Weather colors Donner Pass history
October 23, 2006
For more than 150 years, unpredictable and overwhelming snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada have challenged many who dared to cross this mountain range during the winter months of October through May. Hardy pioneers, burly railroad men and modern motorists have all dealt with the awesome power of the Sierra Storm King. Born under Mesozoic seas 220 million years ago, its highest peaks now scrape the sky at 14,496 feet. Easily the largest single mountain range in the lower forty-eight, the majestic Sierra Nevada encompass an area nearly as large as the French, Swiss and Italian Alps combined. During the summer months, crystal clear alpine lakes dot the forested landscape while stubborn snowfields cling to the north slopes below ridgeline. Glacial epochs have scoured and polished the Sierran granite so it reflects sunlight with stark clarity. John Muir, 19th century naturalist and first president of the Sierra Club, loved these mountains, as did famed photographer, Ansel Adams, who called them the Range of Light. The sublime vistas have inspired adventurers, poets, and tourists for generations.
In 1776, Padre Pedro Font gave the name Sierra Nevada to the hulking mountain range on the eastern fringe of Spanish California, as well as to the southern Coast Ranges. In Spanish, Sierra means mountains (plural), and Nevada means snow-covered. In practice, however, Sierra Nevada had been a common descriptive Spanish name used by 18th century California explorers and cartographers for any range covered with snow. For early American settlers struggling with ox-drawn farm wagons, crossing the rugged range ranked as the most difficult obstacle in their 2,000-mile trek to the Pacific. Fantastic tales of an endless summer paradise in coastal California were tempered by the fear of mind-boggling snowfall in the mountains. Although there are nearly a dozen trans-Sierra routes, Donner Pass is the most notorious of all Sierra crossings. For more than a century and a half, severe weather and rugged topography have combined to challenge those taking this route. Chief Truckee, a Paiute Indian chief, first pointed out the unnamed 7,239-foot pass to the Stephens Party in 1844. Heavy November snowstorms forced this group into a winter survival camp along the Yuba River while some men went for help at Sutters Fort. Bred for endurance and blessed with luck, all 50 men, women and children survived the 11-month ordeal. The members of the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend party became the first American emigrants to haul wagons over the mountains, thereby opening the long-sought California Trail. Two years later, the pass gained perpetual notoriety as well as its infamous moniker when the Donner Party was caught east of the summit by early winter storms. Trapped for months with diminishing food supplies, the starving pioneers were reduced to cannibalism. Nearly half of the 81 settlers stranded at the camps died before reaching California. The snow was more than five feet deep on the summit when the Donner Party arrived at the end of October. More storms in November closed the pass for the winter, forcing the party to wait for rescue teams from the Sacramento Valley of California. There were 10 major storm periods that winter, beginning in October 1846 and ending in April 1847, with intermittent fair weather. Hard as the successive storms were to take, physically and mentally, the sunshine and thaws between them gave rise to false hopes that the winter was breaking.
In 1849, the region was invaded by historys greatest gold rush. Hordes of miners, merchants, prostitutes and desperadoes flocked to the diggings on the Sierran west slope. Just one year later, California joined the Union as the Golden State. Californians believed that a transcontinental railroad was needed to stitch the nation together, but Congress and investors doubted that iron rails could be linked over the Sierra Nevada. Theodore D. Judah, a young engineer who believed that he could snake the tracks through the snowbound mountains, persuaded Congress to pass the Pacific Railway Act. Theodore Judah had considered the problem of snow in his exhaustive study of the best route over the Sierra. In order to find some comparison, on his business trips east Judah made a point of examining the snow situation on some of the higher rail crossings of the Appalachians. He observed enough track mileage successfully operated in heavy snowfall environments to feel confident that Sierra snowstorms would not be a problem. In reality, Judah had little information regarding the prodigious Sierra snowpack and Central Pacific was later forced to construct 37 miles of expensive wooden snowsheds in order to protect track and trains. The visionary Judah never saw his railroad to completion. He died of yellow fever on Nov. 2, 1863, at the age of 37. William Tecumseh Sherman, who later became a Union General in the Civil War, was an experienced engineer and surveyor familiar with the Sierra range. When he heard of Judahs plans he wrote his brother of the project: If it is ever built, it will be the work of giants. Those giants were diminutive Chinese laborers who shoveled, picked and blasted their way through the Sierras granite spine. James Harvey Strobridge, superintendent of construction, did not want to use the foreign labor force, but Californias white laborers were mostly undisciplined gold miners. Strobridge later said, Labor sufficient for the rapid construction of the Central Pacific was then not on the coast and the labor as it existed could not be depended upon if the first mining excitement meant a complete stampede of every man and a consequent abandonment of all work. The Chinese had built the Great Wall; they would build the Sierra portion of Americas Great Rail too. To conquer the Sierra by rail was an epic undertaking. Virtually all the construction materials had to be shipped from New York around Cape Horn to San Francisco, a voyage of 19,000 miles. Twelve thousand Chinese laborers endured blinding blizzards and lethal avalanches to push the railroad over storm-swept Donner Pass. Where a roadbed could not be built, a tunnel was chipped and blasted out. In the heavy snowbelt between 6,000 and 7,000 feet, nine tunnels were excavated, totaling 5,158 feet in length. Rail by rail, the hard-working Chinese crews pushed the track east, reaching Donner Summit on Nov. 30, 1867. Winter storms took a heavy toll on the laborers, but the transcontinental railroad was finally completed in May 1869.
Forty-four storms during the winter of 1866-67 dumped forty-four feet of snow on Donner Summit. The biggest dropped 120 inches in 13 days. One avalanche that winter wiped out an entire work camp; when the bodies were discovered the following spring, work tools were still clutched in their frozen hands. Shortly after, another slide near Tunnel No. 9 swept 20 Chinese to their death. The following winter was little better. Sub-tropical storms deluged the region with more than 40 inches of rain in December 1867, causing extensive flood damage. Although the weather was eerily calm for much of January and February, in early March 1868, a fierce blizzard dumped 10 feet of snow in five days. The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise newspaper stated, This winter has been pretty rough on the Chinese along the line of the railroad, and a great number of them have been killed and crippled by similar accidents at various points on the road. Winter storms took a heavy toll on the laborers, but the transcontinental railroad was finally completed in May 1869. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.