The Sierra’s Snowiest Winter

Drought-busting seasons come along every so often (we could use one now), but even after 110 years, the epic winter of 1906-07 continues to reign as the snowiest on record in the Sierra Nevada. Powerful Pacific storms that year buried elevations above 8,000 feet with a snowpack that averaged 30 feet deep. California established its greatest seasonal snowfall total of 884 inches — more than 73 feet — at Tamarack, south of Lake Tahoe. In 2011, Alpine Meadows ski area tallied more than 70 feet on its upper mountain, but measurements at resorts are generally not included in official snowfall records.

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Downtown Truckee, circa 1907 | Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

The epic winter of 1907 was not entirely unexpected. On Dec. 14, 1906, the Reno Evening Gazette reported: “Weather Prophets in various sections of the country and Nevada have been foretelling a long, hard winter, beginning immediately after Thanksgiving.”

The two years before 1907 had been drier than normal, so in the fall of 1906, western farmers, ranchers and residents were hoping for a wet winter to break the drought and fill their rivers, lakes and reservoirs again. Long-range forecasts proclaimed by prognosticators were often wrong, but this time they got it right. True to predictions, heavy snow invaded the Tahoe Sierra on Nov. 21, 1906, the day before Thanksgiving. The storm was so cold that its northerly winds drove temperatures down to freezing in Los Angeles and San Diego. Snow fell near San Francisco and pond ice formed in Golden Gate Park.

In Nevada, the temperature fell to minus 11 degrees on Dec. 1 at San Jacinto in Elko County. Carson City reported a low of 5 degrees on Dec. 6. The cold snap forced residents to burn coal and wood around the clock. In many communities, fuel supplies dwindled rapidly in the bitter cold wave. When ongoing Sierra snowfall blocked the commercial woodcutter’s harvest, winter began to look grim indeed.

Powerful Pacific storms in the winter of 1906-07 buried elevations above 8,000 feet with a snowpack that averaged 30 feet deep.

On Dec. 11, a tremendous blizzard dumped nearly 4 feet of snow around Lake Tahoe in 24 hours. Hurricane-force wind gusts snapped power lines in the mountains and plunged Reno, Carson City and Virginia City into an eerie darkness. The next day, two seasoned Southern Pacific linemen, Peter Robinson and Fred Rogers, were ordered to find and repair the breaks in the mountains west of Reno. They finished their task near dusk and prepared to ski down, but the sun had set leaving a hard, icy crust on the snowpack. When Robinson began his descent, his long, single pole slipped from his grasp and he soon was hurtling at breakneck speed down the slope. Rogers sped recklessly after his friend. Nearing the bottom of the hill, both skiers aimed for a 20-foot-high snowdrift. Their impact buried them completely, but saved the pair from serious injury.

On New Year’s Eve, a blinding snowstorm and blustery wind was pummeling Tonopah, Nev., where the National Lightweight Boxing Championship was being held. The main event was a highly publicized prizefight between the reigning champ, pugilist Josephus Gans, and a feisty underdog challenger named “Kid” Herman. The Daily Nevada State Journal dubbed it the “First Fistic Battle in a Snowstorm.” To accommodate spectators, fight promoters erected a huge tent. The canvas arena withstood the buffeting wind and snow just fine, but attendance was poor due to the raging blizzard. With Gans rated a strong 10 to 4 favorite, few bettors were willing to put money on the overmatched opponent. Single-digit temperatures inside the tent forced grumbling sportswriters to wear thick gloves and Klondike overcoats while penning their stories. Shivering journalists hoped for a first-round knockout and quick end to their frigid assignment, but it took eight rounds before the champ finally knocked out The Kid.

Five days later in the mountains east of Gardnerville, Nev., two miners were trapped in an abandoned cabin where they had taken refuge. Chris Jepperson and Jack Reynolds had become isolated by 15-foot drifts and were stranded at the Winters Mine, located in the mountains east of Carson City. After three days snowbound without food, the men turned to their one possible savior – Jepperson’s cocker spaniel. They tied a written message around its neck, offered a few encouraging words and forced the dog out into the drifts to die or reach Gardnerville 20 miles away. The heroic canine struggled into town three days later and then it wandered around for two more days before someone noticed the emergency plea for help. Rescuers trailed the exhausted canine back into the mountains where they found Jepperson and Reynolds unconscious, but still alive.

Frigid temperatures combined with a lack of fuel closed schools in Northern Nevada, forcing parents to keep their children home in bed wrapped in quilts and blankets for warmth. H.M. Yerington, general manager of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, called on local men to dismantle the Union Bridge in Virginia City for the 200 cords of firewood it would yield. Nevada Governor John Sparks ordered emergency trainloads of coal from Southern Pacific’s fuel depot in Oakland. When the fuel arrived on Jan. 17, Gov. Sparks spent all night diverting shipments to suffering communities across the state.

In February, the jet stream drifted further north and the harsh weather and frigid temperatures moderated. The welcome respite didn’t last long, however, and March arrived roaring like a lion. Rain and snow fell every day that month except on the 14th and 15th and from the 28th to 31st. In Nevada, where the greatest monthly precipitation was 16.85 inches at Lewers’ Ranch in Washoe County, it was the wettest March on record. High Sierra locations got plastered with wet, heavy snow, which added another 8 feet to the near-record snowpack.

Despite the hardships and desolation, farmers and ranchers were happy that the drought had been broken and regional reservoirs were filled to the brim again. As always, behind newspaper headlines of disaster were stories that captured the stoic determination of those who call the volatile West home. During the spring flood, John Kleppe had to quickly evacuate his ranch outside Reno. A few days later, at the helm of a small wooden boat, Kleppe paddled back to his flooded house searching for his prized hunting dog. He found his cherished canine hungry but happy, relaxing on the family piano as it floated in the living room.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books, including his new book “Snowbound! Legendary Winters of the Tahoe Sierra,” are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

Read more about Tahoe’s winter history

The Great Sierra Snow Blockade, Part I

El Niño ’83: A monster winter, Part I

1895: A Top 10 Tahoe Winter