- 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
One of the snowbound passengers, John J. Jennings of the World , had been dispatched from New York by Joseph Pulitzer to meet Nellie Bly on her much-publicized journey around the world. She was due January 21 at San Francisco on the S.S. Oceanic , having traveled more than 21,000 miles in 68 days without missing a connection; Jennings’ job was to escort her across the continent to New York, via Central Pacific, on the last leg of her trip.
Stuck in the western mountains, Jennings made the best of a bad situation and reported on the snow blockade instead, wiring from Emigrant Gap: The Nellie BIy escort corps is snowbound here. We have made no progress for fifty hours. Could not get word to you before. This is the third day of the storm and snow is coming down in flakes the size of soda crackers. There is a strong wind and heavy drifting. … There was ten feet of snow on the track in front of us until the rotary plough (which came from Cascade last night) started through it at noon today. Two twelve-wheel ninety-five thousand pound engines and one ten-wheeler are behind the plough. The fan is eight feet in diameter and said to be able to make six miles an hour through eight feet of snow.
The plough procession left the sheds with a World reporter on the pilot just behind the rotary. The bank was attacked bravely and the start was a magnificent one. Fifteen hundred horse-power was behind the big whirling plough and the snow flew in circling, sparkling spray for fifty feet in all directions. The engines quivered at every bolt, and a path eight feet wide was visible in the wake of the engines.
At fifty yards, the plough bumped hard against the snow bank and a shiver went through the twelve-wheeler. She fairly lifted from the rails, fell back, then made a lunge forward and was fast in the snow. Ice on the rails caused the trouble.
This was repeated again and again, Jennings reported, until finally word came from a nearby section house that dinner was ready, whereupon the shovelers went off and left the plow stuck in a snowbank. “The prospect of getting out of here for some days is very doleful,” the reporter added. “Nobody knows when the road will be cleared. We have twenty feet of snow on the sheds and all the way from twelve to twenty feet on the tracks. Beyond us, everything is snowbound.”
Seventeen miles up the mountain, at Cascade, in the depot that had been built toward the middle of the burned-out section of shed, the lone telegraph operator, 28-year-old John Coghlan, had come down with pneumonia during the storm. He had tapped out his plight on the wire, and now was very sick. Railroad workers told Jennings it was impossible to get to Cascade to achieve a rescue. The snowbound reporter took over this bit of human interest and browbeat railroad officials by wire and in person until they gave in. A rescue party on snowshoes was sent from Summit, and Coghlan was carried out to safety. Jennings was able to report to his paper:
” ‘If his life is saved, The World has done it,’ was what the trainmen said.”
Jennings finally found a miner who was willing to guide him out of the drifts toward his rendezvous in San Francisco. Borrowing undersize snowshoes from the miner’s wife, he walked all night through snow sometimes as deep as his waist, sometimes up to his armpits—or so he said. At any rate he finally boarded an engine, made his way to the valley, and met Nellie Bly in time to join her for the trip east.
In the mountains, meanwhile, some of the snow fighters were talking of striking. They were being paid $2.50 a day, and they wanted a dollar more. There were nearly 4,000 of these men in the Sierra now, 500 of them needed to pack in food and supplies for the rest. The railroad had sent agents to the water fronts and skid roads of Sacramento and San Francisco to hire snow shovelers; men and boys representing nearly every nation on earth signed on. They included, according to a contemporary account, “exconvicts, bums and toughs of every description.”
The blizzard let up for a while, but the blockade continued. Men and plows did what they could, and then the storm resumed and obliterated their work. On January 25 the snow turned briefly to rain; this froze, and the tie-up was worse than ever. On January 26, snow on the tracks at the unprotected Cascade depot measured 25 feet deep. In some places outside the sheds, the railroad reported, it had reached the enormous depth of 500 feet. The weight threatened to crush the sheds, and the shovelers were put to work clearing the roofs.
Supplies were running short in the railroad settlements. Trains came as far as they could with food, and men packed or sledged it the rest of the way. But they could carry only limited amounts, and there were thousands of mouths to feed. Heating became a serious problem: wood was waterlogged or buried in snow. Kerosene for lamps could not be had. Panthers and coyotes, driven toward civilization by the snow, howled around the depots and the snowbound trains.