- 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
To spread alarms, a lookout station was established in the 1870’s on Red Mountain, whose 7,841-foot Signal Peak overlooked most of the snowshed area. Here, in a crude hut on a bald peak, two men were stationed during danger periods, with binoculars and maps and a telephone so they could report instantly the location of the merest puff of suspect smoke.
Despite all these protective measures, the history of the snowsheds is thick with reports of costly fires, one of which even entrapped and destroyed a train, although no lives were lost. It was a mammoth fire in the summer of 1889 that ushered in the railroad’s most disastrous season. The blaze broke out at Cascade, six miles west of Summit, on a windy day. The fire trains arrived to find the flames far out of control, eating up the snowsheds with furious speed. The sheds provided the fire with a natural flue, and the blaze roared along the track for a mile and a half before the wind died.
The C. P. officials surveyed the ashes of 8,000 feet of snowsheds, charred ties, and twisted rails, and decided to take a chance. They had some new snowplows on order, and they thought they might be able to do without the sheds. So they sent the railroad into the winter with the whole stretch naked and vulnerable, 8,000 feet of potential trouble.
The Sierra took full advantage of the opening. That winter of 1889–90 was memorable in the mountains; before it ended it had almost ruined the railroad. The weather hit first in the valleys, where torrential rains caused washouts, landslides, and floods.
Meanwhile it was snowing in the Sierra. The mountain route was free of trouble during the autumn months, but the railroad men, watching the snow pile up, began to have misgivings.
By the first of January, it was fourteen feet deep at Summit. The next day, the Sierra mustered its real strength and blew up a tremendous blizzard. The wind roared with hurricane force, filling the air with snow. Prodigious drifts spread over the tracks at Cascade, where the sheds had burned. Six hundred men with shovels—the vanguard of a winter army—were unable to keep the line clear, and one of the vaunted mechanical snowplows was sent to the scene.
Like almost all railroad equipment of the time, this plow had a name—The Cyclone. It was pushed by locomotives, while its own engine operated a ramlike screw designed to bore into the snow and push the drifts aside. During the first hours of the blizzard, The Cyclone spent most of its time inching along that single mile and a half of unprotected track at Cascade.
Meanwhile, one of the old bucker plows, with six locomotives and three carloads of men with shovels, had started out to clear the track westward from the end of the sheds near Blue Canyon. Two miles out it stalled in a drift, and the blizzard locked it tight. The bucker could move neither forward nor back, despite all the efforts of the shovelers; snow was falling faster than they could move it. The track was blocked.
When word came through, the officials sent their newest plow—The Rotary—to rescue the bucker. The Rotary soon came to a slide that had covered about two hundred feet of track with snow fifteen feet deep. Backing off, the new plow attacked with a rush and cleared the entire distance in one great push, emerging with only its cab windows broken.
The Pacific Express had been following The Rotary through the sheds to Blue Canyon, but the sight of the blockaded bucker plow was enough—the officials ordered the train held inside the sheds at Cisco, where there was a crude hotel for the passengers. The Rotary went on, freed the bucker, then became hemmed in itself, and blocked the track while it slowly worked its way out.
The blizzard stopped, and traffic was resumed. But only briefly: on January 16, an even greater storm blew up. Almost immediately, a bucker plow stalled near Blue Canyon with two of its locomotives off the rails. Two days later, the crew was still trying to dig out. Eastbound trains that had left Sacramento three days before had not yet reached the snowsheds, normally only a few hours away, and the bucker plow ahead of the foremost train was buried in a slide.
Another bucker had become bogged in drifts between Summit and Truckee, and still another, going to the rescue, stalled a few miles away. The railroad began importing shovelers from wherever it could find them. But the high winds and the drifts made progress impossible. By this time eight passenger trains were snowbound in the mountains. Many passengers, some of them in a bad way, were escorted to stations, where provision was made for them to sleep, but many others found themselves too far away and were forced to remain in the trains. Men on snowshoes were detailed to pack provisions to them.