Sierra history: The epic Tahoe-Truckee winter of 1890 (pt. 1) | SierraSun.com

Sierra history: The epic Tahoe-Truckee winter of 1890 (pt. 1)

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — As winter 2015 slides ever so quickly into one of the least snowy seasons on record, a look back 125 years to 1890 can serve to remind us the Tahoe Sierra endures the flip side of the coin as well.

Similar to our recent parched pattern, dry weather had plagued northern California for two years in the late 1880s, and by the summer of 1889, Sierra forest fires permeated the mountains with smoke.

The previous winter had delivered only 22 feet of snow at Donner Pass, about 63 percent of normal.

At Lake Tahoe, low water levels meant that larger steamer ships could not reach many of the wharves for picking up and discharging passengers.

By October, there was so little water in the Truckee River that Reno newspapers reported a person could cross it any point without getting wet.

Old timers began to predict that the region was going through a "climate change" and warned that the big winters of yesteryear would be just a memory.

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A DESTRUCTIVE FIRE

Tinder-dry conditions during the summer of 1889 led to massive forest fires, some started by carelessness and others on purpose by criminal miscreants.

In August, a camping party near Cisco lost control of their campfire, which started a major burn in mountain timber.

By September 12, this fire had reached a canyon near Cascade Creek, about 6 miles west of the summit, and spread upslope to the Central Pacific Railroad line.

A large wooden bridge was destroyed in the firestorm and well as nearly a mile of valuable snow shed. Unfortunately, three fire trains were caught on the wrong side of the break and were helpless in suppressing the flames.

The destruction resulted in a near-total suspension of railroad traffic, as all passengers and express freight had to be transferred around the lost bridge.

The detour was only 1 mile long, but because the horse-drawn wagons that hauled the passengers and shipped goods had to climb from the Cascade siding to the top of the ridge dividing the Yuba and North Fork of the American rivers and then back down to the tracks, the journey took most of a day.

Central Pacific deployed more than a thousand men to the site, including 500 carpenters who worked night and day rebuilding the bridge and repairing destroyed track.

The energetic army of workmen was able to re-open the line in about a week. The railroad officials decided not to reconstruct new snow sheds at the site because they felt that their newly acquired rotary snowplow would make sheds unnecessary in the future.

The railroad was confident that in a few short years, snow blockades would be a thing of the past and the long shed system that blocked scenic views of the Sierra would be eliminated.

It was a dream of optimism that would be sorely tested just a few months later.

A MAJOR CHANGE IN PACE

For Truckee residents afraid of losing their homes to flames, and commercial lumbermen alarmed at the loss of valuable timber, heavy rain in October finally extinguished the forest fires.

In November cold Pacific fronts began to hit the region, each contributing significantly to a swiftly accumulating snowpack at the higher elevations.

Despite fluctuating snow levels that sometimes brought rain to Truckee and Lake Tahoe, by mid-December the heavy, wet snow was 9 feet deep at Donner Pass.

Central Pacific was running its new rotary snowplow on a daily basis and railroad officials were happy with the powerful engine that threw snow from the track in a big stream.

Officials finally put the rotary to the ultimate test the week before Christmas by running it through its paces on a sidetrack where packed snow lay more than 16 feet deep.

Once again, the innovative technology exceeded expectations and the rotating blades made easy work of the challenge.

By New Year's Eve, an impressive 260 inches of snow — almost 22 feet — had fallen on Donner Pass, compared with a paltry 37 inches measured by that date the year before.

On the Carson Range along Lake Tahoe's east shore the snowpack exceeded seven feet. At Donner Summit, the snow was now 16 feet deep on the level.

Brutal Gulf-of-Alaska storms continued the assault in early January. The relentless snowfall forced westbound trains to wait in Truckee, just east of Donner Pass, so Central Pacific workmen could clear the tracks over the higher elevations.

Swirling, wind-driven snowflakes built up impassible drifts in the streets of Truckee. By January 6, almost 24 feet of snow had fallen on the town so far.

Between storms, nighttime temperatures plunged to 35 degrees below zero. The severe weather forced many Truckee stores and businesses to close, but a few enterprising men dug tunnels under the snow like gophers in order to reach their favorite saloons on Commercial Row.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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.

Editor’s Note

This is the first in a three-part series from The Storm King on the winter of 1890. Look for part 2 later this month.