Weather brings drama to Donner Pass
Donner Pass has a well-deserved legacy of threatening travelers with dangerous winter weather. Nineteenth century pioneers in wagon trains had all heard the story of the Donner Party and the advice of 13-year-old survivor Virginia Reed, who warned everyone taking the California Trail to hurry along as fast as you can. Just 20 years after the Donner tragedy, the first transcontinental railroad was being built over the Sierra Nevada. The advent of this revolutionary transportation technology ushered in a new era of safer and easier travel, but it was often no panacea for a winter journey over the storm-wracked pass.
The transcontinental railroad made the Sierra crossing safer, and much more comfortable, but hazards and danger continued to plague winter passengers. In January 1890, a relentless barrage of blizzards and a derailed train shut down the railroad for 15 days. Central Pacific used every weapon in its arsenal to clear the line: a rotary snowplow, an armada of wedge plows, hundreds of railroad personnel, and nearly 5,000 civilian snow shovelers who were hired to augment CP crews. Despite their best efforts, the winters 66 feet of snow (fourth snowiest on record), overwhelmed their efforts and passenger trains were snowbound throughout the high country. For journalist Nellie Bly, the Sierra snow blockade nearly stymied her attempt to circumnavigate the globe in less time than novelist Jules Vernes fictional voyage Around the World in 80 Days. Nellie Bly, a 23-year-old reporter for the New York World newspaper, was circling the planet in an effort to beat Vernes fantasy journey that had inspired countless readers in the U.S. and Europe. Before the age of airplanes, to circle the world in 80 days seemed impossible. Nevertheless, Bly shipped out from New York to London on Nov. 14, 1889. At the train station in Amiens, France, Jules Verne met the young lady who was bringing his story to life. She traveled by mail train to Brindisi, Italy, and then sailed through the Mediterranean, continuing on to India. By the time Nellie Bly reached San Francisco, she had used up 68 days. Unfortunately for Nellie, the news she received in San Francisco was not good. Donner Pass, blocked by blizzards, avalanches and train derailments, would not be open for days. Her second problem was the Nellie Bly Escort Corps, which consisted of her two New York editors, as well as other professional associates from the east. The members of this elaborate delegation were trapped on the eastern side of the Sierra in Reno, Nev. It seemed that after circling most of the globe, a California snowstorm was going to foil Nellies triumphant success. For the millions of Americans reading about the drama in their hometown newspapers, the tension was electric. Finally, embarrassed Central Pacific officials re-routed Nellie on a special express train south. She sped through the California desert and then raced northeast to Chicago. Nellie Bly arrived back in New York City on Jan. 25, 1890, having circled the planet in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.
During the winter of 1952, powerful Pacific storm systems hammered the Sierra relentlessly and inundated the Sierra with deep snow. Storms began lashing the mountains before Halloween, and by New Years Day 1952, nearly 23 feet of snow had already fallen on Donner Pass.In the middle of January 1952, Truckee-Tahoe residents were coping with a blizzard that would last eight days. An intense vortex of low pressure had stalled off the California coast in a position favorable for an extended period of heavy snow. Despite the best efforts of California highway crews, all northern Sierra passes were closed due to deep snow or avalanches. Despite the violent weather, Southern Pacific trains were still crossing the Sierra, rumbling through the snowsheds and tunnels that made their passage possible. On January 13, SPs finest streamliner rammed a deep snowslide east of Yuba Gap, high in the mountains. Pride of the fleet, the City of San Francisco was known as the train of superlatives for its sheer power and modern amenities. Three 2,250-horsepower engines powered the 15-car train, but when engineers threw the train into reverse to escape, the steel wheels slipped on the icy track. Nobody panicked. After all, the $3 million train was more powerful and better equipped than any on the line. No one really expected to be there very long. Their laissez-faire attitude turned to anger when they were still snowbound 24 hours later. The wind was fierce, howling at speeds in excess of 90 mph, and drifts towered 20 to 30 feet. Many feared it would be just a matter of time before another avalanche would shove the entire train into the steep ravine below. Midday Monday, 30 hours into their ordeal and with no rescue in sight, the supply of diesel fuel ran out. When the power quit, the passenger compartments were pitched into a cold, eerie darkness. Passenger Frank Morrison described it well. He later told reporters, You stand there in the dark, and you begin to think about whats outside and your moxie begins to go. It goes from young, strong people, as well as from old, sick people.Even as the blizzard raged, SP rescue trains were inching their way closer from both east and west toward the stranded streamliner. One train carried dogsled teams, while the Sixth Army trucked in Weasels (over-snow track vehicles) and soldiers trained in winter survival. Military doctors and nurses were rushed to the likely rescue points. During a brief lull in the storm, a Coast Guard helicopter managed to drop medical supplies and food. At one point, an avalanche struck a rotary snowplow manned by engineer Rolland Raymond of Sacramento and he was killed: another rescuer, 36-year-old Jay Gold, died of a heart attack from his exertions.When the deadly storm finally broke on Jan. 16, relief parties rushed in for the rescue. The cold and weary passengers hobbled to safety along the tracks while the sick and weak were tobogganed or carried in stretchers. Miraculously, all 226 passengers and crew survived their three-day ordeal on the snowbound train. The dangerous rescue was staged during a vicious blizzard; nearly 13 feet of snow blasted the region that week. The storms of 52 dumped nearly 65 feet of snow on Donner Summit and the snowpack reached 26 feet deep, the greatest depth recorded there.
The winter of 1968-69 opened up with cold, Gulf of Alaska-bred storms. During the second half of December, the storm track intensified. Blizzards and 100 mph winds tore into the region, ravaging skiers and residents alike. On the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, temperatures plummeted. Truckees overnight low fell to minus 19 degrees. Snowfall was plentiful, but not extreme. Squaw Valley picked up a total of 105 inches during December 1968, with the deepest snowpack, 77 inches, reported on Donner Summit at Soda Springs.Despite the harsh weather conditions, skiers and snowmobilers flocked to the mountains. On Dec. 29, 1968, 60 people were admitted to the Truckee hospital for various injuries suffered while enjoying winter sports. The Storm King worked his magic throughout January and February. Snowfall totals soared to nearly 300 percent of normal, as a strong jet stream drove storm after storm into the mountains. One system in January buried the Mt. Rose Ski Area under 75 inches of fresh snow, Nevadas all-time, single-storm record. Snow fell continuously on Donner Summit from Jan. 20 to 31, dumping 13.5 feet. Heavy snow and avalanches snapped power lines and tore out transmission towers across the Sierra. By the end of January, ski areas were reporting impressive depths of snow. Squaw Valley boasted 23 feet and Mount Rose 25 feet, while Boreal Ridge claimed to be buried under drifts 18 to 40 feet deep. In March, the huge snowpack topped out at nearly 8.5 feet in Tahoe City and Truckee; on Donner Summit the snowdepth was more than twice that. Februarys monthly snowfall in the Central Sierra reached nearly 1,000 percent. On April 1, Squaw Valley ski resort reported snow about 30 feet deep on the upper mountain and declared they would keep their lifts running until July 7. The winter storms of 1968-69 dumped 50 feet on Donner Pass, the 11th snowiest year on record. The Sierra Storm King continues to cause havoc with those daring to cross Donner Pass during the winter months. Today, travelers speed along highways in high-tech, all-wheel drive vehicles, but the flashing signs that warn of snow on the pass can still inspire dread and anxiety. For 160 years, winter travelers over Donner Pass have been warned, Stay smart or stay home. Mark McLaughlin’s 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 email@example.com.