The Sun is the engine that drives weather and climate on Earth. For more than a century, there have been many scientists who have tried to prove that energy output from our nearest star can influence this planet’s atmospheric jet streams and wind patterns, as well as global air and sea surface temperatures. Modern scientists continue to research how solar fluctuations may cause short-term changes in Earth’s climate and weather.
It may be sheer coincidence, but around the turn of the 20th Century there was a distinct drop in solar sunspot activity that corresponded with a measureable decrease in North America’s average temperatures. From 1890 to 1911 on Donner Summit, winter snowfall was up and temperatures trended lower during that time frame.
In fact, fully 30 percent of the Top Ten snowiest winters in 135 years of record at Donner Pass occurred from 1890 to 1895. The winters of 1890, 1893 and 1895 were exceptional, but beyond those three many other years in those two decades ranked well above average for snowfall.
Following the 1890s, California set new records for greatest snowfall measured in a single season (883 inches in 1906-07), followed by the deepest snow ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada – 37.8 feet on the level in March 1911.
The 1890s opened with a bang when 65 feet of snow in 1890 propelled that season to its Top 10 ranking as the fourth all-time snowiest winter of record at Donner Pass. Dry weather had plagued Northern California for two years in the late 1880s and by autumn 1889 mountain forests were tinderbox dry. Raging forest fires were ravaging the Sierra Nevada and worried residents in the logging town of Truckee were praying for early rain to quench the wild fires that enveloped the region with smoke. It seemed a good omen when early November storms doused the flames. From then on, cold Pacific fronts hit the region in rapid succession, each contributing significantly to a swiftly accumulating snowpack. By New Year’s Eve, an impressive 260 inches of snow – almost 22 feet – had fallen on Donner Pass, compared with a paltry 37 inches measured on that date the year before.
Brutal Gulf of Alaska storms continued the assault in early January. The relentless snowfall forced westbound trains to wait in Truckee, just east of Donner Pass, so Central Pacific RR workmen could clear the tracks over the higher elevations. Swirling snowflakes built up impassible drifts in the streets of Truckee. Between storms, nighttime temperatures plunged to 35 degrees below zero, preserving the deep snowpack. The severe weather forced many Truckee stores and businesses to close, but townsmen dug tunnels under the snow in order to reach their favorite saloons.
Meanwhile, wind-whipped snow over Donner Pass snapped trans-Sierra telegraph wires like frayed rubber bands. Western Union linemen had to dig down 20 feet to reach the tops of the telegraph poles in a futile attempt to repair the lines. Cut off from the outside world, life in Truckee came to a standstill. By Jan. 6, almost 24 feet of snow had fallen on the town.
Truckee’s doctor watched helplessly as influenza ravaged passengers on the stranded trains. The overcrowded conditions, coupled with a lack of medicine, enabled La Grippe, as it was then called, to take several lives. One of them was Lucia Zarate, who was on her way to San Francisco for an exhibition. Billed as the world’s smallest woman, Zarate had appeared with P.T. Barnum’s Great London Circus in 1886.
Day after day, blustery wind brought more snow while hundreds of railroad men labored to keep the tracks open. When the unrelenting blizzard threatened to overwhelm work crews, CP mobilized 1,600 more men, a dozen more snowplows and 45 additional locomotives; the battle for Donner Pass had escalated into all-out war.
Central Pacific used powerful rotary snowplows to churn paths through 20-foot drifts to keep the pass open. Three 600-horsepower engines powered the rotary’s spinning blade, which cut through snow and tossed it aside. To awed onlookers, these roaring behemoths seemed invincible. They threw tons of snow hundreds of feet into the air, which forced residents in nearby houses to board up their windows for protection. Engineers ordered to break through one long stretch of deep snow used a wedge-shaped bucker plow pushed by eight powerful locomotives. They opened the throttles and rammed the drifts at 45 mph, clearing a half mile track in less than a minute before the steel wheels started slipping in a shower of sparks. Their jubilation was short-lived, however, because it took 200 men four hours to shovel out the buried locomotives.
The engineers called these assignments suicide runs because ramming a snow bank at high speed was like hitting a stone wall – they were never sure if they would survive the impact. The violent collisions often shattered locomotive windshields, spraying the cabins with shards of glass. Repairmen replaced the broken glass with thick wooden planks, leaving the engineers only a small side window to peer through. They were frequently forced to stick their heads out into the frigid air and squint into the stinging snow to judge speed and distance.
The battle against the relentless blizzards raged for weeks along the 40 miles of track in the higher elevations. Fortunately, wooden snowsheds protected most of the exposed rails. The thick-beamed sheds could withstand extreme snow loads. Avalanches roaring down the mountains usually rumbled over the tops of the sturdy sheds into the canyons below, sparing trains, passengers and track.
Watchmen walked the dark, creaking tunnels day and night, keeping a close eye on the straining timbers. When they found a weak spot, they quickly called in railroad carpenters to reinforce it. For awhile, the sheds held and despite delays and sporadic closures, trains continued to wind their way safely through the storm-ravaged mountains.
On Jan. 15, CP’s hopes of keeping the tracks open were dealt a mortal blow when a livestock train from Nevada heading westbound in a snowshed suddenly derailed. The lurching train ripped out hundreds of support posts and the long wooden structure came crashing down. Dozens of cattle were crushed under the tons of snow, rocks and splintered timber; some escaped this fate only to freeze in mountainous snowdrifts. The destruction of the snowshed created an insurmountable barrier to the army of men struggling to keep the line open; the Great Snow Blockade of 1890 had begun. Read Part II in the next issue.
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.