Author’s Note: This article is adapted from, “Snowbound: Legendary Tahoe-Sierra Winters,” a book in progress scheduled for release in 2014 by Mic Mac Publishing.
The winter of 1880 was a wild roller coaster of stormy and sunny weather; a season where extended stretches of fair conditions were broken by record-setting blasts of snowfall. And, the winter seemed to last forever.
During that year, a record 25 feet of snow pummeled Donner Pass in April; one spring storm alone dumped more than 16 feet in just four days. The 194 inches that fell is the greatest amount of snow ever measured from a single storm anywhere in the world. The seasonal snowfall total of 783 inches that year at Donner Pass was enough to rank 1880 as the third snowiest winter of record.
At Lake Tahoe, the winter got off to a decent start when 22 inches of snow fell in October 1879 and another 23 inches in November. Mountain residents took the moderate amounts of snow in stride; loggers continued working in the forest and stagecoach companies maintained passenger and delivery schedules over the slushy roads. Winter began in earnest in December when it rained and snowed for the first 10 days of the month.
The storms were bad for the ice harvesting industry at Boca and Floriston in the Truckee River Canyon. Ponds already frozen more than 8-inches thick were nearly ready to cut, but the mixture of rain and snow spoiled ice quality. The ruined ice had to be broken up to allow new, commercially viable ice to form.
Just before Christmas, a strong Gulf of Alaska-bred storm surged into the Northern Sierra bringing more snow. The cold front also dropped temperatures throughout the region with subzero readings reported in Truckee and at Lake Tahoe.
A cold dome of high pressure dominated from late December 1889 through much of January 1880, while Pacific storms were shunted north. The exception to that stable weather regime was from Jan. 7 to 10 when the biggest storm of the season so far broke through the high pressure ridge to dump an estimated 10 feet of snow in the mountains. This powerful system shut down all logging operations and wheeled stagecoaches became useless. Horse-drawn sleighs took over the job of delivering passengers and commodities.
Three major snow slides between Emigrant Gap and Cisco crushed more than 1,000 feet of railroad snowshed that had been built to protect tracks and trains. Further east, the heavy, wet snow generated an avalanche below Donner Peak that swept a section of shed there down into Donner Lake. Other sheds that had survived intact were pushed out of alignment by avalanches, which blocked train traffic and forced some engineers to abandon their trains and evacuate their passengers.
On the final day of the storm, the wind alone blew down another 800 feet of snowsheds. It took railroad crews nearly a week to haul away all the debris and get passenger trains running on schedule again. The storm left a snowpack nearly 10 feet deep near Donner Pass, but Truckee got off easy with a manageable 2 feet.
Charles F. McGlashan, considered by many the patriarch of Truckee, was the long-time editor of “The Truckee Republican” newspaper. During this severe storm, McGlashan climbed aboard a Central Pacific snowplow to see for himself how railroad men endured blizzards in the mountains. His thrilling first-hand account of his near-fatal experience was published as “A Fearful Ride (on a Snow Plow)” in the Republican and later reprinted in Thompson & West’s “History of Nevada County.”
McGlashan developed the scene by describing the desperate conditions west of Donner Pass in Jan. 1880: “The gale increased until it became a hurricane. Early in the day it became evident that a new and hitherto unheard of danger threatened the Central Pacific. It was a danger that caused the bravest men to turn pale. The snow-sheds showed indications of falling. These sheds are over 30 miles in length, and for years have withstood every shock of the elements. Soon after noon, 100 feet of corrugated iron shed blew down, and freight train No. 6 went crashing into the ruins. The collision caused another large section of shedding to fall and the doomed train was buried beneath a mass of broken timbers and deep piled drifts. Three men were completely hidden from sight, but providentially suffered no serious injury. Buckley’s snowplow ran to the wreck with a full crew of workmen, and by great exertion succeeded in drawing the rear cars of No. 6 back to Cisco. Meantime 500 feet of snowshed fell between that point and Emigrant Gap.”
McGlashan went on to explain in detail the risks taken by the railroad men: “A storm on the Sierra means toil and danger to hundreds of poor fellows. The warfare between these men and the elements is worthy of being better understood. It is a warfare wherein brain and muscle are arrayed against cold, darkness and avalanches, against death in a thousand forms. Of late years no headlights are placed on the plows. From the moment the hoarse whistles indicate the start, all in front of the plow is profound darkness. There is no limit to the speed of a snowplow train, and when flying into the teeth of a hurricane, it is impossible to face the darting snow granules, which cut and sting the eyes like needlepoints. Up over the plow come huge masses of snow which sometimes seem ready to bury one.”
Engine crews called the snow-clearing shifts a “suicide run.” Forcing a massive wedge through deep drifts at high speed could mean life or death. Powered by eight to 12 locomotives at full throttle, the plow would often plunge into the first drift at speeds in excess of 40 mph. Hitting the dense snowpack was like racing into a pile of bricks. The wind-driven snow during the January 1880 storm became so condensed that at one point a 31-ton plow engine hit a wall of snow that stopped it like solid rock. Derailments were common, as were shattered windshields smashed by flying chunks of icy snow.
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. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com.