Rotary snowplows keep fighting Sierra drifts |

Rotary snowplows keep fighting Sierra drifts

Central Pacific's rotary snowplow Number 2 pauses on Donner Summit in this undated photo. By courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

Truckee’s Railroad Days is this weekend. The theme of the event is the Rotary snowplow, mighty machines that have kept the only railroad over the Sierra Nevada open during the winter for over a century.Until the advent of these snowfighters, the Central Pacific Railroad struggled for years to push, buck, plow and shovel the deep snowdrifts of Donner Pass.The first plows were bucker plows, developed after the winter of 1865-66. Weighing 12 tons at first, it was increased to 19 tons to make it more resistant to jumping the tracks when it hit drifts twice its height. The Sierra line had four plows by the time the rails were completed to Promontory Point, Utah in May of 1869. In all, the Sacramento shops constructed 10 bucker plows up to 1884.Six to twelve engines were behind the bucker, but it was still frequently stopped by the snow. It then was backed up and another run was made at the drifts. Derailments were frequent in these conditions. Once the snowbanks became too high to buck, an army of shovelers was employed to remove the accumulation.Shoveling snow

The first “rotary steam shovel” was designed by a Canadian named Orange Jull, and manufactured by the Leslie Brothers in Canada in 1884. From 1884 to 1905, the Leslie Company built 62 rotary snowplows. The Union Pacific tested the first U.S. built rotary on its Eastern Oregon rail line. The first rotaries were not self propelled, they needed a steam locomotive to propel them forward.Leslie Rotary Number 5 was the first Central Pacific plow, and was built by the Cooke Locomotive Works of Patterson, New Jersey. It arrived at the end of the winter of 1887-88, too late to be of any use on clearing the main line. It was used to plow out the summer sidings and spurs in the Truckee yards. There wasn’t enough snow to warrant its use in the winter of 1888-89. The winter of 1889-90 was the first winter to really test the rotary.The one rotary and ten buckers were totally overwhelmed by the constant huge storms that left a snowpack of up to 25 feet by the end of January. The line was closed several times with only the rotary and hand shoveling being the only effective way to remove such huge quantities of snow and ice. The longest closure was for 16 days in mid-January.A second rotary was delivered in mid-February and performed perfectly. This one, and possibly the third, were Grant Locomotive works constructed, also located in Patterson New Jersey, presumably under contract to the Cooke Co. Since then, rotaries have been ready to battle the Sierra storms. Scaling back snowsheds

Once the rotary plows were a proven technology, the Southern Pacific started to scale back its many miles of snowsheds. At their maximum, more than 40 miles of snowsheds covered the tracks. By 1926, 30 miles remained, by 1952 only 5.5 miles remained.One attempt at a different type of plow was the Cyclone, a forward facing screw auger type plow that was tried in February of 1890. Only one of this kind was ever built. It plowed the tracks from Ogden, Utah to Truckee with no problem. But when it came to the real snowdrifts it failed to push the snow far enough from the tracks and became stuck, despite being pushed by four locomotives. It was never used in the mountains again, but did continue to provide effective snow removal in the Utah hills until it was scrapped in 1904.In January of 1916, even a rotary was stopped by a huge snowslide east of Blue Canyon. It took seven hours of shoveling to free the rotary and her engines. During that storm all freight and passenger traffic was stopped so that the rotaries could run freely up and down the tracks.Rotaries were used on the Tahoe branch to open it in the spring after 1926, when the Southern Pacific took the line over and standard gauged it. They managed to keep the line open during light winters with a rotary. Before that the narrow gauge line was closed for the winter.The rotaries were still no match for the Sierra storms in the winter of 1952. In January, huge storms rolled in off of the Pacific Ocean. While the streamliner City Of San Francisco was stranded by snowslides near Emigrant Gap, four rotaries were buried in the snow trying to rescue the train. The tracks over the mountains were closed for 13 days. Two of the rotaries that were buried and temporarily abandoned in the storm were the 205 and the 208. After they were recovered, they continued the battle to reopen the rail line.

Still on the jobThe two Cooke constructed Rotaries – the 205 and the 208 – that have been stationed in Truckee for the last several years were built in 1920 and 1927. The 205 is the oldest surviving rotary of the old Southern Pacific fleet. They have both been modified for the specific conditions found on Donner Pass. Rotaries 205 and 208 are propelled by a power unit behind them rather than being self propelled. These and other similar units were originally steam powered, but all were modified to diesel-electric power in the 1950s.These plows are not as modern as some of the units that are stationed in the Roseville and Sparks yards. The newer units have wings that pull in snow from several feet on either side. The 205 and 208 can only cut their own width. The maximum revolutions per minute of the fan is 150 RPM. The fans automatically adjust the angle to the snow conditions. Two rotaries are usually teamed together, one facing each way, in case of snowslides that might trap a rotary and to avoid having turn the units around at Donner Pass.The rotaries are part of Truckee’s railroad past, present and – until something new is invented- future. Truckee’s Railroad Days continues to celebrate Truckee’s railroad heritage.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at E-mail You may leave a message at 530-582-0893

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