- Historic Sites
Railroad In A Barn
Snowshed crews on the Central Pacific, battling blizzards and snowslides, built “the longest house in the world”
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
During the first years the Sierra lay relatively low. Little work was done in the mountains during the winters, but railroad men were on the scene. Although they were not much impressed by the Sierra storms, they did come to recognize that some little protection might be needed for the new track. Judah’s successor as chief engineer, S. S. Montague, first mentioned snowsheds in a report written in 1865, four years before the line was completed: The heavy snowfall in the vicinity of Summit, will render U necessary to provide a substantial protection, either of timber or masonry, to insure the successful and uninterrupted operation of the road during the winter months. … That portion of the line requiring this unusual protection does not exceed one hundred yards.
A hundred yards indeed! When they reached the high mountains the C. P. authorities saw what snow can be, and they began throwing up snowsheds with everything they had. By 1869, when the first through train made the first through trip, they were already completing nine miles of sheds, and they would build many more miles before they were through.
During the first summer, the transcontinental railroad was a proud success, at least at the western end. Trains ran without mishap. Then came winter, and the first snow. The railroad men had armed themselves with primitive plows, known as “buckers,” or “pushers,” or “pilot plows.” These were V-shaped wooden rams mounted on railroad wheels and driven by a string of locomotives. A bucker made an impressive sight as it drove into a snowbank with all the force of six to a dozen hard-puffing little engines. The idea was to clear as much track as possible at each drive, then back off and take another run at it. The trouble was that often the whole procession, except where the snow was light, chugged to an ignominious halt, with the plow itself, or some of the locomotives, derailed and helpless. Yet the buckers, and the partially completed snowsheds, were all the protection the railroad had.
That first winter offered only a hint of what the Sierra could do. A strong hint, perhaps. The fall months passed without major incident. By late January, 1870, the railroad men were breathing easy. Then on February 9, a mile above Emigrant Gap, California, an avalanche started high on the mountain, gathered trees and boulders and incredible quantities of snow, and piled on to the right of way, after sweeping a hundred feet of track and three hundred feet of the new snowsheds into the canyon below.
There was no going around, of course; there was nothing to do but stop the trains and clear the blockade. Bucker plows, men with shovels, and repair gangs were hurried into action. They had barely mobilized when a storm came up. Clinging to the hillside, the men shoveled as best they could. But the snow fell as fast as they could clear it, and the wind whipped up drifts that blocked the track all the way across the mountains. Transcontinental traffic was stopped dead, with a through passenger train stalled at Truckee, California, thoroughly snowed in.
Bucker plows and their crews attacked the blockade from both sides of the mountain, but they could make only slow headway. Four days after the slide, with the weather clear, they had managed to free only a few miles of track. Tivo days later they were still seven miles apart.
By this time the passengers stranded at Truckee were growing cold, hungry, and exasperated. Finally the Central Pacific officials sent men to dig out the snowbound train. It ran as far as the tracks had been cleared; then the conductor told the passengers to get out and walk. Some were poorly clothed for a hike through snowdrifts, but they made it. Men, women, and children, with railroad guides breaking the way, walked from station to station along the snow-buried track to Emigrant Gap, occasionally through snowsheds, occasionally in the open. There, a train from the valley picked them up and carried them on down to Sacramento. It was nine days after the slide before through trains were running again, and during that time successive hundreds of passengers were forced to walk decreasing distances from train to train.
That little taste of winter needled the C. P. officials into greater action, and as soon as the snow melted they turned to building snowsheds with a vengeance. Expert workmen were scarce in California, so the railroad imported scores of Canadian woodsmen. Sawmills were set up in the forests along the right of way, and the track between Blue Canyon, on the western slope, and Andover, on the east, buzzed with the sounds of carpentry during those summers. It was one oF the hip-pest barn-buildiner bees of all time.
The weather god of the Sierra regarded all this activity with what could have been an amused smile, for the C. P. designers were showing themselves novices at fighting snow. Their peaked-roof shed, like a big “A” straddling the track, left a space between shed and mountainside. When winter came, the Sierra summoned up its blizzards to pack snow tight m this space. During the cold weather no snow reached the track. But then came spring.