- 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
All the livestock, and there wasn’t much, was slaughtered, even milk cows and the snowshed horses. Somehow depots were kept warm, but they soon became holes stinking with sweat, tobacco smoke, and the odors from red-hot stoves upon which the men, according to the custom of the time, spat tobacco juice. When food arrived, the hungry workers tore it from the backs of the packers, sometimes wolfing down raw meat like animals.
Everywhere in the mountains the snow crushed buildings, injuring their occupants. The railroad towns looked as if they had been bombarded by hostile artillery. At sidings all along the line, except within the sheds, strings of freight cars were stove in.
But at last the weather expended its fury; the storm stopped. The railroad was completely tied up by a barrier of snow such as no man had seen in the Sierra. The railroad men set to work again, but they scarcely seemed to make a dent in the snow. General Superintendent J. A. Fillmore, on January 28, released a summary of conditions, saying: A few trains are blockaded between Blue Canyon and Shady Run. Eighteen hundred men with picks and shovels are cutting away snowbanks twelve to fifteen feet deep; snow on the sheds at Summit and Tunnel 13 is from fifty to two hundred and fifty feet deep …
On January 30, the men and plows finally were able to free the snowbound trains; the passengers, who had come to believe their tiny coaches might become permanent homes, uncramped their legs. The road was cleared barely in time. Emigrant Gap was entirely out of food, and the other mountain towns were close to starvation. Trains carried in provisions during the next ten days, and then a new blizzard came up and clogged the route again. It was the Sierra’s final effort, though, and a feeble one. The railroad men made short work of clearing away the snow.
With spring, there came slide after slide as the deep snow loosened and dropped down the ntountainsides. Thaws flooded the rivers. When the weather had done its final damage and the railroad had returned to normal, the officials who a year earlier had decided not to replace their burned snowsheds changed their minds with notable unanimity. They rebuilt the burned section at Cascade, strengthened and added to the remainder. Within a few years they valued their forty-mile investment at around $3,000,000—a lot of money in those times.
In the old days, the line over the Sierra was a single track. In the early 1920’s, the C. P.—by now the Southern Pacific—completed double-tracking the entire route and, retaining faith in the snowsheds, double-tracked the sheds as well. It was only then that the railroad began to do without snowsheds in the least vulnerable locations.
Not that winters became milder; not that the Sierra gave up the fight. There was a time a slide at Tunnel 6 carried a repair gang over the bank; four men were dug from the snow injured, and the body of a fifth was found 1,000 feet from the track the following April, when the snow melted. Once the crack Overland Limited was smashed by a slide; another time it was the old Pacific Limited, which had 200 feet of snowshed wrapped around its cars by an avalanche. Occasionally the Sierra dreamed up something new, like filling a tunnel with ice or covering the track with three feet of mud.
It was the development of modern snow-fighting equipment that spelled doom for the giant snowsheds. In place of the forty miles of shed the railroad used to maintain, there are now fewer than five, some made of concrete, scattered where the drifts grow deepest. The longest stretch, about three miles, runs down the side of Donner Peak.
To care for the sheds, which once required hundreds of men, the road now employs only eighteen or twenty during the winters. The fire trains are gone; Red Mountain lookout is abandoned. Locomotives are diesels now. The big cab-in-front Mallets, successors to the series of steam engines which started with the old wood-burners, were the last steam-propelled locomotives seen in the mountains. The railroad settlements have become quiet, almost deserted. Many remain only as signboards alone; the right of way, for the double-tracking and modern signal equipment have long since eliminated the need for telegraphers. To fight the snows, the railroad now relies on six big rotary plows, which cut swaths as wide as seventeen feet as they send the drifts flying. Flangers and spreaders follow the rotaries, leaving the tracks clean as a whistle.
Nowadays, when a blizzard arises, the railroad men move on it like a mechanized army. Radio equipment keeps them in touch. The rotaries and the sheds still standing have enabled the railroad to cope with many snows as deep as those of the last century. But the men who maintain the mountain route have not relaxed their vigilance, for they have learned they must be prepared to expect anything of the Sierra, any time.