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Railroad a route to Truckees winter wonderland

Mark McLaughlinWeather Window

The completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States in May 1869 finally opened the door to safe travel from coast to coast. The Iron Horse was a revolutionary transportation technology and the first to provide comfortable passage over storm-wracked Donner Pass during the winter months. The railroad was also a vital component in the development of skiing and winter sports in the Truckee and Lake Tahoe region. Building a railroad over the Sierra Nevada, however, was a major challenge to the men laying the rails, especially during the heavy winters of 1867 and 1868. Forty-four snowstorms during the winter of 1867 took a lethal toll on the Chinese railroad crews struggling to reach the Sierra Crest west of Coburns Station (soon re-named Truckee). Total accumulation on Donner Pass that year exceeded 40 feet, which effectively shut down all construction except for tunnel work. One avalanche wiped out an entire work camp. When the bodies were discovered the following spring, work tools were still clutched in their hands. The weather-related delays were critical since Central Pacific Railroad was in a race with the Union Pacific to lay as much track as fast as possible. The more miles of track each company threw down, the more money and land grants they would earn from their government contracts.

In their fourth year of construction, the Central Pacific crews were working up the Sierra west slope. Due to the hardness of the granite and severity of the weather, construction progress was being measured in feet, not miles. In order to accelerate their eastward progress, Charles Crocker, associate of Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington (later known as the Big Four), ordered a third of the Chinese crews ahead into the Truckee River Canyon to prepare the road there. In December 1866, laborers constructed huge sleds by fitting large logs together. Using these oversized toboggans, they hauled three locomotives, 40 cars of rolling stock, and tons of rails and supplies over the snowbound pass. The leapfrog strategy worked. Despite the blizzards in the high country, laborers managed to build nearly 40 miles of railroad through the Truckee River Canyon. Throughout the following summer and fall, the 10,000 hard-working Chinese laborers hired by Central Pacific pushed the track east, reaching Donner Summit on Nov. 30, 1867. The mild autumn weather ended in December when a series of powerful Pacific storms slammed into California. The construction crews working at near 7,000 feet in elevation were exposed and vulnerable to the blinding blizzards and crushing avalanches. Snowslides delayed the supply trains, but the crews continued to work through the storms. When the snow piled so high that the workers could not throw it over the embankment, it was shoveled into empty boxcars and shipped to Sacramento where it was dumped into the river.Theodore Judah, the brilliant engineer who had surveyed the line over the Sierra, had no real understanding of the great danger, power, and frequency of snowslides. The track was built along the avalanche-prone, steep-sided slopes; sometimes the railroad clung to bare granite cliffs. To protect the railroad from heavy snow and frequent avalanches, Central Pacific was forced to construct nearly 40 miles of wooden snowsheds. Where a roadbed could not be built, a tunnel was chipped and blasted out. In the heavy snow belt between 6,000 and 7,000 feet, nine tunnels were excavated, totaling 5,158 feet in length. At Donner Summit, Tunnel No. 6 was carved through 1,659 feet of solid granite. Despite the constant digging and the use of 300 kegs of black powder daily, the rock was so hard that the Chinese laborers could gain only eight inches a day.

Although ice and snow remained 12-feet deep in many places, by June 1868, trains were running all the way to Lakes Crossing, the site of present-day Reno, Nev. Constructing a railroad 88 miles over the rugged Sierra between Newcastle and Truckee had taken 11,000 men 38 months of backbreaking work. In comparison, to complete the railroad from Truckee, east across the desert to Promontory, Utah, a distance of 571 miles, took 5,000 men just one year and 27 days. For the crews that built the line over the Sierra Nevada, their Herculean effort not only connected California with the rest of the nation, but it provided the transportation necessary for the beginning of the winter sports industry in the mountains. Once the transcontinental railroad was built, Truckee and eventually the Lake Tahoe region became an easily-accessible winter wonderland. The patriarch of Truckee, Charles F. McGlashan, was an intelligent and energetic jack-of-all trades. Among his many accomplishments, he practiced law, served as school principal, wrote the first authentic history of the Donner Party, and was the long-time editor and owner of the Truckee Republican newspaper. In the 1890s, McGlashan proposed his vision that Truckee, and eventually Lake Tahoe, would become major attractions for people looking for winter sport excitement. Ice Carnivals and other mid-winter festivals spurred thousands of people to take the train from the mild flatlands for fun and frolic in the snowdrifts around Truckee.Southern Pacific Railroad capitalized on the newfound excitement about winter sports by establishing Snowball Specials, express trains that conveyed hundreds of tourists from the California lowlands to Truckee every weekend. Hilltop, the small hill with an open slope just south of downtown Truckee, provided an excellent place to sled and ski. In 1910, an old steam engine from an abandoned lumber mill on the Little Truckee River was hauled in by oxen-drawn wagon and converted into a pullback lift. Some ski historians believe that this was the first mechanical lift of its kind in the United States. Soon Norwegian-style skiing became popular in the United States and Truckee was on the forefront of this popular new sport. The Truckee Ski Club, later the Truckee Outing Club, was organized in 1913. This was the first formally organized ski team in the Sierra.

The greatest boost for winter sports arrived when the California Highway Commission decided to make Highway 40 an all-year transcontinental route, realigned it, and undertook the expensive task of keeping it open throughout the winter. Ski resorts and lodges quickly sprung up along the highway; the Auburn Ski Club made its headquarters on 740 acres at Cisco, about 20 miles west of Donner Pass. It was one of the most highly developed systems of competitive ski courses and instruction hills on the continent. One outstanding feature was its Class A championship ski jump; its vertical drop of 251 feet enabled world-class jumps exceeding 300 feet. Skiing and ski resort development hit the big time when Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. With the completion of Interstate 80 over Donner Pass a few years later, Truckee clinched its role as the hub of winter sports in the Central Sierra.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.


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