- 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
As the weather warmed, the snow began to melt, and water ran through cracks in the shed walls, seeping into the ground and loosening posts and braces, weakening the whole structure. Finally the hard-packed snow between shed and hill thawed, expanding in the process, and pushed the snowsheds completely out of line. Occasionally, the swelling snow toppled whole sections of shed over into the canyon.
The railroad men tried to meet the trouble by sending crews to shovel snow from one side of the shed to the other, to equali/e the pressure. This didn’t help much. The engineers decided it would be necessary to rebuild the entire structure, using a flat-roof design. The work was done in ensuing summers, each wrecked portion of the shed being replaced as the Sierra knocked it down. The new flat-roof shed was braced to carry tremendous weights of snow, and wherever there was space between shed wall and hillside, the roof was extended into the hill, so that snow could not pack between.
The new sheds stood up to the snow. There were a few corrections to be made—clearance had to be increased as locomotives grew bigger—but these were handled over the years in the course of normal repairs. The sheds stood intact, one great “barn” over the track, for more than fifty years before the railroad dared pull them down in places and leave the less troublesome sections of track to its new snowplows.
And how the public howled! Trainmen and railroad officials usually entered the damp, sooty darkness with distaste, but they were rather proud of the way they were whipping the mountain winters. They coidd do without the scenery.
Not so the travelers. Hardly had the first snowsheds been built when the outcry began. Passengers wrote letters to the newspapers (“provoking, to say the least,” was one comment) and the newspapers editorialized, criticizing “the railroad barons” for shutting out the magnificent mountain views. The railroad men made some effort to overcome the objections. In portions of the sheds they installed eye-level windows—four-foot squares of planking, removable in summer—and elsewhere they spaced the planks a couple of inches apart, to save lumber and incidentally to give the passengers a sort of dickering notion of the grandeur outside. In the higher mountains, they could not spare even a llicker; here the planks had to be fitted tight, lest whole drifts creep in through slits in the walls.
Ranging from hundreds during normal operations to thousands during construction peaks, snowshed employees developed a hierarchy all their own. At the top were the minor officials, running and maintaining the road under orders from division headquarters at Sacramento, and also the Olympian trainmen—conductors, engineers, firemen, and brakemen. Few of the trainmen lived in the sheds, since they operated from division points. But they deigned, sometimes, to Avave to the more humble maintenance workers as their trains passed through, and they even shared a meal, occasionally, in the railroad restaurants at the mountain depots.
These little stations, spaced ten miles or so apart and built right into the snoAvsheds, housed day and night telegraphers who operated signal devices, passed orders to the train crews as they came through, sold tickets on demand, and handled freight. Generally there was a section house, where the foreman lived with his wife and children. This too Avas built Avithin the sheds, and it included a bunkhouse and cookhouse for the half-dozen section laborers, Chinese at first, later Mexicans. These gandy dancers, needless to say, were at the bottom of the snowshed social scale.
Those railroad men Who had families—telegraphers, maintenance men, and others—lived generally in railroad houses, either under the sheds or connected with them by covered passages. Mountain mothers got their groceries by train from Sacramento, or, where demand was sufficient, from a stationary commissary car. Children had their vacations in the winter; schools operated in spring, summer, and fall. Youngsters from the smaller communities went to class through, the snowsheds by train.
Not all of those who worked in the snowsheds lived in houses. Many of the maintenance men lived in “outfit cars”—condemned freight cars or old coaches moved froiii siding to siding as work demanded. Some of them were fitted with doors and windows and kerosene lamps and were partitioned oil like bimkhouses; others were equipped for cooking and eating, or for storing tools, and there was a tank car for water. The foreman lived in isolated grandeur in his own private car; often his wife shared his quarters and moved by train with the gang.