Weather Window | Classic novel ‘Storm’ inspired by Sierra winter |

Weather Window | Classic novel ‘Storm’ inspired by Sierra winter

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series adapted from “Snowbound! Legendary Winters of the Tahoe-Sierra,” a book in progress scheduled for release in 2014 by Mic Mac Publishing. To read the first installment, visit, search McLaughlin.

The winter of 1935 is notable for the 55 feet of snow that fell at Donner Pass that season, a Top 10 snowfall ranking. Stories of human drama that occurred in the Sierra that season inspired professor-author George R. Stewart to pen his classic novel “Storm.”

In his book, published in 1941, Stewart casts a powerful extra-tropical storm system born over the Pacific Ocean as its lead protagonist. Stewart named his mythical low pressure system “Maria” (pronounced Mariah), following it from its inception in the western Pacific Ocean to its rampage over California.

In “Storm,” Stewart’s fictional narrative takes place during January 1935, but he was obviously inspired by real events that actually occurred throughout that winter in the Tahoe-Sierra. One headline that caught Stewart’s attention appeared in April 1935, when Nevada’s state troopers mounted a massive search for Philip Gillson, an expert tax assessor for Southern Pacific, and Mrs. Lillie Merrill, a wealthy business owner and socialite.

The pair, missing for two days, was last seen leaving Reno in Gillson’s car as a storm approached. On the third day, Gillson stumbled into a remote mine 45 miles northeast of Fernley, Nev. He told the crew there how he and Mrs. Merrill had gotten lost in the blizzard and became marooned in the Pershing County desert, 31 miles from the closest house. The couple waited in the car for three nights and two days with no water and only some pieces of candy for food.

In desperation Gillson left the car at dawn on the third day and hiked in sub-freezing temperatures to the mine in his city clothes and dress shoes. Mrs. Merrill was soon rescued and the pair returned safely to Reno in good shape.


George Stewart takes this real-life drama and makes it his own in “Storm.” In his novel, it is a young Reno couple reported missing during a blizzard. “Max Arnim” and his love interest “Jen” had attempted to drive home from California east over Donner Pass, but lost control of the vehicle, and crashed over an embankment. Their car and bodies were found days after the storm cleared.

There were two other major events that occurred during the winter of 1935 that Stewart passed on, probably due to national security concerns during the build up toward global war.

On Oct. 2, 1934, three Army aviators were killed when their new bomber lost a wing in severe air turbulence while flying over the Sierra Nevada north of Bishop, Calif. One crewman survived uninjured when he managed to jump clear of the crippled aircraft with his parachute. Sensitivity to the victim’s families may also have made the topic off limits for Stewart, as well as military secrecy before WW II.

A second military-related incident occurred on Feb. 12, 1935, when the $5 million dirigible Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean during maneuvers with the U.S. Pacific fleet. The airship went down off Point Sur, about 120 miles south of San Francisco. The Macon was the world’s largest lighter than air craft and pride of the United States Navy. Lt. Commander Herbert V. Wiley told reporters he didn’t think wind caused his 785-foot long airship to dive 3,000 feet and crash stern-first into the ocean.

However, his second in command, Lt. Commander Jesse L. Kenworth, blamed the incident on “a heavy wind gust.” U.S. naval vessels rescued 81 of the 83 crewmen on board. Stewart also declined to develop this headline event as a subplot for his book.


While reading “Storm,” I was struck by its prescient tone, especially when compared to the epic winter of 1952 that followed 11 years after the novel’s publication. During January 1952, an unusually powerful Pacific-bred storm just like Stewart’s “Maria” barreled into California. And in an impressive example of life imitating art, the Sacramento Valley was flooded, a streamliner train became marooned in the mountains, and Highway 40 was blocked for 30 consecutive days by snow.

Stewart’s research into the processes of 1930s weather forecasting for his novel graphically illustrates the remarkable contrast between the science of meteorology then, versus the capabilities and technologies of today.

George Stewart may be forgotten, but his storm “Maria” inspired the song “They Call the Wind Maria” written for the 1951 musical “Paint Your Wagon,” starring Clint Eastwood. Writers such as the environmental novelist Wallace Stegner were influenced by Stewart’s work, and some consider him to be the first author of environmental fiction. Most of Stewart’s novels were set in California and Nevada. His 1936 book, Ordeal by Hunger, a nonfiction treatment of the Donner Party, remains a top seller.

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

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.