1938 | The Biggest Winter of All, Part I

1938 Tahoe City. | Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society

The winter of 1938 pummeled the Tahoe Sierra 80 years ago, but just like last season, forecasters and residents never saw it coming. Similar to 2016-17, the winter of 1938 started off with a mild, wet weather pattern that left little snow in the mountains. But even January 2017’s overwhelming snowfall was exceeded in 1938, when a barrage of intense, cold storms dumped nearly 29 feet of snow in just 14 days. The 819 inches – 68.3 feet – of snow measured near Donner Pass that year is still the greatest seasonal snowfall ever recorded there. The 68 inches of precipitation tallied in 1938 ranks No. 31 in the wettest winter category.

Most winters in the Tahoe region exhibit a roller coaster ride of sun and storm, with an eventual accumulation of about 34 feet of snow at Donner Summit’s 7,000-foot elevation. And, similar to last winter, 1938 opened with powerful atmospheric rivers that deluged the region with rain and high-elevation snow, followed by a surge of colder storms from the Gulf of Alaska.

Mild temperatures during the first portion of that winter stymied the development of an early season snowpack; an unusual start for a winter that would ultimately become the snowiest of record at Donner Pass.

Weather conditions were damp with warmer-than-normal temperatures during the fall months of 1937, but nothing really out of the ordinary. The term El Niño hadn’t been coined yet, but warmer sea-surface temperatures and a strong positive ENSO (El Niño and Southern Oscillation) atmospheric event were joining forces in the Pacific Ocean. Mild temperatures during the first portion of that winter stymied the development of an early season snowpack; an unusual start for a winter that would ultimately become the snowiest of record at Donner Pass. In contrast, 2017’s record-setting seasonal precipitation was influenced by a moderate-to-strong La Niña event, where sea temperatures are cooler than average.

It wasn’t until mid-December 1937 that the first major low-pressure system swept in off the ocean. It initially produced nearly 3 feet of snow on the higher peaks, but the snow changed to rain as the storm tapped subtropical moisture. Temperatures began to rise as did snow levels. One surge of moisture unloaded 5 inches of rain on Donner Pass in just 24 hours. Snow was relegated to elevations of 8,000 feet and above.

Driven by gale-force winds, the pelting rain transformed portions of trans-Sierra Highway 40 into a raging river and shut down all automobile traffic. Gullies and streams filled beyond capacity, and rushing water west of the Sierra crest ripped out 180 feet of train track near Emigrant Gap, temporarily terminating train travel, too.

Torrential rain drenched the Sierra for three days. The mass wasting of mountainsides wiped out power and telephone lines region wide. Rampaging water washed out the road connecting Tahoe City with Truckee. Blackwood Creek on Tahoe’s West Shore overflowed its banks, inundating industrialist Henry J. Kaiser’s $250,000 estate with more than 6 feet of mud and debris. Known as the father of modern American shipbuilding, Kaiser was just one of many wealthy entrepreneurs who owned elegant summer estates on the West Shore at Lake Tahoe. Conditions were even worse near South Lake Tahoe where a roaring wall of water swept down Glen Alpine Canyon near Fallen Leaf Lake carrying away homes and a long section of roadway.

Nearly 10 inches of rain fell in the Tahoe Basin, which raised the lake 9 inches in just 72 hours — a pretty impressive volume of water when you consider that just one-tenth of an inch from the lake is enough to supply 3.3 million Americans their daily water needs.

A fair and cold weather pattern followed the tropical deluge. It lasted for three weeks, which gave work crews the opportunity to repair roads, power and telephone lines. On Jan. 6, 1938, the Placerville Road between South Lake Tahoe and California was finally reopened after being closed 27 days by huge rock slides. The snowpack at Donner Pass was a paltry 11 inches, but winter was far from over and the worst was yet to come.

At the end of January, a deep low-pressure trough anchored itself off the Oregon Coast. Energized by the subpolar jet stream, it drew in cold unstable air from the Gulf of Alaska. This atmospheric pattern drove a barrage of much colder storms into northern California. These potent frontal systems hit the mountains hard and fast. Heavy snowfall combined with winds gusting to 100 mph at Donner Pass generated blizzard conditions. Winter may have arrived late, but this siege of extreme weather would last for the next 21 days.

As cold fronts pin-wheeled into the region, communities throughout the Sierra were inundated. Soda Springs at 7,000 feet was hammered with 28 inches of snow in just 12 hours. Higher elevations were buried with nearly 12 feet in less than a week. Blinding snow, avalanches and drifts reduced Highway 40 to staggered one-way traffic until it was finally closed for good. By Feb. 5, the snowpack at Donner Pass had ballooned to 16 feet.

More than 9 feet of snow in one week closed the road from Tahoe City to Truckee. At that point Tahoe City locals lost contact with their main supplier of fresh food, medicine, newspapers and mail. During the busy summer months, Southern Pacific Railroad operated the Lake Tahoe Railway for tourists heading to the lake. In the winter, however, when passengers were few and far between, the company used horse-drawn sleighs to haul mail, food and goods to Tahoe residents on the North and West Shores. The deep snow along the Truckee River proved an overwhelming obstacle for the horses. Even Tahoe City’s legendary dog-sled driving constable, Harry Johanson, failed to reach Truckee for supplies when his team of canines floundered in the bottomless powder.

Travel by boat around Lake Tahoe was possible, but there was virtually no way to escape the basin. Suffering from cabin fever, a Mr. Morris took a boat from Zephyr Cove to Tahoe City. He wrote: “I have spent some time at sea, but I never saw such conditions as existed on Lake Tahoe. The boat was covered in ice as the waves piled over us. Visibility was so poor that all of the steering was done by compass, but we arrived safely.” He reported snow so deep on Tahoe’s West Shore, “that it was barely possible to see the third story dormers of Chamber’s Lodge.” By Valentine’s Day, it was nearly 20 feet deep at Donner Pass — and still snowing.

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com