- 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
Snowshed men were immigrants, for the most part. One gang had a foreman born in Scotland and carpenters from Italy, Switzerland, Germany, England, and Sweden. The cook invariably was a Chinese, and he was important. One named Frank was renowned throughout the Sierra. Working with the same rough materials as the other cooks, Frank could and did turn out meals fit for the patrons of a fine restaurant—assuming, of course, the hearty fare of working men. But he would grow despondent after a few months of isolated mountain living, and one day the gang woidd find him missing, gone off to the glories of San Francisco’s Chinatown. His replacements, and some were good as railroad cooks went, never could satisfy the men, who would grumble at their meals and complain to the foreman. One cook they trussed with rope and tossed on a passing train to get rid of him. The boss would fire one substitute after another, until finally Frank would show up again, broke and inscrutable, anxious to get back to his hungry wards.
Living in a world of perpetual twilight, working in surroundings that at times became eerie indeed, the men of the snowsheds developed a long legend. No one knows who started the crosses. Wherever one of their fellows died, the railroad workers marked the spot with a cross, sometimes planted in the ground, sometimes formed of two strips of tin nailed to a snowshed post. The sacred sign was supposed to put the ghost of the dead man to rest; otherwise he would haunt the scene of his death and lead other workmen to tragedy. The superstitious avoided the crosses, refusing to go near them at night.
Downhill trains coasting, the sound of their approach muffled in the sheds, frequently killed unwary railroad workers in the early days. Men fell to their deaths from the 24-foot roofs, while more sensational disasters—derailments, collisions, and explosions—killed others. Freak accidents, like a boulder falling from a hillside and smashing unannounced through a shed wall, took their toll. Old-time railroading in the snowsheds could be a dangerous, sometimes a spectacular, business, and never more so than the day in the 1890’s when a circus train was derailed deep within the sheds. Wooden cars broke open and some of the animals went free.
The story, related by the late trainmaster John Lord, who was a brakeman on the scene, became a snowshed classic. While circus and railroad workers cleaned up the wreckage, a Mexican trackwalker was hiking along the ties a couple of miles down the line, unaware that anything unusual was afoot. It was broad daylight outside, dusk inside the sheds. I he trackwalker moseyed along on his routine inspection. Gradually, he became aware that he was not alone in the sheds. A noiseless shadow was moving toward him. The man stopped and looked. The shadow began to take the shape of a huge lion. The trackwalker didn’t believe it was a lion until he saw the mane and the twitching tail and the glowing eyes. Then he stood still and trembled. “Mother of God!” he whispered, and crossed himself.
The lion came within a dozen feet before the trackwalker screamed in fright. At the sound the beast stopped, as confused and frightened as the man. The two of them, trackwalker and lion, stared at each other a full minute. Then, with a wail of terror, the trackwalker turned and ran in the direction from which he had come. His flight set the lion in motion; the beast turned at the same moment as the man and, unable to get out of the sheds, galloped full speetT in the opposite direction. The trackwalker reached a section house and collapsed, sobbing out his story. The lion, so Lord said, ran all the way back to the derailed train and crawled, tail between its legs, into the wreckage of its cage.
It was weeks before the last runaway monkey was combed out of the snowshed rafters.
From the time the first snowsheds were erected, fires were yearly events. Sometimes they originated outside, from an adjacent forest fire. In one case a freight train collision caused a blaze, and sparks from locomotives were blamed for others. Frequently the evidence pointed toward arson: the first major fire, which destroyed 4,000 feet of snowsheds while they were still being built, was started by a discontented railroad employee.
To avoid fire, many schemes were hatched. A roof covering of galvanized iron did little good and was abandoned. Then came “telescope sheds.” At one-mile intervals, 100-foot sections of shed were removed and rebuilt on wheels so they could be pushed inside the main structure in summer to provide fire breaks. The telescopic sheds stopped many conflagrations.
Very early, fire trains were stationed at mountain sidings, each one consisting of a locomotive and two tank cars, with pumps, hose, and nozzles. The engines always had steam up; crews stood by around the clock. From the beginning the crews maintained a proud boast—not once did they back away from a fire. The fire trains carried a distinctive, shrill whistle, which was sounded continuously en route to a fire. Audible for miles through the still canyons, it warned all other traffic to head for the nearest siding and clear the main line.