History: The aerodynamic snow-covered passenger train of 1952

An aerial view of the San Francisco city train journey in 1952.
Truckee-Donner Historical Society

January 13, 1952 was the third day of a major winter storm in the Sierra, with 100 mph winds and blowing snow. For the crew of San Francisco’s luxury diesel-powered passenger train, it wasn’t a typical day on “the Hill,” but it wasn’t unprecedented either.

The previous day’s town had been halted by a snowslide about 10 miles west of Donner Summit, brought back to Norden by a cabin-forward steam engine and sent down the eastbound track to complete its journey to Sacramento . Two other cabs ahead with rotary plows sent to clear the westbound tracks had derailed and were still blocking the westbound track, so today’s profile would have to follow the same detour.

At 11:23 a.m., veteran engineer Tom Sapunor pulled the 3-unit diesel out of the snow-covered Norden siding and along the eastbound tracks. The train crawled through a canyon of ice and snow to Crystal Lake, about 15 miles west of Donner Summit, where it crossed the westbound track. Wedge plows and rotary machines had been constantly working to clear the tracks throughout the storm, but as the town hugged the open ridge en route to Yuba Pass, it pushed through 6 to 12 feet of snow drift. The motors strained against the load, but the train slowed and then stopped. Sapunor reversed the motors to back up, but the train was stuck – unable to move in either direction, its wheels rapidly freezing on the track.

In 1952, most trains did not yet have two-way radios. Between the stations, the train crews were alone. When the town became jammed, roadmaster JT Fulbright, who had gotten into the taxi with Sapunor and fireman Gordon Painter, put on his boots and coat and trudged through the snow to Yuba Pass. There he was able to phone for help, and before long the front cab #4188 was en route from Emigrant Gap with a rotary plow. 4188 cleared the eastbound track ahead of the frozen train, crossed the westbound track at Crystal Lake, and returned to town. There, the crew hand shoveled the last feet between the trains, hitched up and tried to work the snow-covered profile up the hill. It wouldn’t move. Then an air pump failed on the attached rotary plow and it couldn’t work anymore.

Forward cabin #4245 and another rotary plow headed east from Norden past the profile. 4245 crossed at Emigrant Gap and returned to the blocked city front. The tracks were now at least temporarily clear, but the train was still frozen and now half covered in blowing snow. More power was needed to pull back towards the town and liberate it.

For most of the 226 passengers and crew, that first snowy afternoon was an adventure. There was plenty of food and the train’s diesel steam generators kept the pipes thawed and the heating system running. A doctor on board took care of anyone with medical problems. Conductor Clyde Baldwin and Conductor RD Spence kept passengers informed of the rescue efforts, and morale remained high.

The morning of January 14 was extremely cold and the blizzard was raging. Forward cabin #4245, with its rotating plow pointing east, backed onto the westbound lanes toward Emigrant Gap to clear the way for additional engines to drive to the profile and free it from the ice . Midway, #4245 itself was stopped by a massive drift. Another cab at the front, sandwiched between two rotary plows, rolled down the eastbound lanes of Norden, but was hit by an avalanche and one of the rotary overturned. Engineer Rolland Raymond was buried under the overturned plow and killed.

The westbound lanes were now blocked on both sides of the stranded streamline, and the eastbound lane was also blocked. It became clear that the city of San Francisco was not going anywhere anytime soon, and getting passengers to safety was the top priority. The army loaded tracked “weasels” onto flatcars and tried to reach the train from Emigrant Gap, but the weasels floundered in the wet snow. PG&E’s Sno-Cat managed to carry some supplies, but lacked the capacity to get 226 people out.

The city’s steam and heat generators went out that night. The front of cabin No. 4188, still stuck behind the train, resumed heating work, with the crew shoveling snow into their boilers to generate steam. The snow-clogged exhausts of the Pullman cars caused carbon monoxide to build up inside the train, and at least 30 passengers had to be rescued from locked sleeping compartments and carried to fresh air. Fortunately, there were no deaths.

It was still snowing on the 15the, but there were breaks in the storm. A dog sled team carrying Truckee doctor Larry Nelson met the PG&E Sno-Cat and was taken to the train, and four passengers requiring medical attention were evacuated. Additional food and supplies were dropped by helicopter. A rescue train had traveled to Colfax, and the Highway Department (predecessor to Caltrans) was making progress in clearing Highway 40. A crew of section workers worked day and night with shovels digging up the passenger cars and clear a quarter mile path. down the steep side of the mountain to Highway 40.

Despite the progress, tensions and frustrations rose inside the train as the heat from the steam ran out, battery-powered lights went out, pipes froze and toilets filled. When temperatures inside the train dropped, passengers wrapped themselves in tablecloths and window curtains.

A reporter and a photographer went to the train on skis and reported on the rescue operation and the welfare of the passengers. Accounts of the unfolding drama were reprinted in newspapers across America. Some included vague allusions to the Donner Party, several of which had perished not far from the streamer’s location over 100 years earlier.

January 16 dawned clear and cold. The shovelers had completed the packed snow trail down the hill to Highway 40, which the highway department had opened early that morning. Highways Department vehicles and private cars from Nyack Lodge crawled down the road and waited to take the evacuated passengers to safety. Bundled up in blankets and their faces covered in pillowcases pierced with holes for their eyes, the weary passengers made their way down the slippery path to the waiting vehicles. A few had to be transported, but no one was seriously ill or injured. At 8:50 p.m., all passengers were on board the rescue train and it departed for San Francisco.

South Pacific crews worked for three days before the city of San Francisco was finally freed from the ice by Caterpillar tractors owned by Sacramento-area contractors. Another storm on the 22ndn/a closed the mountain. It’s only the 27the that operations have returned to normal.

Some have wondered if the events of January 1952 could be repeated in a current “perfect storm”. Amtrak engines, while more automated and more reliable than the 1952 diesel engines, weren’t much different in their ability to plow through snow. Union Pacific still uses rotary plows to battle the biggest storms in the Sierra, and they only have two in service today compared to the six that battled the ’52 storm. Climate change has made the Sierra warmer and drier overall, but according to recent studies it has also increased the likelihood of “megastorms” which could include epic snowfalls.

The most important factor that probably makes a modern “failed rational” scenario unlikely is that today’s passenger trains are not the critical transportation systems they were in the 1950s, and Amtrak can afford to be much more conservative in terms of dangerous weather cancellations. As an example, the California Zephyr between Reno and Sacramento was canceled twice due to storms during Christmas week 2021. Additionally, I-80 is rarely closed for more than a few hours, so if a train from travelers became stranded, evacuation via the highway would be an immediate option.

About the Author:

Daniel Cobb is a model railroader, amateur historian and volunteer with the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and a passionate historian of our railroad history. He lives in Tahoe Vista.

Jose P. Rogers