Weather Window | The birth of California winter sports |

Weather Window | The birth of California winter sports

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Horse-drawn sleigh makes it way through snowbound Truckee, circa
Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society |

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series about the advent of winter sports and play in the Truckee-Tahoe region.

With North Lake Tahoe’s annual SnowFest! celebration upon us, it’s a good time to reflect upon the deep roots of Truckee-Tahoe winter sports and the rewards snow brings to our regional economy.

Born in 1982, SnowFest! is a relatively young child of the ‘80s, but winter carnivals and snow sports have been a part of our local history for more than 100 years. A few people were tobogganing and ice skating near Truckee and Donner Lake by the 1860s, but the seed idea of a winter carnival to jump start Truckee’s moribund winter economy didn’t germinate until three decades later.

The demise of logging, commercial ice harvesting, and the collapse of the Comstock silver boom in the 1880s was devastating to the whole region, as miners, bankers, and business owners abandoned the area in droves.

The Truckee community was determined to survive the economic downturn, but businesses really struggled during the long winter months when there was no tourism to help boost sales.

To promote the town’s unique position as a destination for winter sports with easy access by railroad, in 1894 Truckee civic leader Charles McGlashan and other businessmen envisioned an annual winter carnival, complete with a massive ice palace containing a large indoor skating rink, bands playing music, retail concessions and much more. If there was enough snow, the town could stage dog-sled races, toboggan and horse-drawn sleigh rides, ski races, and moonlight skating parties on Donner Lake.


McGlashan pitched Southern Pacific Railroad on the concept of using excursion trains from Sacramento and Oakland to bring thousands of winter tourists up to Truckee. A town conference was held and it was agreed to form a stock company and commence operations the following year.

Despite early skepticism about the project, residents constructed a wooden palace and covered it with wire netting that formed a veneer of ice when sprayed with water in subfreezing temperatures. The first ice palace covered an acre of ground in downtown Truckee, which blocked traffic and spooked horses, but it was an immediate success at drawing winter visitors from the nearby train depot.

Crowds of skaters promenaded around the 700-foot oval indoor rink, serenaded by musicians bundled up against the cold. The ceiling was lit by 20 arc lights and tall cedar and pine trees decorated the palace roof. Daring tobogganers could climb a 75-foot high tower above the roof and then take an exciting slide 150 feet to street level. The San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed it the “most thrilling ride on the Pacific Coast.”

The winter of 1895 was an auspicious start for Truckee’s ice carnival because an active storm pattern that year provided copious amounts of snow for all the festivities. Like most big winters, it started early when a cold storm covered the mountains with snow on Oct. 1, 1894. November was mostly dry, but in early December the weather went gang-busters as relentless Pacific storm systems piled snow on the higher terrain.

snowball express

By Dec. 11, snow depths were impressive with 6 feet at Spooner Summit on Tahoe’s east shore and nearly as much on Donner Pass. By the first day of winter, Truckee residents had already shoveled 80 inches of snow, and the snowpack exceeded 10 feet at the Norden train station near Donner Pass.

Despite the heavy snow, or maybe because of it, it released a pent-up demand for Californians eager to escape the soggy and dreary lowlands for a weekend of playing in the snow at Truckee. Southern Pacific Railroad recognized the potential for profit in providing transportation into the mountains and began offering “Snowball Express” trains to Truckee. Within three years, McGlashan was spending time in San Francisco promoting the ice carnival and organizing group excursions. Over the next two decades, the winter ice carnival attracted multitudes of tourists and set the stage for today’s essential winter sports economy in the Tahoe-Truckee region.

The total snowfall in downtown Truckee during December 1894 was 140 inches (nearly 12 feet), with more than 20 feet recorded near Donner Pass. Precipitation for the month at Norden was 24.5 inches, almost 300 percent of normal. But it wasn’t over yet. The vigorous winter storm track roared right into January, bringing heavy snow to the Tahoe-Sierra. The severe weather generated multiple avalanches along the transcontinental railroad from Cisco to Donner Pass, which caused long delays in passenger train traffic. In Truckee the snow grew so deep that in order to cross the street, pedestrians had to climb from the sidewalks on steps cut into the snow and then descend on the other side. A tunnel under the snow led to the train depot and skiing was the only mode of transportation to and from neighborhood homes. Stay tuned for Part Two.

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:

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