The Central Sierra Snow Laboratory near Donner Pass averages 48 inches of snow in November — just 12 percent of the median annual snowfall for that location — since Southern Pacific Railroad began taking measurements in 1879. It’s not uncommon for terrain to be limited by a lack of natural cover this early in the season, making snowmaking systems a critical tool at this time of year. Sierra winters have been trending drier early in the season with more of the storm action coming later. A significant portion of winter precipitation in this region is delivered by a half-dozen or so atmospheric rivers that wallop us with intense rain and snow.
In November and December 1910, mountain loggers were hoping for early rain to increase the seasonally low river flow for floating timber to Truckee’s sawmills. Workers in the ice-harvesting industry wished for extended cold temperatures to freeze their ponds for cutting. And residents and downtown businesses in Truckee were looking for enough snow to bring tourists and money to their annual Ice Carnival. Erratic, early-season weather conditions pleased no one. It’s a truism that the most predictable aspect of California’s climate is its unpredictability.
The winter of 1910-11 was also a late starter with little to no snow accumulation on Donner Pass into January. But the storm door blew open on Jan. 11 with a potent atmospheric river event. Heavy snow pummeled downtown Truckee, sometimes at the rate of 12 inches per hour. The howling winds and incessant snowfall shut down lumberjack operations, cut off the commercial ice harvest and brought Truckee’s popular winter carnival to an abrupt halt.
It’s a truism that the most predictable aspect of California’s climate is its unpredictability.
The snow overwhelmed Southern Pacific Railroad crews and paralyzed train traffic. Dangerous avalanches between Boca and Donner Pass forced the railroad to hold all westbound trains in Reno, Nev. One passenger train was stranded near the summit for 30 hours in drifts 20 feet deep. Stalled trains littered the tracks for miles and 300 feet of wooden snow shed near Truckee collapsed under the weight of snow.
Communication between California and Nevada was lost when the storm knocked out all telegraph and telephone lines over the Sierra. Finally, the six-day blizzard subsided, leaving snow 7 feet deep in Truckee with all roads blocked and schools closed. The few trains pushing through the snow-choked mountains were running up to 50 hours late. It had been the longest and most intense storm since 1890, a Top 10 winter for snowfall.
For three days skies were clear and Truckee residents and railroad crews had a chance to dig out, but the break was short-lived. For the next two weeks, Pacific cold fronts charged onshore, increasing the snowpack to 18 feet on Donner Summit. On Jan. 30, an avalanche at the Prosser Creek ice plant buried six men who were shoveling a roof. Co-workers began digging immediately, but three men were killed in the slide.
A relatively dry February brought relief from the onslaught with only 53 inches snow recorded on Donner Pass that month. But harsh conditions continued to take a toll. In Plumas County, a Western Pacific passenger train carrying 60 people was stranded for nearly a week. Crews tried to dig out the train, but an avalanche killed one workmen and convinced railroad officials to abandon the site. Anxious passengers had to struggle over the deadly snow slide and then board maintenance handcars for a ride to safety.
Despite sobering headlines, Truckee continued to promote its winter carnival activities. California and Nevada newspapers carried advertisements for weekend excursions to Truckee, where participants could enjoy ice skating, sledding, tobogganing, skiing, evening dances and organized snowball fights. Sled-dog races were popular and rigs could be hired to carry tourists to Tahoe City for spectacular views of the lake. Southern Pacific had spent $500,000 beefing up its snow removal equipment, so despite occasional delays, passengers could be fairly certain of reaching their destination safely — if not always on time.
In early March, a moisture-packed storm tore into the region. A prominent Sacramento weather forecaster proclaimed it the worst in 40 years. Whipped by gale-force winds, heavy snow pounded the Sierra into submission. All train traffic was suspended. In Truckee, the snow became so deep that a tunnel was dug from the train depot across the main street to the businesses of Commercial Row. Donner Summit’s snowpack hit the unprecedented depth of 307 inches (25.5 feet).
As the snowpack neared its zenith at Lake Tahoe, it seemed the world came crashing down. Mr. Melver and his son were contracted mail carriers on the route between Lake Tahoe and Truckee throughout the winter. Skiing along the relatively safe ridge high above the Truckee River canyon, the men were suddenly caught in a giant avalanche and swept down toward the river. Cushioned by the snow, the men tumbled down 1,000 vertical feet; fortunately both survived this ride of a lifetime.
Nature was less forgiving on March 9, when after nine days of continuous snowfall, a series of powerful avalanches crashed down on the mining towns of Jordan and Lundy in the eastern Sierra near Mono Lake. The bombardment lasted two hours and killed 17 men and women, including a hermit who had lived on the mountain for 30 years. Three days later, rescuers miraculously discovered a woman who had been buried for 60 hours under snow and debris. Mrs. R.H. Mason, wife of the chief engineer of the wiped out Hydro Electric Power Co., was found in her bed, practically unhurt and thankful to be alive.
The snowfall total for 1911 on Donner Summit was 563 inches. That winter set benchmark weather records that have yet to be matched or exceeded. At Tamarack, 767 inches (64 feet) of snow fell that year with more than half falling in January alone. The current United States monthly snowfall record of 390 inches (32.5 feet) was set there during the January barrage. The greatest snow depth ever measured in California, 451 inches (37.6 feet), was recorded on March 11, 1911, also at Tamarack, located in Alpine County at 8,000 feet.
On March 13, the snowpack at Spooner Summit measured 22.5 feet deep, the all-time record snow depth for Nevada. Remember, a late start is no barrier to a big winter.