Weather Window | Classic novel ‘Storm’ based on 1935 winter | SierraSun.com

Weather Window | Classic novel ‘Storm’ based on 1935 winter

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is adapted from "Snowbound! Legendary Winters of the Tahoe-Sierra," a book in progress scheduled for release in 2014 by Mic Mac Publishing. This is the first in a two-part series.

Compared to some of the other Top 10 winters of the Tahoe-Sierra, 1935 may come across as a bit tame, but the 55 feet of snow measured near Donner Pass that year ranks it securely as the eighth snowiest since 1879.

Many stories of human drama occurred in the Sierra Nevada high country that winter, some of which inspired author George R. Stewart's classic novel "Storm" that casts a powerful extra-tropical storm system born over the Pacific Ocean as its lead protagonist. Stewart named his mythical low pressure system "Maria," following it from its inception in the western Pacific Ocean to its rampage over California, where it flooded part of the Sacramento Valley; stalled a westbound transcontinental streamliner train by track washout; and dumped 20 feet of snow on Highway 40 near Donner Pass, shutting down the road.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

A prolific writer, George Stewart had more than 30 titles to his credit. An American historian, novelist, and professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, Stewart was on sabbatical in Mexico during the winter of 1938. (1938 ranks as the number one all-time snowiest winter in the Tahoe-Sierra.) The scholar was impressed that news of the harsh weather occurring in the Sierra was published in Mexican newspapers that he was reading.

Stewart said, "Reading in Spanish about what was happening in my own state, I was doubly impressed with the dramatic values of a California storm." That experience gave him the idea for a book. Upon his return to campus in Berkeley, Stewart started studying meteorology for background to the story and realized that "A storm itself had most of the qualities of a living thing."

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Stewart's novel was published in 1941 and quickly became a best seller, particularly for men and women deploying overseas for Word War II. Storm is often cited as the inspiration to U.S. Navy meteorologists in assigning female names to tropical Pacific weather systems during the Second World War. After the war, the practice of naming these cyclones shifted to Atlantic hurricanes and eventually to tropical storms around the globe.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Stewart's fictional story takes place during January 1935, but inspiration for the book's narrative came from many real events that actually occurred in the Tahoe-Sierra during that winter season. At one point, the story describes the death of an electric utility lineman who had skied out to repair a broken wire during a snowstorm. The lineman "Rick" fell from the pole when his climbing spike slipped. Rick injured his sternum when he fell onto his ski poles, and that led to the lineman's lonely death in deep snow near Donner Pass.

A very similar incident occurred on Oct. 31, 1934, 70 miles north of Portola, Calif., as reported by the Nevada State Journal. The real lineman's name was William Woods, who worked for the California Fruit Exchange. Woods had climbed an abandoned power pole to dismantle wires when the top broke and he fell to the ground. His death was attributed to internal hemorrhage.

Later that winter, highway crews working to open the road from South Lake Tahoe to Placerville reported drifts 11 feet deep on Echo Summit. Persistent snowfall and erratic temperatures had created an unstable snowpack and on April 7 a large avalanche crashed down on a California snowplow trying to clear the road near Emerald Bay.

It took rescuers more than half an hour to dig two men out, one of whom was dead. In his book, Stewart uses this tragic event to describe the dangers of snow removal. In his fictionalized version, an avalanche near Donner Pass surged over a rotary snowplow with its two-man crew.

Much of Stewart's narrative has a dark feel to it, most likely because he wrote it on the eve of World War II, but the author went easy on his characters at times. Although a highway worker really did die in the 1935 avalanche, in the book two snowplow crewmen are buried in a slide, but both survive unhurt.

Stewart again found inspiration for his narrative in a Nevada State Journal April 10 headline: "SEARCH LAUNCHED FOR MISSING RENOITES."

The article associated with the headline describes a search for Philip Gillson, an expert tax assessor for Southern Pacific, and Mrs. Lillie Merrill, a wealthy business owner and past president of the Reno Business and Professional Women's Club.

The pair, lightly clothed, was last seen riding in Gillson's car after filling the gas tank at a Reno garage. They had been missing for two days, fueling fears that they had become lost in the storm while driving, were injured or, due to their wealth, kidnapped. All secondary roads were closed by snow at the time, so the search focused on the Reno-Susanville road and the Truckee-Reno highway. The following day, after an airplane search turned up no clues and hope waned for the missing couple, Nevada's governor ordered the State Police to issue an all points bulletin.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog: http://www.tahoenuggets.com.