The 1890s were a cold and snowy decade for the Tahoe-Sierra, with three of the all-time Top 10 winters: 1890, 1893 and 1895.
Like most big winters, it started early when a strong snowstorm covered the mountains with snow on Oct 1, 1894. November was mostly dry, but in early December the weather went gang-busters as relentless Pacific storm systems piled snow on the higher terrain. By Dec. 11, snow depths were impressive with 6 feet at Spooner Summit on Tahoe’s East Shore and nearly as much on Donner Pass. By the first day of winter, Truckee residents had already shoveled 80 inches of snow, and the snowpack exceeded 10 feet at the Norden train station near Donner Pass.
The severe weather impacted a wide swath of Northern California and western Nevada. Heavy rain in the lowlands pushed creeks and rivers over their banks and kept farmers from planting winter crops. In the Mother Lode, all mining operations were suspended due to flooding and dirt roads became impassable. The rainfall was unprecedented in El Dorado County where Placerville residents endured rain 25 out of 31 days in December with more than 31 inches reported.
At Sisson, located at 3,600 feet on the slopes of Mount Shasta, 96 inches of snow fell in five days, closing roads and crushing buildings. Heavy wet snow at the Floriston ice ponds in the Truckee River Canyon near the Nevada state line ruined the valuable commercial ice crop of the Mountain Ice Company. Icy snow drifts across the tracks of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad in Nevada shut down the line until extra engines were brought in to break the blockade and free stranded passenger trains. Powerful wind gusts blasted Reno, Nev., where windmills owned by the Multi-motor Windmill Company were so damaged that they had to be dismantled and removed.
In San Francisco, it rained 22 days in December 1894, the second greatest total after 1889. In late December, former Nevada Senator James G. Fair developed a cold after surveying some of his San Francisco property during a rainstorm and died a few days later at age 64. Senator Fair had made a fortune in Virginia City’s famed Comstock Lode and was one of four partners in the legendary mining firm of Flood, Mackay, Fair and O’Brien.
The storms also took the life of John O’Brien, a logger who was working about 6 miles from Donner Summit when he became disoriented and lost one of his snowshoes about 2 miles from the safety of his cabin. After he collapsed in the bottomless snow, O’Brien’s dog guarded the body for two days before he went to a nearby wood cutter’s camp and induced the men to follow him to where his dead master lay.
The total snowfall at Truckee in December was 140 inches (nearly 12 feet), with more than 20 feet recorded near Donner Pass. Precipitation for the month at Norden was 24.50 inches, almost 300 percent of normal. But, it wasn’t over yet.
The vigorous winter storm track roared right into January, bringing heavy snow to the Tahoe-Sierra. The severe weather generated multiple avalanches along the transcontinental railroad from Cisco to Donner Pass, which blocked several passenger trains. In Truckee, the snow grew so deep that in order to cross the street, pedestrians had to climb from the sidewalks on steps cut into the snow and then descend on the other side. People on one side of the street could not see those on the other, and residents had to shovel snow away from their windows to allow in daylight. Restaurants had snow caves set up in the street to serve their customers outdoors on clear days. A tunnel under the snow led to the train depot and skiing was the only mode of transportation to and from local homes.
Periods of wet snow and heavy rain continued to hamper the commercial ice harvesting operations east of Truckee. The pond ice was between 5 to 9 inches thick and ready for cutting, but a foot of water-soaked slush covered the good ice rendering it inaccessible. Valiant efforts to use horse-pulled scrapers to remove the slush proved fruitless.
Persistent rain in Reno made dirt roads there a muddy, impassable mess for wagons and pedestrians. Conditions became so bad that city commissioners passed an ordinance for sidewalks to be constructed to keep pedestrians out of the mud, as well as street gutters dug on principal thoroughfares to drain water into the Truckee River.
On Jan. 18, a powerful cold front dumped 5 feet of snow in one day along the Sierra crest delaying trains and forcing Southern Pacific Railroad to deploy their arsenal of rotary snow removal equipment in an effort to keep the line open. More snow fell over the next two days bringing the storm total to 7 feet. An avalanche at Sierra City north of Truckee carried away a slaughterhouse and caused a panic among the population as many people fled from their homes with their frightened children in tow.
Rapid fire cold fronts kept the snow machine pumping (107 inches fell in Truckee that month) and by Jan. 31 businesses and railroad crews there were dealing with a snowpack 10 feet deep. To the west, snow depth totals were even more impressive: Emigrant Gap reported snow 14 feet deep with 15 feet at Cisco, and a huge snowpack 21 feet deep at Donner Pass. The cold Gulf of Alaska storms also pounded the lower elevations of the Sierra west slope with snow. Overwhelmed residents of Gold Run at 3,212 feet were dealing with a structure-crushing snowpack 5 feet deep.
The total moisture content from all that January snow provided 25.80 inches of water at the Norden gage making it the second consecutive month with nearly three times normal precipitation. In fact, the months of December 1894 and January 1895 dumped more than 50 inches of precipitation, meaning that Donner Summit was blasted with nearly a whole winter’s worth of snow and rain in just eight weeks. The rest of the winter of 1895 was below average, but the epic storms of December and January contributed so much snow that the season total of 685 inches (57 feet) at Donner Pass was enough to rank the winter as the 6th snowiest of record since 1878.
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 [email protected] Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com.