Winter 1874 Challenged Transcontinental Railroad

A 1874 Bucker plow at work. | Courtesy Nevada Historical Society

During the month of May this year, communities across the western United States will be celebrating the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the completion of the world’s first transcontinental railroad in 1869. For many of these cities and towns, the railroad was their sole reason to exist in the beginning. But railroad commerce and activity solidified and expanded their footprint on the map and those that survived are now permanent and thriving. In the 1870s, the isolated town of Truckee, which received its moniker when the railroad came through in 1868, shipped more freight than any other point on the Central Pacific line.

The chugging locomotives riding that shiny ribbon of steel that promised year-round travel across the country in safety and comfort were more problematic in the mountains west of Truckee.

Truckee has activities, lectures and interpretive walks planned throughout this spring, summer and fall. Truckee Donner Historical Society and Donner Summit Historical Society, along with the Truckee Donner Railroad Society, have put out a call for local artists of any age for artwork to brand the official logo for this Golden Spike celebration.

The transcontinental railroad represented a transportation revolution for the country that stitched the U.S. together coast to coast. The epic engineering project had been delayed for years due to obstructionist politics in Congress based on tensions over the issue of slavery between Northern and Southern states. The polarized parties could not even agree on which route the track should take in its path across the country, along with other issues. Secession by Southern states in 1861 offered President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to sign the 1862 Pacific Railway Act authorizing federal loans and land grants for the massive construction project, as well as financial support for the first transcontinental telegraph line.

When the transcontinental railroad was finally completed on May 10, 1869, promoters stated that — unlike the Donner Party — instead of taking months to cross just the western two-thirds of the country, New Yorker’s could ride to San Francisco in about 10 days. It was an incredible leap forward that would only be exceeded by aviation more than half a century later. But the chugging locomotives riding that shiny ribbon of steel that promised year-round travel across the country in safety and comfort were more problematic in the mountains west of Truckee.

During the winter of 1874, 145 years ago, severe winter conditions between Donner Pass and Blue Canyon shut down the line for days at a time. Despite heroic snow removal work by hundreds of Central Pacific Railroad crews, the blinding blizzards confirmed that safe and comfortable travel could never be guaranteed in the stormy Tahoe Sierra.

Unlike many big winters that often open with early season snowstorms, the winter of 1874 did not get started in earnest until the first week of December. But for the next four months the Storm King relentlessly battered the mountains. The first of many potent and cold Gulf of Alaska storms slammed northern California beginning on Dec. 2. Freezing temperatures plummeted to sea level after the frontal passage and in a rare event nearly 6 inches of the white stuff blanketed Petaluma, Vallejo and other coastal valley locations. Temperatures were the lowest in memory for residents in San Francisco, where fortunately most of the snow melted as it hit the ground. The storm pounded the Tahoe Sierra with deep snow. Five feet fell in Truckee and on the shoreline of Lake Tahoe, raising Big Blue’s level 6 inches in just two days — more than 19 billion gallons of water.

On Jan. 8, 1874, the Truckee Republican newspaper reported: “Nature has been acting wildly for several days past, and yesterday in particular it turned out the worst weather that has been manufactured in this vicinity in the memory of the earliest inhabitant.” Recently shoveled walkways from the saloons and businesses on Truckee’s Commercial Row to the railroad depot were re-filled with snow. Billowing drifts across the railroad tracks blocked freight and passenger trains. The town had no communication with the outside world due to downed telegraph lines at multiple points between Reno and Sacramento.

For several days residents were snowbound because roads in all directions were buried and impossible for horse-drawn sleighs to travel. The work of breaking open roads through the drifts was tedious, tiresome and expensive. On Jan. 21, George Schaffer took charge of opening the road from Truckee to his sawmill in Martis Valley, about 4 miles away. Schaffer, sometimes called the “Father of Truckee,” had co-founded the area’s first sawmill and built, owned and operated the town’s first water system. Schaffer engaged a crew of men with shovels and an 11-yoke team of oxen to bulldoze through the drifts. Simultaneously, road breakers with oxen were shoveling their way from Brockway Hot Springs at Lake Tahoe toward Truckee. It took them eight days to forge a passage 14 miles long. To top it off, the temperature sunk to 30 degrees below zero in Truckee on Jan. 24.

By March the snow was nearly 10 feet deep and clearing roads took up to 40 yoke of oxen, meaning 80 of the beasts harnessed together. But conditions were worse in the higher elevations and as strong storms continued to pummel the region through February and March railroad men were reeling from the onslaught. Through Herculean efforts, Central Pacific crews managed to keep trains moving through the Sierra. They were aided by wedge-shaped Bucker plows pushed at high speed into the drifts by four to 10 engines depending on the depth. They were effective at the time — powerful rotary snowplow technology was still 15 years away — but the Buckers frequently derailed.

There’s a classic story from the winter of 1874 that I published in my book, “Western Train Adventures: Romance, Robberies & Wrecks,” about Truckee Republican editor Charles McGlashan’s frightful ride on a Bucker snowplow. The train derailed at high speed throwing McGlashan under the wheels of a locomotive, but he miraculously survived with only a small tear in his overcoat.

Another weapon against the relentless snowfall were the miles and miles of wooden snowsheds that Central Pacific had constructed over the tracks in the heaviest snowbelt zone. The sheds held up that winter for the most part, protecting the right-of-way from snow and avalanches.

It’s impossible to know how much snow fell that winter because Central Pacific Railroad didn’t start measuring it until 1879, but there’s little doubt it was a monster season. The railroad crews were overwhelmed at times, but they never gave up and they broke blockade after blockade to keep rail service running.