Train wreck: The 1936 Pacific Limited

Gordon Richards
Echoes From the Past
courtesy of the Truckee Donner Historical SocietySouthern Pacific crews work furiously to re-open the tracks to rail service after a snow slide knocked down the snowsheds and trapped passengers on the Pacific Limited in January 1936.

In 1936, passenger trains were the only reliable way to summit the Sierra in winter.

Huge snowdrifts often closed Highway 40 over Donner Summit to auto and truck traffic, and airplane travel was too expensive for most, so the train was often preferred. But even 68 years after the Central Pacific had been built, making the trip was still potentially dangerous.

In the first weeks of 1936, more than 100 inches of snow buried Donner Pass. Railroad plows and rotaries had already put in a month’s fight with the storms, but deep drifts and cornices still hung precariously over tracks along Schallenberger Ridge.

On Jan. 15, a raging storm descended on the Sierra as the westbound Pacific Limited ” the most popular transcontinental passenger train of the early streamliner era ” made its way up the summit from Truckee. Warm rain and snow at high elevations left an unstable snow pack on the ridge railroaders referred to as “Hell’s half-mile.”

As the Pacific Limited steamed along, passengers overlooked the spot where Donner Party members had suffered 90 years before. As the 13-car train entered the dark of a long snowshed, the mountain shook furiously. A long cornice broke loose from Schallenberger Ridge, 500 feet above, and spawned a snowslide 150 feet long that crashed upon the timber-framed snowsheds.

Without warning, passengers were jolted and thrown about, and the lights inside the cars went black. The train came to a sudden stop around 2:40 p.m. as a massive bullet of snow crashed through the sheds and the eleventh car, a Pullman.

One man in the car described the scene: “Suddenly there was a terrific roar. The car seemed to have been pushed by some giant hand. The car crashed over on its side and the cries and groans of the injured could be heard by everyone.”

The overturned car filled with more snow, dirt and debris, trapping or injuring a dozen passengers.

Death was close at hand as the crushed car filled with rain and snow. Another slide came hurtling down and collapsed another section of sheds, just missing the rear observation car.

Chaos reigned for an hour as the train crew and other passengers rescued those they could. The crew of a nearby helper engine came to add muscle to the effort.

Rain turned to snow and the wind rose as a crew member journeyed to the nearest telegraph station. It was more than an hour before anyone in the outside world knew about the wreckage.

Three men ” A.F. Hayden, H.R. Welter and J.C. Stevenson, all of Salt Lake City ” were injured and trapped in the crushed car, which buckled so badly the ceiling almost touched the floor. The car had broken into three parts, and the vestibule at the end pointed straight up. Only the steel shell kept the men alive. It took three hours of digging, prying and sawing to reach the victims.

All three suffered multiple injuries, including crushed chests and broken arms. Other injuries included deep gashes, back and spinal fractures, bruises and cuts. Fireman Bill White “worked like a demon” and personally rescued many other trapped passengers.

One man remarked, “Another six inches and I would not be here.”

Another was pulled to safety by hanging onto a blanket with his teeth while being pulled through sharp timbers and steel shards. Stevenson, still in shock, said, “Don’t ask me how I got out of there. I don’t know.”

One passenger, Dr. Edna Jackson Carver of Colorado, aided many of the passengers in the surviving train cars. Other passengers became instant nurses and assisted those close to death, all the while fearing another avalanche.

As the first rescue train from Truckee arrived, Truckee’s Dr. Joseph Bernard began to treat patients, and then rode the train to Colfax while treating more.

Other uninjured passengers walked over the slide and into the waiting rescue train. When all had been accounted for, the remainder of the Pacific Limited pulled away and steamed west to Colfax.

With the rescue complete, the cleanup began. A steam shovel worked slowly from the Summit side, while the Sparks wrecking train worked in from the east. It took 18 hours to re-open just one track. Stalled trains crept slowly by the scene, their passengers counting blessings.

Trains had backed up on both sides of the pass. Hundreds of passengers filled the small station at Norden. Bored and pacing, they waited for hours as the blizzard raged outside. Even more stranded riders flooded Truckee, but there the snow was less, and Truckee offered plenty of restaurants and distractions to occupy time.

Temperatures dropped as the storm let up, freezing wet snow into ice and making the cleanup difficult. More than 100 men worked by hand to clear nine feet of debris, and after 30 hours of battle they succeeded.

Huge boulders had crashed down with the slide and had to be blasted and pushed over the hillside. The threat of more slides was ever-present. Indeed, several new slides occurred nearby, but the snowsheds held and the hectic work went on. Division Superintendent W.L. Heck came up from Sacramento to direct the repairs himself.

A temporary spur was quickly built, and a string of dining and sleeper cars gave the repair crews a warm place to rest in the storm. Men worked until they were exhausted and frozen.

As they worked, the men were reminded of other incidents along the track. Near that same location in March 1867, 50 Chinese workers were swept away by an avalanche that killed 49.

Avalanches constantly knocked down sections of sheds in winter, and section hands and brakemen were often killed, but it had been several decades since any injuries had occurred on passenger trains. There would be other train strandings in the Sierra, but even the City of San Francisco stranding in 1952 at Yuba Gap didn’t cause near as much damage as the Pacific Limited wreck.

At the time, the ridge was called Donner’s backbone, and over the years had proven to be a bad stretch of track. The Tunnel 13/Eder section caused particular concern. Huge boulders left by ancient glaciers often fell off the mountain and onto section crews repairing slide damage. Three men were killed by a slide in 1908 when they were swept over the cliff into Donner Lake.

Locomotives dragging railcar parts, hobos and other sources were blamed for starting constant forest fires that reduced protective tree cover. The drought of the 1920s fed the flames of several fires on both sides of Schallenberger Ridge.

The Southern Pacific would continue to work for another decade to avoid accidents like this, but winter storms still can prove they rule the mountain.

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