Old Man Winter makes for wild ride on railroad plow
In January of 1880, Charles Fayette McGlashan was the new owner and editor of the Truckee Republican newspaper. He took the first opportunity he could to participate in a news-making event, including riding in a Central Pacific snowplow train clearing the tracks going up to the summit.
The following is his account of a death defying experience published in the Republican.
“For severity and violence, the storm of last week equals anything ever experienced on the Sierra. The snow came down steadily, unceasingly, and the wind blew with uncontrollable fury. Fortunately, there had been very few storms during the winter, and the old snow gave little difficulty to the railroad men.
With the first burst of the storm it was evident, however, that a battle was to be fought. The snowplows were put in working order, and everything was placed in readiness for a regular siege. On Thursday night the light drifts filled up the cuts so that the plows were set in motion, and made trips to the Summit.
On Friday the storm fiends held high carnival. Every mountain side seemed to give birth to an avalanche. The gale increased until it became a hurricane. Early in the day it became evident that a new and unheard of danger threatened the Central Pacific. It was a danger that caused the bravest men to turn pale. The snowsheds showed indications of falling. These sheds are over thirty miles in length, and for years have withstood every shock of the elements.
Before the storm of Friday, they trembled and tottered and threatened to fall. The west-bound Lightning Express plunged into a slide near Yuba Pass, and seriously injured George Hamilton, the engineer, and his fireman.
Soon after noon one hundred feet of corrugated iron shed blew down near the same place, and freight train No. 6 went crashing into the ruins. The collision caused another large section of shedding to fall, and the doomed train was buried beneath a mass of broken timbers and deep piled drifts. Three men were completely hidden from sight, but providently suffered no serious injuries.
Buckley’s snowplow ran to the wreck with a full crew of workmen, and by great exertion succeeded in drawing the rear cars of No. 6 back to Cisco. Meantime five hundred feet of snow-shed fell between Yuba Pass and Emigrant Gap. The snow drifted heavily through the openings in the sheds, and accumulated so rapidly that Buckley’s plow train could not return to the Summit. It was literally imprisoned at Cisco.
A storm on the Sierra means toil and danger to hundreds of poor fellows. The engineers and firemen, the conductors and brakemen, the operators, train dispatchers, foremen, and superintendent all have multiplied toil and exposure. The warfare between the these men and the elements is worthy of being better understood. It is a warfare wherein brain and muscle are arrayed against cold, darkness and avalanches, against death in a thousand forms.
William Hackett, a brakeman on No. 6, Friday morning was knocked off of the cars, and falling beneath the wheels, was crushed and killed. Three of his companions were buried beneath the falling sheds as described above. Hamilton and his fireman were both placed in imminent peril.
At Yuba Pass crews of men worked all night. Drearier work or more discouraging never was assigned to human beings. At three o’clock orders came from Superintendent Pratt for a second plow to run to the Summit. Train dispatcher, W.R. Watson, who was on duty throughout the entire storm, immediately ordered six engines to be attached to plow No. 5.
In order to meet any emergency, two crews were placed on the plow, Joe Coburn’s and Henry Wooden’s. Fred Graham, M. Norton, George Hamilton and William Dolan comprised these crews. Believing that he who writes the description of a battle, must catch the inspiration on the battlefield, the Republican editor was on this plow.
A night storm on the Sierra is a grand spectacle. The fury and power of the winds, the blinding snowdust, the piercing cold, the bleak, awe-inspiring mountains, the prenatural gloom, the ghostly ice-clad forests, the dark shadowy gorges, and the dreadful loneliness and helplessness of the situation are calculated to awaken the sublimest emotions.
Of late years no headlights are placed on the plows. From the moment the hoarse whistles indicate the start, all in front of the plow is profound darkness. There is no limit to the speed of the snow-plow train, and when flying in the teeth of a hurricane, it is impossible to face the darting snow granules, which cut and sting the eyes like needle points. Up over the mold-boards of the plow come huge masses of snow which sometimes seem ready to bury one.
The screaming engines give warning to the track walkers, and luckless is he who fails to hear the signal. It is a true saying that one half the world does not know what the other half is doing, and few people have any conception of the constant perils of these railroaders. As an example of these perils perhaps the following is not amiss.
It was intended that the engines should wood up at Coldstream. Just below the woodsheds were reached, however, the plowing became so heavy that Coburn pulled the bell rope for “off brakes.” This meant that more power was requisite and the head engine no sooner sounded the whistle than every throttle was wide open and every engine was working under a full head of steam. The speed was something alarming.
It not only cleared the track, but caused the engines to shoot clear through the long wood shed and far out into the storm and darkness. When the momentum was finally overcome, it was necessary for the engines to back down to the wood piles. A snow-plow cannot be backed without being thrown from the track, for the loose snow gets under the apron and lifts the ponderous plow, bodily from the rails. Accordingly, the plow was uncoupled and left standing while the engines went back to the sheds.
In due time they were supplied with fuel, and the whistles sounded off brakes. The darkness was so intense that none of the engineers save the head one, knew that the plow had been detached. As a result five of the engines started out of the sheds at full speed. While the engines were wooding up, the two crews came down from the top and were standing inside the plow.
After the engines had got under full headway, these men discovered that there was some misunderstanding, and that a frightful collision would occur when the six engines struck the plow. With a rush for the door of the snow-plow, each one endeavored to jump out into the snow by the side of the track. The banks thrown up by the plow were from four to six feet in height and one could not spring upon them from the door. It was necessary to climb the iron ladder on the rear of the plow, and to spring therefrom.
One by one the six men in the car climbed the ladder and escaped. Graham climbed on the plow and sitting astride the safety rope, braced himself to withstand the shock. The head engine screamed for down brakes, but the flying engines, on the icy rails had no power to check the speed. Wooden was the last man out, and just as the collision came he partly sprang and was partly hurled out into the snow.
The last man did we say? No! The Republican editor was behind Wooden, and had just grasped the top round of the ladder as the engines struck. The couplings of the head engine were crushed into fragments. The hind end of the snow-plow was shivered as if by a stroke of lightning, and the plow was dashed ahead as if it were suddenly shot from a cannon. Every engine felt the heavy shock, and the wheels were instantly reversed.
Knocked from the ladder, The Republican man struck some portion of the forward engine. In a twinkling he was rolled and crumpled in all conceivable shapes between the engines and the clean shaven snow wall left by the plow. Perfectly conscious, he was nevertheless as helpless as a straw in a threshing machine. Indeed, the principal thought at such a moment is a wonderful appreciation of the majestic power of a ten-wheel, fifty-ton locomotive.
Jammed and twisted and whirled and dragged, one has time to wish that a friendly squeeze of the cylinder-head, or a sudden clash of the walking beam would end the agony, rather than the cruel wheels should close the scene. The darkness of the a stormy night is absolute blackness under a train of moving engines. There is not a ray of light. Yet no light could have aided in a complete realization of the situation. Every muscle quivers as it touches the whirling grinding wheels.
Suddenly there is a consciousness that by lying perfectly still and straight there is possible room between the wheels and the snow all for one’s body. Instinctively the wall is hugged. The wheels still graze as they pass. But thank god they are moving slowly now, and yet more slowly. The train is stopping.
When the train stopped, we were under the third engine, the 209. The first three engines had no pilots. The fourth engine, the 58, had a pilot. This would have crushed us had it passed. The last engine, the 200, had a small snow-plow on the hind end. This would have been death inevitable.
After climbing into an engine cab, it was found that the wheels had torn our overcoat and cut off the cape of our hood of our sailors’ cap. We were quite unhurt. The straw had not been broken by the threshing machine. The plow is broken but can be pushed to the Summit. Had she not been broken, every man on the train would probably have been killed. Orders came to run to Cisco, and between Summit and Cisco eight hundred feet of snow-sheds lay prostrate.
The broken plow could not go, and the orders were countermanded. Had the snow-plow train dashed into the fallen sheds, no man on board would have lived to tell the tale.
By Nine o’clock Sunday morning the sheds were repaired, the snowstorm was gone and the trains were moving again.”
This was the last time the Charles McGlashan would ride a snow-plow up to Donner Summit.
Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You may leave a message at 530-582-0893