1952 Snowstorm buries San Francisco
San Francisco, Jan. 14, 1952 (AP) - A driving snowstorm ripped across Northern California and Nevada today, bringing the most bitter winter weather in 50 years.
Southern Pacific canceled all its eastbound trains today - the City of San Francisco, Overland Limited, Gold Coast and another passenger train. Its westbound traffic was being rerouted from Ogden over Union Pacific tracks through Salt Lake City to Barstow, Calif., thence on Santa Fe rails to the SP tracks at Mojave.
This Associated Press dispatch was the lead paragraph of a story that would be "front page" for more than a week. The westbound City of San Francisco that departed from Reno on Jan. 13, with 226 passengers on board, was not lucky enough to have been rerouted. That train suffered the full force of the storm.
Let's go back to January 1952. Harry S. Truman was in the White House and California's Gov. Earl Warren was contemplating a run for the presidency. Locally, Thomas (Ty) Taylor was mayor of Nevada City, while in Grass Valley, Gil Cramer held that office.
Fifty years ago, passenger trains were the principal method of travel in the United States but were facing stiff competition for the transcontinental travel business by the proliferation of airline companies.
From Los Angeles, Santa Fe's Super Chief offered first-class service to Chicago. The Challenger was Union Pacific's entry on the same route. From the Bay Area, Western Pacific's California Zephyr - with its innovative and popular Vista-Dome cars - and the City of San Francisco, Southern Pacific's streamliner, competed for passengers bound for eastern destinations. The Zephyr traveled through the Feather River Canyon while the Southern Pacific trains crossed Donner Summit.
Snowplow clears Sierra Nevada highway.
In mid-January 1952, Sierra Nevada highways were closed by a fast-moving storm that relentlessly pounded U. S. Highway 40 (now Interstate 80) and state Highway 20, then called the Tahoe-Ukiah Highway. Both were piled high with massive snow drifts.
The storm caused heavy damage in Nevada and Placer counties while deep snow blocked the Southern Pacific tracks, halting rail travel both east and west. At an elevation of 5,500 feet, just east of Yuba Gap and four miles from Emigrant Gap, the Southern Pacific westbound streamliner City of San Francisco was bogged down, imprisoned and almost covered by heavy drifts.
The first four persons to escape the marooned train were servicemen, who were brought by snow cat to Nyack Lodge some five miles west from the stricken train. They reported that gas, apparently from emergency heating apparatus, had filtered into the train cars, endangering the slumbering passengers. Luckily, a doctor and five military nurses were on board, and they began rousing the sleeping passengers. Many able-bodied passengers helped by walking dazed sleepers up and down corridors to help restore them to full consciousness. Some two dozen passengers suffered nausea and diarrhea from the fumes, but all recovered. Rescue trains were dispatched from both Reno and Roseville. The westbound train reached Norden and unloaded medical supplies, a doctor, his assistant, a dog team and sled. They headed toward the train, some 15 miles distant over snow-covered Highway 40.
From Colfax, the Roseville train made less than five miles an hour as it plowed through snowdrifts toward the stricken streamliner. This rescue train was stopped by a wall of snow some 4.5 miles from its goal. The remaining distance was traveled by crews in "weasels," lightweight tracked vehicles designed for rescue work over snow or ice. Snow continued to fall heavily as the wind blew in sharp gusts. Wet snow hindered the progress of the rescue train, which carried medicine, food and emergency medical personnel. Other areas of the Sierra Nevada also suffered from winter's wrath. At Truckee, Constable Tom Dolley reported 10 feet of snow. He estimated there was enough food to last the town's 1,000 residents a week if necessary.
While the rescue trains continued their efforts on the rails, the California Division of Highways' snow plows and trucks worked nonstop and were successful in clearing Highway 40 to within 1,000 feet of the stalled streamliner. Some passengers, bundled in extra clothing, boarded rescue vehicles and rode to the highway where automobiles and trucks took them to nearby Nyack Lodge and Rainbow Tavern. There food and warmth awaited.
A few passengers - the young and elderly - required additional help in leaving the train. At one point, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered a physician to the train. Eventually all were rescued and transported to Colfax. A relief train took them to Oakland, where they arrived at 3:30 a.m. Jan.17, four days after their snowbound adventure began.
The streamliner, however, languished, stuck fast in its snowy prison. Ironically, the first job was to free the four rotary snow plows which became hopelessly snowbound in the initial effort to free the train!
The City of San Francisco's diesel locomotive is finally freed from its snowy confinement by Southern Pacific work crews near Emigrant Gap.
The winter of 1952 was severe but did not come close to equaling the season of 1889-90. The railroad reported that 13 trains with 900 passengers were snowbound during that winter in the Sierra Nevada. As many as 3,500 men shoveled snow from the tracks. It took almost a month to fully restore service.