Truckee survives the winter of 1873-74
[Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series of columns on Truckee’s epic winter of 1873-84]
The Sierra Nevada has always been known for its deep snowfall. One of the big winters in early Truckee history was the winter of 1873-74. While the Central Pacific Railroad was being built, the winter of 1867-68 was noted as a heavy winter, and 1873-74 was comparable. The Truckee Republican reported on the snowstorms and its effects in a series of articles. Due to the snow, there wasn’t a lot of other news to report.
The fall of 1873 started out wet. By September, houses were in short supply as loggers moved in early from the woods for the winter. During mid- December, the Republican was hard pressed to find any fights, shootings or crime to report due to the snow.
The stage and freighting routes to the Sierra Valley and to Hot Springs (Brockway) were closed to wheeled vehicles by Dec. 8. The teamsters and stagecoach operators took their wheels off and put on sleigh runners. They put snowshoes on their horses and packed the roads, and traffic continued to move.
A series of storms struck in December. The first snowstorm lasted 54 hours, the second one 48 hours, the third storm 16 hours, the fourth one 32 hours, and the fifth storm lasted 15 hours. The lower areas of Truckee and Lake Tahoe had 5 feet of snowfall. Lake Tahoe rose 6 inches.
Another round of storms in January started to cause problems. Business in Truckee was sluggish and money, always scarce in winter, became even harder to come by. The snow opposite the mouth of Martis Creek had drifted to a depth of 10 feet.
On Jan. 20, the stage line of Penman and Day, with its experienced driver, M.T. Sullivan was stopped on its trip from Truckee to Sierraville. Just past Prosser Creek, the snow became too deep, and Sullivan was forced to return to Prosser Creek House and leave his team of horses there.
Four to 6 feet of fresh snow had buried the Sierraville route. The road had been marked with snow stakes but many of them were buried. A brigade of road breakers reopened the road with 13 horses and 11 men. It took seven days to accomplish. At the time all supplies and passengers to the Sierra Valley came from Truckee.
The Central Pacific struggled to keep trains moving and succeeded. During most winter storms, only two engines were needed to propel the wedge shaped snowplow through the snow. During the January storms, four engines were needed to keep the tracks clear from Truckee to Reno. Six engines were needed to keep trains moving over Donner Pass. Several times the engines were derailed. By using jack screws and muscle power, the engines were put back on the tracks.
Heavy winds, compared to an “unchained hurricane” accompanied these storms and the snow was dry light powder, which created huge drifts. The railroad had built wooden snowsheds over the tracks just for these kinds of storms. The sheds were put to the test and survived, allowing trains to continue operating with little delay.
The Central Pacific snowplow superintendent, Nate Webb, who had been battling the Sierra Storm King for seven years, declared he had never seen such a furious storm. The hardy, courageous men who worked long hours were rarely given much publicity, except in heavy snowstorms. The January storms piled up heavy snow, much of which had to be hand shoveled. The men were only seeing a taste of what the Sierra could offer.
On Jan. 24, 1874, the temperature in Truckee dropped to 30 degrees below zero, freezing everything up tight. Firewood, buried by deep snow, was hard to find and theft of wood became a problem.
The middle of February brought another huge storm, one that was described as the wildest, fiercest, stormiest nights ever known on the railroad. Orders came to stop all freight trains, keeping just passenger trains and snowplows running. The 30-ton wedge snowplow was pushed by six, 40-ton engines, and men stood on top to shout orders to the engineers.
The Republican’s C.F. McGlashen rode on top of one of the push plows part way up the grade from Truckee to Summit Station. Visibility was less than fifty feet, with four feet of snow having blown onto the tracks in an hour and a half. In Coldstream Canyon, a slide had covered the tracks 10 feet deep. The snowplow shuddered and heaved, but the smoking, shrieking, fiery demons, with steam up to their full capacity pushed their way through at 35 mph.
Dashing through tunnels that had huge icicles hanging from the roof, through snowsheds with countless tons of snow on top of them, the train roared on. In some places, avalanches of sixty feet of snow were on top of the snowsheds. Twenty-inch timbers, four feet apart of Truckee pine and fir were all that separated the brave railroaders and death. The cost of $75,000 for a mile of snowshed was worth the money in this storm alone.
The most experienced, bravest, coolest, most skillful engineers and firemen on the Central Pacific were assigned to snowplow duty. At times they worked four days straight to keep trains moving. Men like Engineer Thomas Forsythe, Master Mechanic M.W. Cooley, and Superintendent Nate Webb could have chosen easier duty in Sacramento, but they bravely placed themselves in the heart of the battle with the Storm King.
The Truckee snowplows turned around at Summit Station. The west slope snowplows operated from Blue Canyon to Summit Station and had more miles and deeper to snow to contend with. During this February storm, the Central Pacific had four snowplows and fifteen engines battling the snow over the route. An additional 500 men were employed repairing tracks, snowsheds, telegraph lines, and shoveling snow in the ninety-mile snow belt.
In this storm, a passenger train was stuck in the snow a mile below Emigrant Gap. Adding an additional engine, the Truckee snowplow raced down the mountain to the rescue. Seven engines pushing a plow were stopped dead in its tracks by a snowslide. One hundred men and fourteen engines were quickly able to free the plow train and passenger train.
The storm having ended, the Truckee plow returned to Summit Station. On the way the plow derailed, crashing into a snowshed. The timbers snapped and broke, almost bringing the roof down on the engines. To make matters worse, the passenger train had been closely following the plow train, and it ran into the stopped train. Since now seven engines were stopped in the snowshed, the smoke was so thick that everyone was choking on the smoke.
Three of the engines were crippled so badly they had to be abandoned. No lives were lost, but several engineers were injured. Three hours of hard labor were required to put the plow and engines back on the track. Extra engines were brought up from Blue Canyon, and the railroad was open for business again. The trip back to Truckee was a quiet one, in bright sunshine compared to the raging blizzard of the night before.
As with many Sierra winters, March would also have raging storms. Next week, I will finish the story of the winter of 1873-74.
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