Weather Window | Big Tahoe winters, yesterday and today

Mark McLaughlinSpecial to the Sun
Courtesy Mark McLaughlinWind-driven waves coat Tahoe City bushes during a December 1996 cold snap.

Find the first installment of “Big winters” at, Calif. – Considering that January is statistically the wettest month of the year in the Tahoe-Truckee region, it’s been very dry so far. December was wet with a series of storms that dumped more than 6 feet of snow at some resorts and boosted early season snowpack depths to around 10 feet. But so far this January Squaw Valley’s upper mountain has picked up only 13 inches of moisture-starved powder. Extended dry spells are normal during a Sierra winter. Last year persistent high pressure remained locked over the eastern Pacific Ocean keeping Tahoe dry for a record 56 consecutive mid-winter days. The 2012 dry spell was a rare event, but an average Tahoe winter does experience periods of storm-free days. These breaks usually come in December or January and average about three weeks in duration. In January 1847 a long period of fair, mild weather gave false hope for a spring thaw for the starving Donner Party emigrants snowbound at Donner Lake. Their sense of optimism was crushed on Jan. 21 when the strongest storm of the season roared in.January 2013 has been chilly, with days of sub-freezing high temperatures and sub-zero lows. The cold wave has frozen pipes and generated complaints, but it has also preserved the robust snowpack. To put the recent cold snap in perspective, consider some recent low temperature extremes at the Truckee-Tahoe Airport: minus 28 (December 1990) and 35 below (February 1989). In January 1937, temps at nearby Boca plummeted to 45 degrees below zero, California’s all-time record low. In part one about the epic winter of 1853, torrential downpours during December 1852 inundated California with a flood of biblical proportions. Roads became quagmires of mud that trapped hundreds of freight wagons loaded with food and cargo for the mining districts. Rivers draining the west slope of the Sierra Nevada burst their banks and washed away mining flumes and dams.The flooding of Sacramento 160 years ago couldn’t have come at a worse time for the aspiring River City. The California legislature was in the process of trying to decide where to officially site the new State Capital. The present location at Vallejo had been widely rejected, and by a one-vote margin, the legislature had just eliminated the city of Benicia. Sacramento was next on the list and the town’s businessmen and civic leaders had been fairly confident of securing the approval of the majority of the State Legislature. Now that a breech in the new levee above Sutter’s Fort had allowed floodwaters into the city limits, they weren’t so sure.When incessant heavy rain continued into January 1853, a deep gloom settled over the region. A Jan. 14 editorial in the Sacramento Daily Union summed up the mood: “At no period in the history of California, amidst all her numerous afflictions by fire and flood, has the same melancholy state of affairs existed, as at the present time. The immense quantities of rain and snow, from the Southern coast to the Sierra Nevada range, and far beyond, have overtaken the miner at his work, the agriculturist in his field, and forced them to seek refuge by flight. Many have found graves beneath the mighty avalanches of snow, in the boiling [river] currents, or from the more dreadful visitation of the unappeased gnawings of hunger.” For weeks it rained and the deluge crippled business and commerce throughout the Golden State. In the Sierra foothills all communication was cut off and starvation and small pox ravaged the isolated gold camps. Ironically, the little town of Forest Hill owes its existence to a January 1853 avalanche that exposed $2,500 of gold deposits and opened the area to bedrock tunneling and surface mining. In the farm country north of Sacramento the snow was more than 2 feet deep and grim news of death and starvation indicated severe conditions. There had been no flour in Shasta for 40 days and residents were fleeing in droves. In many places the muddy roads were entirely impassable and people were subsisting on a diet of parched barley. In Onion Valley, Sierra County, the snow reached 25 feet deep.Late in January the storms finally abated and blue skies and bright sunshine buoyed everyone’s mood: “By the sailing of the next steamer, we hope to be able to send better tidings home to our Atlantic friends. They have learned by this time, what kind of a people we are – what we can do – what difficulties we have overcome – and they may rest assured that although chastened, we are not disheartened. Sacramento will profit by her sore afflictions to provide better against them in the future, and come out eventually greater and more glorious than she was ever known to be before.” – Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at Check out Mark’s new blog at

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