Yuba Pass, M. P. 177

Ever since I had read about the stranding of the City of San Francisco in January 1952, I have wanted to visit the location and do a sketch.

In January of 2021, I did a sketch of the stranded super liner that was based on a historical photo. Since that time I had wondered if the stranding site was accessible or if it was on a part of the line that was far from roads or trails. In January 1952, the whole landscape was snowbound, paralyzing all transportation routes. After some research, I found out that the site was ridiculously accessible because Milepost 177 was a ten minute walk from where Highway 20 joins Highway 80.

As I pulled off Highway 20, I donned my snowboots, an east bound Union Pacific freight passed by with a consist mainly featuring tanker cars. Freight has the right of way over passage service, it is the bread and butter of the contemporary railroad business.

A UP freight climbing towards Tunnel numbers 35 and 36 and off toward Donner Summit.

I wanted to find the exact location that the City of San Francisco became stranded: milepost 177, between Tunnels 35 and 36. But I also wanted to time my visit so I could see and photograph some trains at Yuba Pass. Well I just missed a freight train but my real prize was now running two minutes late and would depart Truckee at 9:39 AM.

This was the passenger service that replaced the City of San Francisco. It is one of the longest, and some would argue, most beautiful, routes on the Amtrak system. This is the California Zephyr. The hike up to Yuba Pass was extra special because on the following day, I would be boarding the eastbound California Zephyr, Train #6, to Denver, Colorado. Nine days later I would be returning on the westbound, Train #5. This was the train I was waiting for.

I hiked along the former grade of Track #1, the route is currently single tracked. The hike was relatively easy because it was along a railroad grade and the snow wasn’t too deep. It took me about ten minutes to reach Tunnel # 35. The current track goes through the tunnel but the former track goes around Smart Ridge. It was in this area that the City of San Francisco became stranded in 1952.

I looked at a few arial reference photos and picked my spot, in the shadow of the rocky ridge. I sketched in the ridge on the right and the trees in the background and far off the spine of a mountain range. For this I used Micron dark sepia pens.

The west entrance of the 738 foot long Tunnel # 35.

I sketched for about 20 minutes and then I walked toward Tunnel #36 to find a good vantage point to photograph the Zephyr and I decided on standing near the eastern entrance of Tunnel #35 so I could photograph the train coming out of Tunnel #36. And then turn westward to capture the Zephyr as it disappeared into Tunnel # 35.

I had no idea when the train would be emerging from the tunnel but I filled my time being serenaded by the beautiful whistle of a mountain chickadee. This is the song of the western mountains. Spring was slowly arriving in the Sierras.

A mountain chickadee singing from the top of a pine. Bird and trains in the Sierra Nevada, I’m in heaven!!

At 10:40, I saw the headlights of the westbound Zephyr.

A first sighting of the California Zephyr coming out of the east portal of the 326 foot long Tunnel #36. In the foreground is the rail bed of the former track #1.
California Zephyr train #5. This train started in Chicago.
The Zephyr heading into Tunnel #35 as it climbs down the valley toward it’s next stop, Colfax. My footsteps are in the foreground.

The City of San Francisco, 1952

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.

A photograph of passengers leaving the City of San Francisco behind to hike down to Highway 40 and the cars that would take them to Nyack Lodge.

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.

On point for the City of San Francisco on January 12, 1952 was an ALCO PA number 6019. Southern Pacific bought 52 PAs. While these locomotives are railran favorites, they proved to be a maintenance nightmare and SP later scraped the locos.