Sixty years ago, an intense winter storm trapped 226 people aboard the City of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevada mountains
Published: January 10, 2002
Sixty years ago, on January 13, 1952, the streamlined transcontinental passenger train City of San Francisco encountered a raging blizzard with 90-mph wind gusts and snow drifts 8 to 12 feet deep that marooned the train high in the snow-swept Sierra Nevada mountains of California.
A helicopter view of the westbound City of San Francisco buried in snow on Donner Pass.
Photo by Doug Wornom collection
Rescue crews worked around the clock to reach the stranded streamliner, but the storm proved too much for the men and their snow-fighting machines.
For three days, the 226 passengers and crew were trapped aboard the train. This is the story of the heroic efforts by the Southern Pacific Railroad to free train No. 101 from "the Hill."
Day 1, Sunday Jan. 13 - Snowbound
Intense winter storms and record snowfalls are commonplace on Donner Pass, Southern Pacific's route through the Sierras. Since its discovery in 1844, the mountain passageway has claimed its share of victims, including the party of settlers after whom the pass was named. (For more information on the Donner party, see the note at the end of this story.)
But in January 1952, even Southern Pacific's big steam-driven rotary snowplows, Jordan spreaders, and flangers were hard-pressed to keep the Sacramento Division's Mountain District open.
Rather than shut down the line, SP management made the decision to run its priority trains behind rotary plows dispatched to keep the route open. The westbound City of San Francisco, a streamliner jointly operated by Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Chicago & North Western, pulled up to the snowsheds at Norden - the top of the grade at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet - and waited.
The train would run west from Norden on the eastward track some 15 miles to Crystal Lake. There it would cross over to the westward track. This was the same route used by the previous day's City of San Francisco, which had stalled on the westbound main in a snow slide 10 miles from Norden, then was dragged back to the summit and sent down the Hill on the eastward track.
Just after 11:30 a.m., the passenger train, powered by three Alco PA locomotives with 15 cars, headed west into a furious snowstorm. At 12:15 p.m., the train hit two massive snow slides between Crystal Lake and Emigrant Gap at Milepost 176.6, an area called Smart Ridge. In lead unit No. 6019, engineer Tom Sapunor and fireman Gordon Painter tried to back up the train, but the City of San Francisco was half-buried and held captive in the Sierra storm.
At first, passenger spirits remained high. They sang songs like "I've been working on the railroad" and "California here I come," and joked about the situation. But as daylight turned to darkness, anxiety heightened aboard the train.
Roadmaster J. T. Fulbright had been aboard the train and hiked half a mile through the storm to a phone at Yuba Pass, where he alerted the railroad of the passenger train's condition. Relief rotary snowplows and heavy Mallet steam engines were immediately called from Norden and Emigrant Gap, 6 miles downgrade from train No. 101.
One of Southern Pacific's rotary snowplows involved in the rescue effort, seen outside Emigrant Gap where it ran out of fuel.
Photo by Southern Pacific
An attempt was made to couple onto the rear of the streamliner using rotary No. 7222 and cab-forward 4-8-8-2 Mallet No. 4188 and pull the stranded train free. The rotary plow and Mallet, dispatched east from Emigrant Gap, rolled past the train on the eastbound main, which was protected from the snow slide by two tunnels, then crossed over at Crystal Lake. They got within two car lengths of the streamliner's rear, and had to dig the rest of the way by hand. The cab-forward coupled to the rear of the train, but any further rescue attempt failed when the rotary suffered a broken air pump and derailed on ice.
Another rescue attempt was tried with rotary No. 7205 and Mallet No. 4245. That crew reached the front of the streamliner. But when they tried to pull the train free, it wouldn't budge.
The strong mountain wind, which at times reached 100 mph, continued to blow sheets of snow down the canyon, covering the train. By evening the outside temperature was 22 degrees above zero, and the snow depth was 206 inches.
Day 2, Monday Jan. 14 - Donner Pass closed
In San Francisco, Southern Pacific officials continued to monitor weather bulletins and a coordinated rescue effort. The evening before, a caboose hop carrying 35 section men reached the streamliner. They attempted to begin digging out the train by hand.
By early Monday, the rotary plows were working from both directions to reach train No. 101, but the terrible storm produced another tragedy when an avalanche fell on rotaries 7207 and 7208, killing engineer Rolland Raymond. Both the eastward and westward main tracks on Donner Pass were covered by snowdrifts, with four rotary plows either buried in snow or mechanically out of service.
No. 101's Alco diesels continued to run, providing steam-generated heat, but eventually the onboard water supply for the locomotives' boilers was depleted and the train was without heat.
By late Monday, Southern Pacific had made arrangements with the Sixth Army Headquarters in San Francisco for three Army snow "Weasels," as well as doctors, medical supplies, food, fuel for the snow fighting equipment, and army personnel to travel by convoy to Colfax, Calif.
From Colfax, the equipment was loaded aboard work train Extra No. 6236 East. The plan was to have the F-unit-powered extra follow rotary No. 7209, plowing the eastbound main on Tuesday. However, the rotary ran out of fuel and water while plowing into the 10-foot drifts, and had to return to a siding at Gold Run.
Southern Pacific section workers, who cleared out switches and tracks by hand, were at the front lines of the rescue effort.
Photo by Southern Pacific
Because of the delayed plowing progress, SP decided to unload the Weasels and have them try to get through to No. 101 with medical supplies and food. Unfortunately the Weasels could not operate well in the soft snow cover, and the Army informed SP officials their plan would not work.
Meanwhile, a group of volunteer skiers enlisted by the SP reached the train Monday night with a small amount of food and medical supplies.
Day 3, Tuesday Jan. 15 - Onboard conditions worsen
Southern Pacific section men from Crystal Lake had managed to carry a portable generator to the train to help recharge the passenger cars' batteries. However, by Tuesday carbon monoxide fumes from the generator was seeping into the cars and many passengers became ill. The generator was immediately turned off and the cars vented. Drapes from the car windows and bedding and pillowcases from the sleepers were used to wrap passengers' legs for extra warmth.
Meanwhile, conditions aboard the train worsened. Water in the pipes froze, and the cars' batteries ran very low, so most of the cars had no lights. Because the water supply was low, most toilets could not be flushed. Latrine patrols were set up using buckets, and passengers had to take turns using the toilets.
In addition, the dining car was running low on food, so chief steward Edward Tschumi began to ration food, saving milk for the children. The coal supply in the dining car stove also ran low, so wooden ladders from the sleepers and card tables from the club car were used as firewood.
One of the passengers on board No. 101 was Dr. Walter Roehll, a medical doctor from Ohio who was accompanying a patient to San Francisco. For Roehll, the ordeal meant 72 hours of almost continuous work tending to ill passengers. Luckily, he had a small amount of medication and penicillin in his doctor's bag, as three passengers developed upper respiratory infections. Five registered nurses also traveling on the train assisted Roehll with the sick passengers.
A Pacific, Gas & Electric Sno-Cat, the only machine that could cross the drifts and snowbanks in the high Sierras.
Photo by PG&E news bureau
A relief train was sent west from Reno, Nev., with dog sleds, supplies, and a medical doctor. It was to follow rotary No. 7210 and Mallet No. 4173 west from Norden, but ice on the rail sent the rotary off the tracks west of Soda Springs. The doctor and supplies continued to the train on a dog sled, assisted by skiers and a Pacific Gas & Electric Company Sno-Cat.
So far the storm had taken its toll on the Southern Pacific, with one engineer killed, four rotary plows buried in snow, and the City of San Francisco's 226 passengers and crew still trapped in the mountains. SP officials and workers were frustrated as they continued to face one obstacle after another in their attempts to rescue No. 101.
Day 4, Wednesday Jan. 16 - Rescue train
On Wednesday, the storm finally subsided. SP rotary No. 7220, brought in from the Portland Division - the oldest and last one running in the fleet - plowed west from Colfax to a highway overpass west of Emigrant Gap, near the site of the Nyack Lodge.
A Coast Guard helicopter with a doctor, medical supplies, and food attempted to fly from Colfax to the train, but high winds at Yuba Pass prevented the helicopter from landing. The supplies were then dropped to the train.
The California Highway Department opened U.S. Highway 40 to the Nyack Lodge at Emigrant Gap. At 3:20 p.m., the passengers aboard No. 101 were led to the highway, then driven by private automobiles 5 miles to Nyack Lodge. There, SP officials had made arrangements to have everyone fed and encouraged passengers to send telegrams to their families. Southern Pacific made sure all passengers' needs were met, and because of the railroad's tremendous rescue efforts to reach the stranded train, passenger claims against the SP were minimal.
Passengers carefully make their way alongside the ice-encrusted streamliner on their way to safety.
Photo by Southern Pacific
The passengers then boarded a special rescue train comprised of eight Pullman sleepers, two fully stocked dining cars, a club car and a coach, led by four F7 diesels. The rescue train, with Southern Pacific doctors and volunteer nurses aboard, had followed rotary No. 7220 east from Colfax. The special departed Emigrant Gap at 8:30 p.m. and arrived in Roseville, Calif., at 11:40 p.m., where most of the section men and train crew departed. The train continued on to Oakland, arriving Thursday morning at 3:41 a.m.
For the passengers aboard the City of San Francisco, the ordeal was finally over.
Day 5, Thursday Jan. 17 - Digging out No. 101
Beginning Thursday, approximately 300 Southern Pacific laborers, bulldozers, and the big hook crane were brought in to extricate the stranded streamliner. The crane and bulldozers pulled the three PA diesels free, then the bulldozers pulled out the cars, a few at a time, as well as the snowbound rotary plows. The streamliner, rotaries, and Mallets were not completely removed until January 19.
The snowstorm that buried the City of San Francisco was very costly for the Southern Pacific, both in overtime wages paid to crews and damage to the rolling stock. Freezing water ruined all the water lines on the engines and cars. The roller bearing trucks on the cars had to be replaced because of corrosion, and most of the cars needed new woodwork, drapes, and curtains. The passenger cars were sent to the Pullman Company's car repair shops in Richmond, Calif., while the locomotives went to SP's Sacramento Shops for overhaul.
The storm also wreaked havoc on the railroad's communication and signal lines over Donner Pass. SP signal maintainers were called in from other parts of the railroad to make repairs before the line was operational. Snow blown into the entrances of tunnels and snowsheds had to be dug out. Dynamite was used to blast away ice formations that blocked the tracks in places.
A rotary plow seen clearing a path near Emigrant Gap ahead of the rescue train on the afternoon of Jan. 16.
Photo by Southern Pacific
Another blizzard struck on January 22. Normal operations did not return until January 26, some 13 days after the City of San Francisco first became stranded.
The Southern Pacific had battled three days of hellacious events, including gale-force winds, deep snow, freezing temperatures, avalanches, and the loss of life and equipment to rescue the passenger train.
SP President Donald Russell praised the entire railroad's efforts during the three-day ordeal and said, "The storm will write another epic chapter in the history of the Southern Pacific Railroad."
This article is a summary of events aboard the City of San Francisco, January 13, 1952. For a more detailed account of this true story read "Snowbound Streamliner" by Robert Church (Signature Press).
The Donner party
The story of Southern Pacific's snowbound City of San Francisco has similarities to that of the Donner Party of 1846 - arguably the most famous of the early emigrant groups to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The party was comprised of men, women, elderly, and children, led by Illinois farmers George and Jacob Donner. Approximately 90 wagons departed Springfield, Ill., in April 1846, in plenty of time to make the mountainous crossing before winter.
However, they took a "short cut" along the south shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, then into Nevada, and this proved to be their fatal error. They lost much time, suffered through desert conditions, and arrived at the base of the Sierras late.
Already out of provisions, and facing problems with sick animals and broken-down wagons, the beleaguered settlers chose to press forward through the mountains, where they encountered an early snow. Demoralized, the party was forced to endure the winter in tents at Truckee Lake (which was later renamed Donner Lake).
Most of them did not have the will, skill, or the knowledge to hunt or fish in the harsh environment. They had lost all their animals and were without food. Nearly half of the group starved to death. For those that didn't, the Donner Party stories of survival by boiling animal hides and even cannibalism are legendary.