Workers cheated – or met their demise – on Donner Summit
In today’s modern world we seldom think of the dangers faced by workers in Truckee’s history. One of the most dangerous occupations was working on the Central Pacific Railroad. The construction alone caused hundreds of deaths. Many of them were not reported in detail. After construction, the operations proved to be just as dangerous. Luck or moving a few inches either way was often the difference between life and death.
The old wooden snowsheds above Donner Lake were built by the Central Pacific Railroad in the late 1860s to prevent snow slides and avalanches from burying the tracks. An incident in 1876 illustrated to the railroad workers how bad the avalanches could be. However, the sheds could not stop all problems from occurring.
The railroad maintained a telegraph system along the tracks, but it was on the outside of the sheds and tunnels. This telegraph controlled train movements, so it had to be maintained during even the worst snowstorms. Men on snowshoes patrolled the line, repairing breaks in the telegraph wire. At the time “snowshoes” were actually 10-foot wooden skis.
The Truckee Republican of Jan. 12, 1876, reported the close call of one of these brave men. Telegraph troubleshooter Ed Marsh was on his route east of Donner Pass on his long, pine skis. At a point where the worst slides always occurred, he found an immense avalanche that had taken down the wire. Below this point, the mountain falls off dramatically, almost to the west end of the lake. The previous slide had taken this route and buried Donner Creek.
The ground was sloped at a 40-degree angle, so he could not work on his skis. His job was to string a new wire across the break and reconnect it. As he started across the avalanche chute he noticed that not all of the cornice above had slid down.
Just as Marsh got to the other side of the smooth, hollow track, the cornice and upper slope broke loose. Tearing itself loose from a spur of Donner Peak, it swept down on Marsh and carried him away. The avalanche carried boulders, trees and Ed Marsh down the mountain.
He was tossed and turned, head over heels, upside down much of the time, and saw stars most of the time. When the avalanche stopped, Marsh was on top of the snow. He landed on top of one hundred feet of snow from both slides that covered Donner Creek. No one was within several miles, and no one else knew what had happened.
After catching his breath and finding his bearings, he thought about what to do next. He didn’t have any broken bones, or serious injuries. He also didn’t have his skis, they were up at the railroad, 1,000 feet above. Recent storms had left up to 10 feet of loose snow on the old wagon road to Summit Station and to Truckee. No one traveled that road during the winter any more.
There was only one way to go, back up. Marsh slowly, painfully climbed up the mountain. He stayed mostly on the hard packed surface just inside the edge of the avalanche path, praying that no other slides would come down and bury him.
It took him less than a minute to come down, but half a day to climb back up. When he finally reached his skis, he was the happiest man on earth.
After that experience, Ed Marsh vowed to have his skis with him in case he was called into the canyon again. He went on to repair the telegraph line and continue his duties. That was the type of men that battled the winter storms for the railroad in the 1870s.
Today, the concrete snowsheds do not have rail traffic in them. A two-mile tunnel under Donner Peak avoids the route along the edge of the mountain where Ed Marsh went for his avalanche ride. Ed Marsh was a lucky man; a few inches either way and no one would have known what happened.
A few days later, John Carney tested his luck and was not so lucky. The January 19, 1876, edition of the Truckee Republican reported that John Carney had been employed by the railroad up until a few days before. He was working with his brother William Carney at Cascade Station, just west of Soda Springs.
Carney resigned his position and came to Truckee. A day later he received a letter from his brother asking him to return to Cascade.
He attempted to hitch a ride on the engine of a freight train from Truckee, but his request was denied. Determined to get back up the mountain, and not wanting to wait for a passenger train, he hopped on the cars of the westbound freight train.
At Summit Station, a brakeman saw Carney riding on top of a box-car. Carney told him that the ride through the tunnels and snow sheds was terrifying, due to the icicles hanging from the ceilings. To keep from being swept off of the top of the car, he moved to the side of the car, hanging onto the ladder. The brakeman told him this was even more dangerous, and to get back on top.
At the Cascade siding, another train was passed, and the engineer saw Carney hanging onto the side of the car again. The train picked up speed on its downhill run toward Sacramento.
At the upper Cascade bridge, Carney jumped off of the train from the box-car ladder. The veteran engineer, Thomas Forsythe, and his fireman watched him leap off and thought he was clear of the train.
In an instant, the train was into another snow shed, totally enveloped in darkness. At the next siding, Forsythe stopped his engine, took a lamp and looked over the box-car for blood. He found that grease had been wiped off of one the wheels, and feared that Carney might have been injured.
Forsythe flagged down an eastbound passenger train, and told the conductor to be on the lookout for the injured man at the east bridge.
As the passenger train’s engineer moved on, he did not expect to see Carney for at least another mile and a half. Just a half mile up the track, he spotted something dark and round on the tracks, and put on his air brakes. Unfortunately, it was the body of John Carney.
Carney had not made a clean leap, but had hung on to part of the moving train. He was dragged a half mile, before his body fell off the train.
A Truckee coroner’s inquest ruled the accident was not the fault of the railroad. Alcohol was not believed to be a factor, either. John Carney was a native of Ireland and was just 24 years old. The funeral was held in Truckee.
If John Carney had jumped out a few inches further, he would have survived, and had a story to tell that would have matched Ed Marsh’s ride.
The dangerous occupations in Truckee’s history went on for many decades until the U.S. government stepped in with modern, workplace safety laws.
Even so, many workers and skiers today are just a few inches from death in their jobs and sports and need to think about what happened to Ed Marsh and John Carney.
Gordon Richards is the new research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society.
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