Miles_Post (scax_e_one) wrote,

Donner Pass + Snow + Trains 2005 Compared To 1952

Donner Pass sounds like it's a pretty yucky place to be at certain times of the year, particularly in the winter. The Donner Party could attest to that. That is, the ones who weren't eaten. Here's some info about the rail line that runs over the Pass, and a couple of trains that had major problems trying to get through the snow. It's a long piece, so

Storms batter, bury portions of West Coast
Martin Griffith, Associated Press
January 10, 2005

RENO -- Areas of the Sierra Nevada, famous for paralyzing amounts of snowfall, have been hit with a dumping like they haven't seen in generations, with steep drifts stranding an Amtrak train, shutting down the Reno airport as well as major highways across the mountains.

The string of moisture-laden storms has dropped as much as 19 feet of snow at elevations above 7,000 feet since Dec. 28 and 6½ feet at lower elevations in the Reno area. Meteorologists said it was the most snow the Reno-Lake Tahoe area has seen since 1916.

"I've lived here for almost 40 years, and I've never seen anything like it," Peter Walenta, 69, said Sunday from his home in Stateline, Nev., on the southern end of Lake Tahoe. "This baby just seems to be stretching on forever."

A lull in the storm allowed the reopening Sunday of Interstate Hwy. 80 over Donner Summit and U.S. 50 over Echo Summit after the highways were closed off and on for more than a day. The highways connect Sacramento, Calif., to Reno.

"The snowbanks along Interstate 80 are about 8 to 10 feet high. It's like you're going through a maze," said Jane Dulaney, spokeswoman for the Rainbow Lodge west of Donner Summit.

About 25 motorists were rescued by National Guard members in Humvees after they became stranded overnight on Hwy. 395 about 20 miles south of Reno, Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Jeff Bowers said. Motorists had to wait as long as six hours until rescuers could reach them after daylight Sunday.

More than 220 Amtrak passengers were back in Sacramento on Sunday after spending the night stuck in their train in deep snow west of Donner Summit, spokesman Marc Magliari said.

One car of the California Zephyr, eastbound from Oakland, Calif., to Chicago, derailed in the snow Saturday evening. No one was hurt. Amtrak officials moved the passengers to other cars and the train reversed course and returned to Sacramento about 6 a.m.

Because of the derailment, a westbound Zephyr had to stop in Reno and its roughly 140 passengers completed their trip to California by bus.

But did you also know ---

Another prolonged trans-Sierra blockade occurred in January 1952, after an onslaught of powerful Pacific-bred storms inundated the mountains. When blizzard conditions stranded the luxury streamliner train City of San Francisco high in the mountains, the event made national news. On Sunday morning, January 13, 1952, Truckee-Lake Tahoe residents were three days into a week-long blizzard. An intense vortex of low pressure had stalled off the California coast in a position favorable for heavy amounts of snow. Despite the best efforts of California road crews on this fateful Sunday, all northern Sierra highway passes were closed due to deep snow and avalanches. Only Southern Pacific trains were still crossing the Sierras, rumbling through the snowsheds and tunnels that made their passage possible. All that changed at 11 a.m. when one of SP’s luxury streamliners, the City of San Francisco, rammed into a snowslide near Yuba Pass, west of the Sierra crest. Despite three 2,250 horsepower diesel-electric engines, the crew could not back up the train and quickly realized they were stuck. There were 226 passengers and crewmembers on board the 15-car westbound train, but everyone assumed that the powerful $3 million express train would not be there long.

Their laissez-faire attitude, however, turned to anger when they were still snowbound 24 hours later. The wind was fierce, howling at speeds in excess of 90 mph and drifts towered 20 to 30 feet. Many feared it would be just a matter of time before another avalanche shoved the entire train into the dark ravine below. On Monday night, 36 hours into their ordeal and with no rescue in sight, the supply of diesel fuel ran out, cloaking the train in a cold eerie darkness lit only by dim emergency lights.

Unbeknownst to the frightened passengers and crew, SP rescue trains were inching their way closer from both east and west toward the stranded streamliner. One train carried dogsled teams while the Sixth Army trucked in arctic-trained rescue squads over partially cleared Highway 40. (Interstate 80 was not built until the early 1960s). Military doctors and nurses aboard snowcats were rushed to the likely rescue points. Helicopters were grounded by the storm, but stood ready to fly at first chance. A Southern Pacific rotary snowplow, manned by engineer Rolland Raymond of Sacramento, finally broke through to within a quarter mile of the buried train. Raymond climbed down from the snow-streaked rotary in order to survey the hazardous conditions. Without warning, an avalanche roaring down the mountainside crashed into the rotary snowplow and swept the would-be rescuer to a violent death.

On the morning January 16 the skies suddenly cleared, giving relief operations a chance to reach the train. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. employee Jay Gold, 33, drove the first bulldozer opening the trail. His efforts enabled doctors to reach sick passengers with medicine and allowed others to bring food supplies. Tragically, the exertion proved overwhelming for the heroic young man and he died of a heart attack shortly after.

The critical mission had taken four days and cost two lives, but all 226 passengers and crew were eventually saved. From January 10 to 17, nearly 13 feet of snow fell. The winter of 1951-52 dumped 65 feet of snow on Donner Summit and the snowpack reached 26 feet deep, the greatest depth ever recorded there.


Also, here's how an article in the January 28, 1952 edition of LIFE magazine covered the event:


Crossing the Sierra Nevada between Reno and San Francisco, the Southern Pacific mainline goes through a famous pass. There, in 1846, the wagon train of 81 California-bound immigrants led by George Donner were trapped by the mountain snows. After the survivors were rescued some four months later, they told gruesome details of turning to cannibalism and eating many of their 36 dead.

Last week a diesel-powered wagon poked blindly through Donner Pass in a raging blizzard. This time it was the westbound streamliner City of San Francisco, and smugly snug inside its warm cars were 196 passengers and a crew of 30. Near the camping ground of the Donner party, the engine plowed into a four-foot drift and stalled. The passengers, sure that civilization, if not the elements, was on their side, settled back and waited for the train to move forward. But their confidence was misplaced; their mechanized wagon was stuck, unable to move in either direction. There, 175 miles from San Francisco and 15 deep-drifted miles from the nearest effective help, the streamliner squatted motionless against the frozen mountainside. As the worst blizzard in 15 years piled snow inexorably higher against the windows and the impotent diesels ran out of fuel, bitter cold crept into the cars. Snapped from their complacency by the dropping temperature, passengers huddled close together in blankets and overcoats and wrapped their feet in torn bedclothes. Twenty were sickened by gas fumes. The lights were cut off. There was only one day's supply of food on board.

Almost every possible resource of transportation was used in the gigantic rescue effort, including a force of nearly 1,000 men in rotary plows, weasels, trucks and automobiles. On the first day, a ski patrol brought in food. The third day a helicopter dropped extra food and medical supplies. The heroic doctor/passenger got relief when another doctor arrived via dogsled and snow tractor. Finally, one rescue train was able to break through the 12-foot drifts to Emigrant Gap, four and a half miles west of the streamliner, and a road crew dug out Highway 40 to a point where the passengers could walk out.

Panic threatened but was prevented during the three-day imprisonment on the City of San Francisco. Hot food was prepared by breaking up Pullman ladders and bread boards for stove fuel. On the second night passengers themselves repaired morale with a party, complete with singing, poker games and a $100 lottery. Republican committeewomen on their way to a San Francisco meeting did extraporaneous campaining, passing out elephant emblems. Dr. Walter Roehll stretched a scant stock of medical supplies he carried on vacation to treat those affected by gas fumes and to control a crisis brought on by a passenger who was a drug addict. The conductor reported to Dr. Roehll that the passenger was screaming, cursing and tearing up his compartment. The doctor, recognizing an addict fighting his craving, administered morphine at once, then followed with smaller doses to conserve his supply. The addict was locked in his compartment but darted away later after the passengers reached Sacramento. On the third day when
LIFE Photographer Wayne Miller reached the train he found others were near the end of endurance, but clear weather that afternoon brought rescue. Only four required hospitalization. Safe in San Francisco a committeewoman said, "I've bundled with men I've never seen before and never will again."

From a photo caption is the following:

Where streamliner stalled is shown in map of Donner Pass. Rescue trains converged on train from Reno in east and Colfax to west. Reno train got only as far as Norden, but the Colfax train reached Emigrant Gap. Passengers walked 1,500 feet from train to nearest point of specially dug-out Highway 40, from there went by car to Nyack Lodge, a resort hotel, then walked short distance to the relief train for Oakland.

So now you know the rest of the story...

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