The Truckee River went wild 100 years ago
The winter of 1907 was a roller-coaster ride for Truckee River residents, alternating rain and snow with sunny warm periods. Winter’s fury started in December 1906 when a storm dropped 9 feet of snow on Donner Pass in 24 hours. The Central Pacific Railroad couldn’t keep up with the greatest snowfall since the great blockade of 1890, leading to train delays.
Storms continued through January, leaving Truckee residents to deal with 15 feet of ice and snow. The snow piles next to buildings were so high, they couldn’t shovel snow off of the roofs anymore. They thought about digging tunnels from Front Street across the Plaza to the Railroad Depot, but that was too much work.
Reno welcomed the water supply in the mountains, but also was greatly impacted when a firewood shortage created a health and safety crisis in late January and February.
Special trainloads of wood were brought down from the Floriston Paper Mill. Truckee’s lumber mills were so snowed in, no firewood could be moved around Truckee, let alone supply wood for Reno.
At the end of January, the weather warmed up, causing huge icicles to crash down from along the eaves of Truckee buildings. As the icicles broke off and roofs slid, damage mounted to the old wooden buildings and covered sidewalks. A welcome rain settled the pack greatly and washed the last of the ice off of the roofs, but left hundreds of leaky roofs and wet interiors.
February continued to have a high snow level, with additional snow falling up in the mountains, but not at 6,000 feet. By late February it looked like an early spring.
Stage coaches traded their skis for wheels again, and even a few autos were spotted on Truckee streets. Old-timers and the Washoe elders remarked they had never seen such a mid-winter warm spell.
In the higher elevations, dense snow built up to 18 feet deep at Meadow Lake, where a few hardy men watched over the nearly abandoned mining works. Drifts up to 40 feet were common in the higher mountains of the Sierra.
The Truckee ice industry was only able to harvest a fraction of its usual crop, due to heavy snow on the rain-soaked ice pack.
Most years, as it has so far this year, the snowpack melted slowly, but not in 1907. On March 19, a very warm wind descended on the Tahoe Truckee area. At first, most people welcomed the sure sign of spring, until the wind got stronger and the temperatures even warmer. It rose to the middle 60s in the mountains, and higher down in Reno.
For a day and a half, the south wind brought destruction to the dense mountain snowpack, which resulted in a disastrous flood downstream on the Truckee River.
Following the wind was a subtropical rainstorm that hit the mountains and melted even more snow. This became the greatest flooding the Truckee River had seen since settlers arrived in the 1850s.
Starting at Lake Tahoe, the waters rose. Since the lake was close to the top of the dam, little was held back. Even with the floodgates wide open, the shoreline began to flood, and the creeks of the west and north shores flooded large areas near the lake.
Fortunately, there were few people around, so no one was injured, and damage minor.
The old wooden dam at Tahoe City, built in 1870, was threatened with destruction. But the stout dam held back the waters of Lake Tahoe. Downstream, bridges on the wagon road were undermined and partially collapsed. The Lake Tahoe Railway’s steel bridge near Goose Meadow floated off of its foundation. It required several locomotives and a large crew to hoist it back up and secure it again.
Despite receiving over 14 inches of rain, downtown Truckee was saved from flooding by a new 24-inch clay pipe storm drain that the Southern Pacific Railroad had installed under the tracks the year before. The riverbanks were swept clean, but that was a blessing, as for decades the residents had dumped refuse and garbage along the river.
The Southern Pacific tracks on the Summit were blocked for over two days when an avalanche knocked down 350 feet of snow sheds near Eder. Other sheds were in danger of collapsing from the heavy snowdrifts.
Hundreds of men worked around the clock to shovel the dense snow off, preventing even more damage. Freight trains were backed up over the Sierra for more than a week as a result of the blockade.
At Boca, the ice company dam on the Little Truckee River was overtopped by the deluge. Trees blocked the spillway causing the dirt fill to partially wash away from one side, but the concrete structure held. Thousands of leftover logs and treetops from decades of logging joined together in the torrent at Boca, creating a huge battering ram of debris that ran amok in the canyon below.
When this mass of water came to Iceland, at the bottom of Gray Creek, it ripped out dams, levees and a 1,000-foot log bulwark that protected the National Ice Company ponds. Downstream, the Floriston ice pond washed out in two places.
The Floriston paper mill, employing 150 men, was put out of commission for a month. The 9-foot diameter redwood water pipes that fed the plant washed away. The concrete dam caved in after the earth washed out underneath it. The mill was flooded, and thousands of cords of wood were washed into the river, most ending up as firewood in Reno.
Nearby the railroad tracks were under water for half a mile. The embankment was washed out completely for 300 feet, and as deep as 15 feet. Temporary tracks had to built downstream to keep trains moving, though at a snail’s pace. Rock slides plagued the canyon route and water rushed over the tracks from overloaded culverts.
The county bridge at Floriston disappeared, and the railroad section house floated downstream. Two men had to be rescued by rafts after being caught in the flood.
Just on the lower side of Floriston was the diversion dam for the Farad power plant flume. The water was backing up at this dam, flooding Floriston. The paper company dynamited the dam to save the mill. The blast and subsequent flooding destroyed portions of the wooden flume, then smashed into the Farad power plant, puncturing the generator and flooding the building.
At the Fleish and Washoe power houses, power was out due to flooding and debris damage. At Verdi the dirt fill at either end of the new steel railroad bridge washed away, adding to the blockade. At Lawton, the wagon bridge floated away crashing into another bridge downstream, then going to pieces.
When the Truckee River reached Reno, the flood waters spread out. Anything near the river had water problems and minor flooding. Dozens of homes were flooded, many beyond repair. When the masses of logs and debris hit the bridges in Reno, it threatened to tear them out. Just below the new railroad town of Sparks, at the Vista reef, the river backed up and began flooding thousands of acres of farmland on both sides of the river.
From the ranching community of Glendale south to Steamboat Springs. Water was everywhere.
Two people drowned in Reno, and there were countless close calls. People were stranded on isolated islands and all of the high points were crowded with temporary refugees. Rather than flee, unaffected Renoites and stranded train passengers crowded the edges of the river to view the devastation and flood waters.
Rumors were rampant, with the most prevailing one being that the Lake Tahoe Dam had washed out, and a deluge was coming. Reports of various bridges being demolished often turned out to be false.
The Virginia and Truckee Railroad was blocked by flood waters and washouts near Steamboat Springs. Houses and cottages were washed away on the south side of Reno.
Electric service was out for long periods as the river flows overwhelmed the Truckee River General Electric Company power plants along the river. Poles and wires were down.
To top off the rain, the next storm was a blizzard that dumped five feet of snow in 48 hours, breaking electric and phone wires, and bringing down thousands of trees in the Sierra. The weather finally cleared a week later, and spring arrived with a flourish.
This flood saw the third highest river flows the river has seen in modern man’s history. The debris line along the riverbanks could still be seen until the flood of January 1997 washed the last evidence of the 1907 flood away. Even with flood control measures in place, the mountain snow pack is always a threat to those living downstream near it banks, even in March.
Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is TDHS@inreach.com Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives.
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A chance of rain and snow for the high country later this week will disappear by Wednesday night, only to return for the weekend, the National Weather Service said.