January 12, 1952. Milepost 177, Yuba Pass.
The snowfall in January of 1952 on the western edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains was relentless. By mid-January, Highway 40 was closed. There was no way to drive from Sacramento to Truckee or Reno without a huge detour.
The winter storms during the winter of 1951-52 dumped 65 feet of snow on Donner Summit. Southern Pacific took pride in keeping the line open over Donner Pass, even in the winter.
Donner Pass is one of the snowiest places in the Lower 48 with an average snow fall of 411.5 inches of snow each winter. According to the report, Donner Summit Snowfall and Snowpack 1879-2011, there have been four times, since 1880, the snowfall on Donner Summit has exceeded 775 inches, and on two occasions the snowfall has exceeded 800 inches: in 1938 and 1952.
Southern Pacific had an arsenal of snow fighting equipment, including plows, flangers, and spreaders but their ultimatum snow fighting weapon was the rotary plow. They used this plow when the ordinary plows failed to clear snow from the tracks so the rotaries had to be called in to finish the job.
The railroad had always kept the line open, until January, 1952. Heavy snowfall will temporality close the line but so will an avalanche.
The story of the stranded Southern Pacific streamlined passenger service, the City of San Francisco seems to come out of an Agatha Christie novel. Think Murder on the Orient Express without the murder.
Into the snowy conditions, at just after 10 AM, the westbound City of San Francisco No. 101 headed out of Norden, Ca to make the slow descent, down into the Sacramento Valley on January 12, 1952. The 15 car train was headed by three Alco PA locomotives, decked out in the red, orange, and black of the Daylight paint scheme.
The train was several hours late because of the snowy conditions. As it rounded Smart Ridge on track #1, the train was stopped in it’s tracks, blocked by a snow slide that covered both tracks. The slide was a quarter of a mile wide. The engineer tried to back the train up but the City of San Francisco was trapped by snow on both ends.
At milepost 177, between tunnels 35 and 36, the City of San Francisco became stranded with 196 passengers and 30 crew members aboard. The passengers and crew would be stranded here for three days and the City of San Francisco would be stuck here for six days.
Once the train had become stranded, Southern Pacific sprung into action to try and free the City of San Francisco and rescue those aboard. Rotary plows where sent up from both Roseville and Truckee in a attempt to clear the line and reach the disabled train.
Over the next three days the rescue of the City of San Francisco continued on with the use of rotary plows pushed by cab-forward Mallet locomotives, cars, trucks, helicopters, dog sleds, and Tucker snowcats. The rescue effort would claim two lives and damage rail equipment.
On the first day, the passengers took it their stride with the belief that the ordeal would be over soon. But as the train lost power and with in the heating system, things seem to worsen. The water system aboard the passenger cars froze taking the toilets out of commission. And they were also running low on food.
On the afternoon of the fourth day they were able to get all the passengers to hike down to Highway 40 which had been plowed clear up to Yuba Pass. They were driven by private automobiles to Nyack Lodge. After warming themselves ay the lodge’s fire place, the passengers were then put on a special train that took them down into the valley where they arrived in Roseville just before midnight.
Almost four days late, the train pulled into it’s final destination, just before 4 AM, to the city of Oakland. Oddly enough the City of San Francisco does not go to the city of San Francisco.