.

NINE FEET OF SNOW IN 48 HOURS

Incredibly, this storm was the worst of the season. Railroad crews estimated that nine feet of new snow fell on Donner Summit in just 48 hours, while Truckee residents were stunned by another five and a half feet.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, this enormous Alaska-bred cyclone stalled over the region, generating blizzard conditions for more than a week.

The storm’s far-flung circulation drew in polar maritime air that dropped snow levels below 2,000 feet across Northern California

At Emigrant Gap, a massive avalanche trapped a train packed with anxious passengers who subsisted on crackers and coffee for 50 hours until they were rescued.

The famished travelers crowded into the nearby Emigrant Gap Hotel stumbling through a 25-foot-long snow tunnel that led right into the hotel’s second-story windows.

At last, on March 6, two and a half weeks after the storm began, the tropical jet stream shifted northward, and warm, moist air streamed in from the Pacific Ocean. The rain was the beginning of the end for the Great Snow Blockade of 1890.

All in all, rail traffic over Donner Pass was shut down for more than two months that memorable winter.

Meanwhile, railroad crews and the army of hired shovelers battled a grand total of 776 inches — nearly 65 feet — of snow in their herculean efforts to keep trains rolling through the High Sierra.

The winter of 1890 ranks fourth in snowfall since 1879.

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


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