Blizzard of January 1952 - 100s Trapped on Train

At the start of 1952, a major blizzard engulfed Lake Tahoe and the Sierra, shutting down Interstate 40 (precursor to I-80) for 30 days straight.

Not only was the vital transcontinental highway closed for a month, but a luxury train was stopped cold in the mountains with 226 passengers and crew onboard. The event was major news at the time as the pictures at the bottom of this story tell.

The City of San Francisco was the pride of the Southern Pacific train fleet. At its inauguration on January 2, 1938, the state-of- the-art passenger train was deemed the "world's most superlative train." She consisted of deluxe sleepers and coaches loaded with amenities, and she had motive power supplied by six 900-horsepower engines. A technological marvel in engineering, the train was proclaimed the "the largest, fastest, most beautiful, powerful, and luxurious streamliner ever designed." (The description reminded one of the "unsinkable" luxury ocean liner, Titanic of 1912!)

The elegant $2 million train took transcontinental travel to a whole new level in terms of speed and comfort. It made five round trips each month between Oakland and Chicago, hurtling the distance between the Windy City and the Golden Gate in less than 40 hours at speeds exceeding 100 mph.

The Fateful Day in January 1952
On Sunday, January 13, 1952, the City of San Francisco rammed into a deep snow slide east of Yuba Gap, about 20 miles west of Donner Pass. When engineers put the train into to reverse to escape, the steel wheels slipped on the icy track. Nobody panicked. After all, the luxury train was more powerful and better equipped than any other train on the line. Among the 196 travelers on board were representatives bound for a Republican National Committee meeting in San Francisco and soldiers bound for the Korean War. No one really expected to be stopped by a mere snow slide very long.

Hours Pass
However, the passengers' laissez-faire attitude turned slowly to anger when they were still snowbound 24 hours later. The wind was fierce, howling at speeds in excess of 90 mph and snow drifts towered 20 to 30 feet outside the frosty windows. Many feared it would be just a matter of time before another avalanche would shove the entire train into the steep ravine next to the train. Mid-day Monday, 30 hours into the ordeal and no rescue in sight, the supply of diesel fuel ran out. When the power quit, the passenger compartments were pitched into a cold, eerie darkness._

Rescue Parties
Even as the blizzard raged on, SP rescue trains were inching their way closer from both east and west toward the stranded streamliner. One train carried dogsled teams. The Sixth Army trucked in Weasels (over-snow track vehicles) and soldiers trained in winter survival. Military doctors and nurses were rushed to likely rescue points near the stranded train. During a brief lull in the storm, a Coast Guard helicopter managed to drop medical supplies and food.

At one point, an avalanche struck a rotary snowplow manned by engineer Rolland Raymond of Sacramento and he was killed. Another rescuer, 36-year-old Jay Gold, died of a heart attack from his exertions.

Storm Stops (Finally)
When the deadly storm broke on January 16, relief parties rushed in for the rescue. The cold and weary passengers hobbled to safety along the tracks while the sick and weak were tobogganed or carried on stretchers. Miraculously, all 226 passengers and crew survived their three-day ordeal on the snowbound train.

Record Blizzard
Nearly 13 feet of snow had blasted the region that week. The storm of January 1952 dumped nearly 65 feet of snow on Donner Summit and the snow pack itself reached 26 feet deep, the greatest depth ever recorded there.

Photos Below
#1: Lead locomotives buried in deep Sierra snow. #2: Army Weasels transported to rescue staging area on flatbed railroad cars. #3: Emergency access road bulldozed for rescue automobiles. #4: Rotary snowplow clearing Interstate 40 in late January 1952. Dynamite was used to loosen the packed snow. Photo by Robert Gerdel.

Photos and story by Mark McLaughlin, Tahoe weather historian, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.

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