December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
Snowshed crews on the Central Pacific, battling blizzards and snowslides, built “the longest house in the world”
After his trip “over the hill” from California to Nevada, the Boomer Brakeman is supposed to have hunted up the division superintendent and to have offered his resignation.
“Blinkety-blank damnation,” the Boomer Brakeman is said to have thundered. “I’ve railroaded in the deserts of Arizona! I’ve railroaded in the mountains of Montana! I’ve railroaded in the Colorado canyons! I’ve railroaded all over the blinkety-blank West, but I’ll be blinkety-blank damned if I’m going to railroad in a barn! I quit!”
And he highballed it over to Ogden and went to work for the Union Pacific.
Forty miles of railroad can be a long stretch when it twists along the sides of mountains and winds its way through tariyons in curves and grades that hold trains to the slowest speeds. It seemed even longer, years ago, when the entire distance was one great wooden “barn,” the twilight broken only by the deeper darkness of an occasional tunnel. This was the Sierra Nevada stretch of the first transcontinental railroad—originally the Central Pacific; now the Southern Pacific. The snowsheds covered not only the tracks but also turntables, depots, section houses, sidings, even homes of the hundreds of railroad people who lived and worked on the mountain line. Children were born and grew up in the sheds, and some railroad men spent years of their working lives in what they sometimes called “the longest house in the world.”
Most of the sheds are gone now, but railroad passengers still complain about the wooden walls that for short distances block their view of the spectacular Sierra. Tenderfoot easterners still find it difficult to believe that enough snow can fall in California to make sheds necessary. Actually, fifteen or twenty feet of snow on the level stretches is nothing unusual in these mountains, and drifts sometimes reach several hundred feet in depth.
The line over the rugged Snowy Peaks was the big hurdle for the Big Four—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkiiis, and Charles Crocker—who built the Central Pacific. Crocker had charge of construction, and he had no idea when work started in 1863 that anything like snowsheds would be involved.
His chief engineer, the brilliant Theodore Judah, reported: “It will be necessary only to start an engine with snowplows from the summit each way at the commencement of a storm, clearing the snow as it falls. A similar course of procedure at each successive storm will keep the track open during the entire winter.”
Starting confidently to meet the Union Pacific, building from the east, Crocker’s men ran their line from Sacramento over the flat California valley and into the foothills along a fork of the American River, climbing through the little towns of Auburn and Colfax into the abrupt canyons of the higher mountains.
In general, the railroad builders retraced the route of the covered-wagon emigrants. Along the American River for nearly eighty miles they went, climbing from close to sea level to more than 5,000 feet, thence across a wooded mountain ridge to the nearby canyon of the Yuba River, and up along the Yuba 21 more miles to Summit, altitude 6,900 feet.
At Summit, they encountered the steep granite cliffs that, on a fall day two decades earlier, had stopped the tragic Donner party. To bypass the dills, the surveyors ran the line to the side of adjoining Donner Peak, then twisted it downward in a slow grade, taking sixteen miles of right of way to make six miles of progress. Below the peak they picked up the Truckee River and followed its canyon down the more gradual eastern slope to Lake’s Crossing (now Reno) and the Nevada desert.
Work went slowly. In many places, coolies tied to ropes had to be lowered over mountainsides to scoop out the right of way. It was May 10, 1869, before locomotives from East and West were bunted together at Promontory in Utah, gold and silver spikes were driven, bottles of champagne were broached, and word was flashed to President Ulysses S. Grant and the rest of the waiting world that the Atlantic and Pacific were connected by rail.
During the first years the Sierra lay relatively low. Little work was done in the mountains during the winters, but railroad men were on the scene. Although they were not much impressed by the Sierra storms, they did come to recognize that some little protection might be needed for the new track. Judah’s successor as chief engineer, S. S. Montague, first mentioned snowsheds in a report written in 1865, four years before the line was completed: The heavy snowfall in the vicinity of Summit, will render U necessary to provide a substantial protection, either of timber or masonry, to insure the successful and uninterrupted operation of the road during the winter months. … That portion of the line requiring this unusual protection does not exceed one hundred yards.
A hundred yards indeed! When they reached the high mountains the C. P. authorities saw what snow can be, and they began throwing up snowsheds with everything they had. By 1869, when the first through train made the first through trip, they were already completing nine miles of sheds, and they would build many more miles before they were through.
During the first summer, the transcontinental railroad was a proud success, at least at the western end. Trains ran without mishap. Then came winter, and the first snow. The railroad men had armed themselves with primitive plows, known as “buckers,” or “pushers,” or “pilot plows.” These were V-shaped wooden rams mounted on railroad wheels and driven by a string of locomotives. A bucker made an impressive sight as it drove into a snowbank with all the force of six to a dozen hard-puffing little engines. The idea was to clear as much track as possible at each drive, then back off and take another run at it. The trouble was that often the whole procession, except where the snow was light, chugged to an ignominious halt, with the plow itself, or some of the locomotives, derailed and helpless. Yet the buckers, and the partially completed snowsheds, were all the protection the railroad had.
That first winter offered only a hint of what the Sierra could do. A strong hint, perhaps. The fall months passed without major incident. By late January, 1870, the railroad men were breathing easy. Then on February 9, a mile above Emigrant Gap, California, an avalanche started high on the mountain, gathered trees and boulders and incredible quantities of snow, and piled on to the right of way, after sweeping a hundred feet of track and three hundred feet of the new snowsheds into the canyon below.
There was no going around, of course; there was nothing to do but stop the trains and clear the blockade. Bucker plows, men with shovels, and repair gangs were hurried into action. They had barely mobilized when a storm came up. Clinging to the hillside, the men shoveled as best they could. But the snow fell as fast as they could clear it, and the wind whipped up drifts that blocked the track all the way across the mountains. Transcontinental traffic was stopped dead, with a through passenger train stalled at Truckee, California, thoroughly snowed in.
Bucker plows and their crews attacked the blockade from both sides of the mountain, but they could make only slow headway. Four days after the slide, with the weather clear, they had managed to free only a few miles of track. Tivo days later they were still seven miles apart.
By this time the passengers stranded at Truckee were growing cold, hungry, and exasperated. Finally the Central Pacific officials sent men to dig out the snowbound train. It ran as far as the tracks had been cleared; then the conductor told the passengers to get out and walk. Some were poorly clothed for a hike through snowdrifts, but they made it. Men, women, and children, with railroad guides breaking the way, walked from station to station along the snow-buried track to Emigrant Gap, occasionally through snowsheds, occasionally in the open. There, a train from the valley picked them up and carried them on down to Sacramento. It was nine days after the slide before through trains were running again, and during that time successive hundreds of passengers were forced to walk decreasing distances from train to train.
That little taste of winter needled the C. P. officials into greater action, and as soon as the snow melted they turned to building snowsheds with a vengeance. Expert workmen were scarce in California, so the railroad imported scores of Canadian woodsmen. Sawmills were set up in the forests along the right of way, and the track between Blue Canyon, on the western slope, and Andover, on the east, buzzed with the sounds of carpentry during those summers. It was one oF the hip-pest barn-buildiner bees of all time.
The weather god of the Sierra regarded all this activity with what could have been an amused smile, for the C. P. designers were showing themselves novices at fighting snow. Their peaked-roof shed, like a big “A” straddling the track, left a space between shed and mountainside. When winter came, the Sierra summoned up its blizzards to pack snow tight m this space. During the cold weather no snow reached the track. But then came spring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.