Praying for a Miracle April

By Mark McLaughlin · 


When snowfall is meager in the Tahoe-Sierra like it has been this season, you’ll often hear locals say, “We need a Miracle March.” Whether they realize it or not, the term was coined in 1991 after powerful Pacific storms dumped snow and rain containing nearly 25 inches of water on Donner Pass in the first three weeks of March. The 14 to 20 feet of new snow turned around a miserable ski season and the last minute barrage of moisture saved the region from experiencing its driest winter ever.

This year, we’re going to have to pray for a Miracle April, which is a long shot but definitely not impossible. In a normal year, the Easter holiday represents the end of the ski and snowboarding season. But just because the chairlifts stop turning in April doesn’t mean that winter is over or that we don’t need water. In fact, some of the worst storms of the season occur during spring.

Old timers may remember the Easter storm of 1958 that slammed the Sierra with phenomenal snowfall. An El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean markedly influenced the winter of 1957-58. Most of California received above average precipitation that year and the Tahoe-Truckee region was no exception. Frequent storms lashed the state with wind, rain and snow. The active weather pattern made 1958 the wettest season in 90 years.

By early April, Sierra ski resorts were boasting a 15-foot snowpack and resort managers were praying for good weather during the traditionally busy Easter vacation. Unfortunately for all concerned, one of the biggest storms of the year barreled into the region just in time for Easter week. Heavy snow fell in the Sierra and snow slides stopped all transportation through the mountains for several days. Chain controls were in force all the way to Auburn. A dozen large avalanches near the River Ranch on Highway 89 closed the road for nearly a week.

In 1958, Interstate 80 was not yet completed, but Highway 40 over Donner Pass was closed for five days by the storm. At Norden, 10 feet of snow fell in five days while, at Soda Springs the weather station was buried under snow 22 feet deep. Tahoe ski resorts took the brunt of the storm with Heavenly Valley ski area was the only mountain operation able to remain open during the blizzard. At Squaw Valley, construction crews preparing the site for the upcoming 1960 Winter Olympics were shut down by the heavy snowfall. Olympic planners had been hoping for a mild winter so that spring construction could begin early on the installations.

Sugar Bowl ski resort on Donner Summit was hit hardest of all. A massive avalanche wiped out three towers on the Mt. Lincoln chair lift. Ski racers that competed there in the Far West Ski Association divisional alpine championships on April 12 and 13 had to hike for their runs.

But the granddaddy of all our snowy Aprils is still 1880. In late March of that year, Truckee residents were enjoying the first blossoms of spring and anticipating warm sunny days ahead. In Carson City, journalist and weather sharp Dan De Quille asserted that “there is no longer any doubt but that the spring rise is upon us.” One Nevada saloon owner ordered a double quantity of beer for the coming week. He expected to be selling 500 kegs a week by the middle of April as mining operations increased.

But bad weather arrived on April Fool’s Day, smothering the western slopes near Cisco Grove under 4 feet of snow within 24 hours. The rapid buildup caused a massive snowslide near Emigrant Gap, burying Central Pacific Railroad’s tracks under 75 feet of snow and rock. Racing to the scene, a repair train smashed into a stalled passenger car, nearly killing several occupants asleep in their berths.

For three weeks the storms raged. Powerful avalanches caused by the continuous heavy snowfall destroyed miles of snowshed and blockaded the vital trans-Sierra train route. Shattered structural timbers and large boulders incapacitated the train plow and created the need for hired laborers to shovel the tracks by hand.

For three days during the middle of the month, 2 feet fell every 24 hours, completely inundating Truckee. By the third week of April, with the town buried under 16 feet of new snow and the ice measuring 10 feet thick on Donner Lake, the Truckee Republican newspaper proclaimed the storm to be unequaled in living memory.

Fighting the worst weather in 13 years of operating over the Sierra, Central Pacific maintained a frantic pace trying to keep the tracks clear. Rushing to a snowshed cave-in, a special plow train manned by 80 men jumped the icy rails at high speed, ripping through hundreds of feet of snowshed timber. Amazingly, no one was hurt. Later that same day, fate was kind again when a large avalanche overran a stranded train, sweeping five freight cars into a deep chasm but missing several occupied passenger cars.

As the storms churned on without a break, the snow reached incredible depths. More than 20 feet of it covered the ground at Sugar Pine Point on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe. Resident John McKinney measured 201 inches of snow that month. Several massive avalanches as much as half a mile wide roared into the Truckee River canyon, destroying houses and temporarily damming the rushing waters of the Truckee.

Travel in the mountains became a life and death struggle as the snowstorms continued their assault. After making his scheduled delivery to Tahoe City, Truckee mailman John Hyslop became besieged at Lake Tahoe by blowing and drifting snow. After three frustrating days of waiting out the storm, he grew determined to return to Truckee, daring to challenge the elements. Sinking to his knees despite skis 11 feet long, his perilous journey over avalanche paths took two days owing to snow 12 feet deep on the roadway.

As May approached, the weather finally cleared, leaving a snowpack nearly 31 feet deep. Donner Summit received almost 67 feet of snow that winter, and more than one-third of it fell in April. Those 25 feet of April snow is still the United States’ record for that month. It’s too late to save the ski season, but one final blast of winter would do wonders for our regional water deficits.


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 Check out his blog at, or read more Sierra Stories at