Truckee faces the Storm King head on
Last week I started the story of the winter of 1873-74 and its effects on the Central Pacific Railroad and the Truckee area. The first part of winter had been rough. Raging blizzards descended on the Sierra Nevada, putting the railroad, and stage and freighting operators to the test against the Storm King.
March came in like a lion. On March 3 snow descended with a blinding fury. The Central Pacific snowplows went back into battle. Regular service was stopped again. A pushplow and five engines, boring its way through the drifts, ran off the tracks between Blue Canyon and Emigrant Gap. Superintendent Nate Webb led 120 men who worked 18 hours straight to free the engines and get them back on the tracks.
A daring feat was required to reopen the tracks. Two to three feet of snow had piled up, and more was falling. Four of the engines were still off the track. One engine with the snowplow in front was needed to get to Blue Canyon, where three other engines waited.
The steam pressure was cranked up full blast. There was 100 feet of clear track and then deep drifts. The throttle valve was thrown wide open and the roaring engine struck the drifts. Snow was thrown 50 feet in the air, with the lookout on top of the plow signaling to the engineer.
For almost three miles the single engine kept up full speed, with certain death waiting if the plow jumped the tracks. Engineer Thomas Forsyth had been told to make Blue Canyon or he would land his engine and plow in the American River Canyon. It took three minutes, then the good news was telegraphed back that the engine had made it. Then, the four engines returned and pulled the derailed engines back on the track.
The eastbound trains were delayed approximately 20 hours. A freight train had also became snowbound in deep drifts in Strong’s Canyon, above Donner Lake. The engines were forced to detach and forced their way to Truckee. Three more engines with a snowplow went to the rescue. It took several hours to dig out the train and bring down the train and reopen the tracks.
Donner Pass was not the only problem for the railroad. A snowplow, three engines and many freight cars were thrown from the tracks in eastern Nevada near Winnemucca. Throughout the western U.S., people were becoming very tired of the snow.
Even though stage operators had switched to sleighs, they were still losing the battle. M.T. Sullivan, on the Sierraville run was forced to abandon his sleigh twice. Sullivan and his passengers were forced to ride the horses to safety. It took them two days to travel from Truckee to Sierraville.
Another huge episode of the Storm King descended on the Sierra on March 8. The men, engines and plows were becoming fatigued. Within one day, the rail line was blockaded and all trains stopped. For a time all shoveling and plowing were stopped. On the ninth the snowplow and six engines steamed up and headed up the grade. Almost the whole town turned out to cheer them on. A Truckee Republican reporter went along for the ride, mostly on top of the massive wedge plow.
Two miles from Truckee, the engineers discovered that one of the engines had broken a wheel. The plow train stopped while a new engine came up from Truckee. Meanwhile the snowstorm continued to pile up deep drifts. Roughly four miles from Truckee, the train struck a deep drift and came to a halt, stuck in the snow. The track crew shoveled out the engines, separated each engine, recoupled and backed up a half mile.
With full steam, the train struck the drift again at 40 mph and made 100 feet of progress. Again and again the plow train bucked into the drift, making scant headway each time. It took seven tries to clear the tracks. They made good time to Coldstream siding where wood and water was taken on. Again the train started, now pushing into deeper, but dryer snow. The powder now flew from the plow, up to 25 feet in the air.
In Strong’s Canyon, above Donner Lake, the plow derailed. The crew skillfully jacked the plow back onto the track and continued. Finally, they reached Summit Station, where the train was turned around and headed back down the mountain. The snow continued to fall, but the blockade was raised.
Due to this savage winter and the many blockades, the railroad began designing and building bigger snowplows and more powerful engines. More snowsheds were planned to cover the tracks as well.
The townsfolk in Truckee dealt with the snow. Although it was only 5-8 feet on the level, snowdrifts and piles from shoveling the roofs built up 12 to 20 feet. Tunnels were dug to get into some buildings, in others ramps were built to get down to the doors. Even in broad daylight, lamps were lit. The roof on Fred Burkhalter’s general store on Front Street caved in because of the heavy snow load.
The teamsters and stage men battled to open the roads to the Sierra Valley and Lake Tahoe. Lacking the steam power of the railroad, the work was done with horses, packing the roads as they went. Twelve-inch diameter snowshoes were placed on the horses hooves and away they went. The cattle and livestock in the Sierra Valley were short on feed, and wheat and flour were running low. It took more than one week to get enough supplies to the valley to prevent a disaster.
The road breakers had no shelter, so they had to travel 20 or more miles to reach safety. Frequently overtaken by darkness or blinding snow, they had to face the Storm King head on. They risked their lives to keep stage and freight traffic moving through the worst of storms.
Most winters, loggers would welcome the snow, as they fell trees, packed roads and hauled sleigh loads of logs to the sawmills or the banked them on the rivers. This winter, the snow was so deep that no logging could be done. The ice harvesting at Boca and Prosser Creek was also slowed, as the snow had to be scraped of the ice.
The snowpack on the crest of the mountains had reached 30 feet, buildings were buried and there was no place to put more snow if it fell. The exact total wasn’t officially recorded, as the railroad didn’t start keeping records until 1878.
Fortunately, winter was over and the snow began to melt. But the runoff from the snowpack caused problems for several months. In May the high runoff carried away a 30-foot-high trestle on Prosser Creek. All of the rivers and creeks had very high water. Trout Creek overflowed into Church and Bridge streets every day for several weeks in May. Many of the bridges on the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road were crushed by the snow and wagon traffic was delayed.
In early June the horses on the stagecoach to the Sierra Valley were still using snowshoes. As runoff peaked in July, Bragg and Folsom’s dam on Prosser Creek partially washed out. The level of Lake Tahoe rose so high that lakeside ranchers had 2,000 acres of pasture flooded. The dam at the outlet was still closed because the Truckee River was close to flooding. The lake was three feet above the low water mark.
While other winters in the Sierra have been worse, this one was bad enough that it was remembered for many years. For several decades the railroad was able to keep the tracks open with few delays compared to the ones they experienced in the winter of 1873-74.
Gordon Richards is the new research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://www.truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave a message at 582-0893.