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The Great Sierra Snow Blockade

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Prayers for a Wet Winter

At the turn of the 20th century there was a distinct cool, wet period in the Tahoe Sierra. Snowfall amounts were up sharply and temperatures trended lower during that time frame.   

Mirroring Tahoe winter 2017 thus far, in the fall of 1889 residents were praying for a wet winter. Severe drought had plagued northern California and smoke from forest fires permeated the mountains. Old-timers predicted that the region was going through a “climate change” and warned that the big winters of yesteryear would be just a memory. Lo and behold, their prayers were answered.

Heavy rain in October extinguished wildfires and huge snow followed. In 1890 railroad crews battled a grand total of 776 inches — nearly 65 feet — of snowfall in their herculean effort to keep trains rolling through the Tahoe Sierra. To date, it is the fourth greatest seasonal total at Donner Pass, and with 79 inches of precipitation, the 18th wettest winter.

By MARK McLAUGHLIN  |  Special to Moonshine Ink

In 1890, a string of huge storms blanketed the Tahoe area and the railroad struggled mightily to keep its tracks open. Two weeks after the New Year, a catastrophic crash of a train loaded with cows set off a sequence of events leading to hundreds of stranded passengers, a devastating influenza outbreak, and a veritable army of people dedicated to snow removal.

Seemingly in response to the prayers of residents who hoped for a big winter (see sidebar), by mid-December Donner Pass had a snowpack 9 feet deep. Central Pacific Railroad’s fleet of wedge-shaped bucker plows were of little use in the deepening snow along the tracks. Fortunately, the company was feeling confident with its recently purchased rotary snow plow. The powerful machine with a spinning blade could throw snow 150 feet away in a big stream.

By New Year’s Eve, an impressive 260 inches of snow — almost 22 feet — had fallen on Donner Summit. Hundreds of railroad men labored to keep the tracks open. Avalanches piled snow up to 40 feet deep on the wooden snowsheds, built to keep snow off the tracks in the snowiest areas.

The battle against the severe weather raged for days along the 40 miles of track in the higher elevations. On Jan. 15, 1890, CP’s main line shut down when a string of cattle cars heading to California derailed in a snowshed near Emigrant Gap. The lurching train ripped out key support posts and the structure came crashing down, marking only the beginning of what became known as the Great Snow Blockade of 1890. Central Pacific launched into a valiant two-week struggle to re-open the lines.

The blades of the rotary were useless against the formidable combination of wood, ice, rock, and train wreckage. Central Pacific rushed hundreds more men up from Sacramento to help remove debris that covered both tracks. It would take 15 days to clear the blockade. The crushed sheds at Emigrant Gap were the railroad’s main obstacle, but frequent avalanches also covered the tracks between Donner Pass and Cisco, requiring many dozens of extra hands to shovel.

By mid-January nearly 25 feet of snow had fallen on Truckee and snow drifts reached 15 feet. Truckee’s doctor watched helplessly as a contagious flu called “la grippe” spread among passengers on trains stranded in town. Since there were no hotel rooms nor a hospital available in Truckee, one rail car was transformed into an infirmary where patients were cared for as well as possible by fellow passengers.

One victim was Mexican-born Lucía Zárate, a woman famed as the world’s smallest human, who was on her way to San Francisco for an exhibition where she would earn $1,000 per week for a 10-week engagement. Only 20 inches tall, the diminutive Zarate weighed less than five pounds as an adult. She had traveled the world with various shows, but tragically, Zarate’s exciting life in showbiz ended in a Truckee blizzard. Her manager alleged it was bad food provided by the railroad that killed her, but most likely her frail body could not handle the stress and confined conditions aboard the train.

On Jan. 29, CP’s lone rotary broke down with only 200 yards of westward track left to clear. Snow shovelers were deployed to finish the final stretch. Two days later the railroad was finally able to open. Some 1,000 stranded passengers cheered the now-blue skies and heroic efforts of the workmen as trains again headed further into the Golden State.

The tracks in the mountains were clear, but the men in CP’s Truckee division still had to open the section between Truckee and Reno, which runs through the rugged Truckee River Canyon with steep embankments and tight curves. Crews rigged up eight locomotives to push a bucker plow through the drifts that blocked the line. Blasting through the snow at high speed like this was called a “suicide run.”

J. R. Garcia, chief engineer for the Truckee division, took the helm of the lead locomotive that would push Bucker No. 9 down the track. When he hit the first drift, huge chunks of snow shattered the glass windshield and poured into the cab. Garcia and his fireman were pinned helplessly against the rear wall.

Veteran conductor Old Blaney just laughed and ordered the train to proceed ahead at full speed. With Garcia and the fireman trapped in their engine, Bucker No. 9 roared down the track, making the 35 miles to Reno in a record time of 67 minutes.

With the blockade officially obliterated, the trains were rolling again.

~ Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. Email him at mark@thestormking.com or check out his blog: tahoenuggets.com.

 
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August 10, 2017