Technology wins battle for Donner Pass

By Mark McLaughlin ·



In 1890, Southern Pacific Railroad got its first chance to try out a new, innovative rotary snowplow that it had recently purchased. That severe winter 125 years ago dumped nearly 65 feet of snow on the mountains and shut down SP’s Central Pacific line over Donner Pass for 15 consecutive days. The 776 inches of snow recorded that winter make 1890 the 4th snowiest of record, and the 79 inches of water content that resulted from those storms is the 18th wettest at Donner Pass since 1871.

Ever since Central Pacific Railroad laid track over the Sierra in the late 1860s, a feat many believed impossible, crews have battled the Storm King for control of Donner Pass during winter storms. From long experience, the men who worked the Sierra portion of the first transcontinental railroad knew that brutal blizzards and lethal avalanches came with the territory.

Modern technology has armed today’s snow fighters with an arsenal of equipment that helps them keep the rails clear. Today’s hydraulic spreaders can move 3,750 tons of snow per minute in a swath 40-foot wide, but when conditions warrant, Union Pacific deploys its mighty rotaries to cut through drifts and slides. Each winter, the machines are stationed on both sides of the range in Roseville and Sparks, Nev.

J.W. Elliot, a dentist from Toronto, Canada, designed and patented the first primitive rotary plow in 1869. To pitch his invention, Dr. Elliot built a small hand-operated model of his Revolving Snow Shovel, but he was unable to get financing. That same year, Pennsylvanian Charles Tierney obtained his own patent for a machine with a large revolving screw on the front of a railroad flatcar. Powered by a steam engine, the turning screw fed the snow into a fan that would use airflow to blow it off the tracks. Railroad companies showed no interest in Tierney’s scheme either and he, too, was forced to abandon his project.

During the 1870s, another half dozen men invented a variety of rotating plows, a few made it to the prototype stage, but none beyond that. In 1883, Orange Jull, the owner of a flourmill in the small village of Orangeville in Ontario, Canada, developed a better design. His plans required mounting a large, spinning apparatus with fan-like blades on the front of a railroad car that would use motive power provided by one or more locomotives. Unlike many of the other inventors, Jull was a good mechanic and he intended to build a full-scale operating snowplow, not just a crude prototype. He enlisted the help of John and Edward Leslie, two brothers he knew who owned a local machine shop.

Jull showed the Leslies his rotary design, which employed a sharp, cutting wheel that revolved at high speed in front of the spinning fan blades. After the blades cut it up, the loose snow would be discharged through an opening in the top of the fan housing. John and Edward were convinced that Jull’s invention would work and decided to enter into a partnership with him.

In 1884, Jull obtained patents for his Rotary Steam Snow Shovel in both the U.S. and Canada, and then assigned the rights to the Leslie brothers, who had agreed to pay Jull royalties for any plows constructed and sold. The Canadian Pacific Railroad Company was interested in Jull’s machine and provided an old locomotive boiler to power it.

After several design modifications by the Leslie brothers, the three men felt they were ready to take their invention to market. They mailed a set of drawings to the Cooke Locomotive & Machine Works in Paterson, New Jersey, for an estimate on construction costs and the first rotary was built during the summer of 1885. Once assembled, it was shipped west to Wyoming for its first test. The newfangled plow was a great success and proved it could cut away snowdrifts to the height of the blade and throw it far from the track, all while moving forward at a speed of about 5 mph.

The following summer, Jull ordered another rotary from Cooke Locomotive, but this time its fabrication incorporated new improvements improvised by the Leslies. Union Pacific Railroad tested it on their line in eastern Oregon during severe winter weather and again the machine performed well. The railroad ordered three more. Then Southern Pacific bought one to use on its trans-Sierra line between Truckee and Blue Canyon.

Demand for the Rotary Snow Shovel soared as railroad companies in the U.S. and Europe added them to their fleet of equipment. But trouble was brewing between Orange Jull and John and Edward Leslie. Although the original snowplow had been built under Jull’s basic patent, the Leslies had obtained a dozen additional patents on their improvements to the design, none of which included Jull in the paperwork. Jull had never gained a partnership in the Leslie firm, and now the two brothers were pulling in the bulk of the profits. Ultimately, Jull was squeezed out. He later invented a mechanical snowplow called the Cyclone that used a spinning screw-like device similar to Charles Tierney’s, but it could not match the rotary’s performance level and few were built.

The Leslie Rotary was considered a marvel of mechanical genius. Three 600-horsepower engines powered the cutting blade, which in turn was pushed along by several locomotives. The behemoth weighed nearly 20 tons, which kept it securely on the rails when churning through packed drifts.

The first rotary arrived in Truckee in 1887, but it wasn’t needed until the extreme winter of 1890 when 40 feet of snow pummeled the region during December and January. All train traffic in the Sierra Division shut down from Jan. 15 to 31 due to a snow blockade. It was then that the rotary proved itself indispensable in clearing deep drifts and avalanche deposition.

To awed onlookers in Truckee, the roaring beast seemed invincible. It threw tons of snow high into the air, forcing residents in nearby houses to board their windows. During one test run, a snow plume broke second-story windows of Truckee’s Whitney Hotel 200 feet away.

Despite upgrades and improvements, modern rotary plows are basically identical in technology and function as Jull’s first machine built 131 years ago, testament to the rule that a well-designed invention has staying power.


Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You may reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog at, or read more Sierra Stories at