Southern Pacific’s Cab Forward

Southern Pacific’s signature, and most iconic locomotive was the 256 AC (Numbers 4000 to 4294) cab forward locomotives.

These were some of the largest and most unique locomotives in the United States. The AC-12 class is less than ten feet shorter than the largest steam locomotives ever built: Union Pacific’s “Big Boy”. The AC-12 locomotive and tender weighed more than a Boeing 747 and an Airbus A380, combined.

The reason the cab forwards were unique is that, as the name implies, the crew cab was in the front of the locomotive, like a modern diesel-electric locomotive, instead of the cab being in back, near the tender.

Having the cab in front gave the engineer and fireman unequalled views of the track ahead. But the real reason for the innovations was to conquers the steep grades of Sacramento’s Mountain Subdivision over the Donner Pass. This massive locomotives operated between Roseville, Ca and Sparks, Nv where a powerful locomotive was needed to tackle the steep grades and have the tractive effort to haul long freight trains over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A locomotive of this size emits of lots of steam exhaust because a 4-8-8-2 was essentially two locomotives in one.

The Donner Pass route had 40 miles of snow sheds and 39 tunnels. This meant that in a standard locomotive, the crew could suffer from asphyxiation from the steam exhaust. By putting the cab forward, the exhaust stack was behind the crew and they avoided the caustic smoke, steam, and heat that these powerful locomotives emitted.

The cab forward proved to be a very successful locomotive for SP, with 256 of these engines used on it’s rail over the period of 50 years. The railroad had the largest fleet of articulated “Malleys” in the world. As a comparison, Union Pacific fleet contained 25 Big Boy locomotives.

In the 1950s, as diesel replaced steam, cab forwards spend the rest of there working life away from the mountains on the Coast Line and the Western Division. One of the last places cab forwards worked on Southern Pacific rail was the Cal-P line between Oakland and Roseville. 1958 was the last year a cab forward rode the rails, nine of these locomotives were taken out of service on September 24, 1958.

Out of the 256 cab forwards that were built, only one survives. The AC-12 number 4294 which is also the last steam locomotive that Southern Pacific ever purchased. 4294 was in service on March 19, 1944 and was taken off the the roster on March 5, 1956. She was only in service for 12 years.

While the other cab forwards were scrapped, 4294 was put in storage and then was put on static display on October 19, 1958, in front of the Sacramento train station. When the California State Rail Road Museum was opened, 4294 became the centerpiece amongst it’s collection of locomotives and rolling stock.

I was at the museum with my father in 1981 for the official opening of the museum. SouthernPacific’s GS-4 4449 and Union Pacific’s 844 (then numbered 8444) where in attendance and I will never forget when the two locomotive stood, pilot to pilot, on the track outside of the museum!

The massive running gear of the AC-12, Cab Forward. 4294 is the only surviving example of this locomotive.

The last time I have visited the museum was in November of 2017 where I did an aborted field sketch of the cab forward. There was something about the proportions of the locomotive that I did not get right. I had planned to return to the California State Rail Museum in the early Spring of 2020 but the cases of Covid-19 were growing at an alarming rate in the state and the museum eventually closed it’s doors for an indeterminate time.

So if I could not sketch the AC-12, at least I could sketch it from an image, which really is the next best thing.


Rotary Snowplow: Workhouse of Donner Pass

Work on the railroad does to stop for weekends or holidays. And it certainly does not stop for inclement weather.

Some of the deepest snow can be found on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and at the summit of Donner Pass. This was the same pass that turned away members of the doomed Donner Party in the Winter of 1846. This pass would not defeat the Southern Pacific Railroad from crossing the pass.

To keep the pass open the railroad, when spreaders and flangers failed, SP used their most powerful snow fighting weapon, the rotary snowplow.

The rotary plow was invented by a dentist in Toronto, Canada in 1869. The plow consists of a circular sent of blades that spins. The rotary plow is not self-propelled but is pushed by a locomotive or most likely locomotives. As the spinning blade cuts through the snow drift, the engineer can control which side of the track the chute, behind the blade assembly, throws the snow. Left or right.

Not much has changed with the design of rotary plows save for powering the prime mover. All early rotaries where powered by steam but they were later converted to diesel or electric power. In fact, most of the current fleet of rotary plows, used by Union Pacific, where built in the 1920s or 30s although they have been retrofitted and rebuilt since then.

The current rotaries still use a steam generator to help prevent some of the moving parts from icing up and seizing.

Most railroads use flanger or spreader plows but these plows meet their match when trying to push heavy snow from tracks. This is where the rotary plow has the distinct advantage. It does not need to be pushed by force, instead the rotating blades cut through snow like a hot knife through butter. And the rotary can throw snow away from the track.

The downside to rotary plows is that they are expensive to maintain. And depending on snowfall, the plows may not be put into service every snow season. It may be even ten years before the rotary is called into action. The plows are also labor intensive to operate with an average crew size of 12. The standard consist of a Southern Pacific rotary train would consist of two rotary plows (one on each each so they can remove snow in both directions), a B Unit for each rotary to supply electrical power and air pressure, and two or three locomotives.

As a result, most railroads have gotten rid of their rotaries and many have been donated to serve as static displays. Three former Southern Pacific plows are on display. One in Roseville, Truckee, and Sacramento, at the California Railroad Museum.

A very interesting sign at the Union Pacific (formerly Southern Pacific) rail yard in Roseville. I wonder if before this sign was installed, the Roseville Police got many calls about runaway locomotives!

What’s interesting about the rotary plow on static display at Roseville (SPMW 7221) is that it is near the tracks at the Union Pacific rail yard. The rotary was donated to the City of Roseville by Union Pacific in 2014. This is fitting because Roseville is where Union Pacific’s rotary plow fleet is based. As I looked down the tracks toward the rail yard, I noticed, on the far side where two rotaries.

Roseville has been a major division point on the Southern Pacific railroad. At it’s height, during the age of stream, the Roseville yard contained two roundhouses. Roundhouse No. 1 was a 32-stall roundhouse and Roundhouse No. 2 was specially built to house the larger Mallets (4-8-8-2) know as cab forwards. The turntable was large enough to turn these massive locomotives. These locomotive were reversed so the crew rode in the front and the exhaust behind them. This was to avoid asphyxiation in the long snow sheds over Donner Summit.

Union Pacific is one of the few Class I railroads that keeps a rotary fleet and they have the biggest fleet in America with six plows.

Two of Union Pacific’s six active rotary snowplows SPMW # 222 and 207.

The winter of 2017 was the third snowiest winter in recorded history on Donner Pass. The Union Pacific rotaries where put into use to clear the 13 feet deep snow to keep the line open between Roseville and Truckee.

Here is footage of rotaries at work at Donner Pass in February 2017. Credit to Jake Miille Photography.

Head on view of SPMW 207 at the Roseville rail yard. This provides a view of the circular, rotating blade that cuts through snow. Number 207 awaits the call to head up towards Donner Pass to clear the line of snow. Number 207 was built in 1926 and has since been upgraded. The “SPMW” stands for “South Pacific Maintenance of Way”.

Johnson’s Ranch

It was long after dark when we got to Johnson’s Ranch, so the first time I saw it was early in the morning. The weather was fine, the ground was covered with green grass, the birds were singing from the tops of trees, and the journey was over. I could scarcely believe that I was alive.

The scene I saw that morning seems to be photographed on my mind. Most of the incidents are gone from memory, but I can always see the camp near Johnson’s Ranch.

~John Breen, April 24, 1847

John Breen wrote this letter once he had crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the foothills of California as a member of the emigrant group now known as the Donner Party.

Out of the 87 members of this doomed party only 48 survived. Most of the 48 survivors where women and children. Breen and his family were lucky. All of their family members survived.

It is unclear where Breen wrote this well known letter but is was either at Sutter’s Fort (in present day Sacramento) or at Johnson’s Ranch (near Wheatland).

Johnson’s Ranch was the first settlement the emigrants encounter once they entered California on the California Trail. They often paused here after the grueling passage over Donner Summit before heading down to Sutter’s Fort in present day Sacramento. They would camp near the banks of the Bear River.

Once the Breens came into California at Johnson’s Ranch and then Sutter’s Fort, they relocated to the mission town of San Juan Bautista.

Johnson’s Ranch was a Mexican Land Grant that eventually ended up in the hands of Willian Johnson. In 1846 be built a humble adobe house that became known as Johnson’s Rancho.

During the winter of 1847, the seven surviving members of the Forlorn Hope staggered into Johnson’s Ranch. They were a party that set out from Truckee Lake in order to get help for the ill fated Donner Party. The party got lost and of the 17, only seven made it to the ranch. The survivors that made it to included it’s leader William Eddy, and sisters Sarah Fosdick, and Mary Ann Graves.

All of the relief parties that took the remaining survivors from the Lake and Alder Creek Camps back into California, staged and departed from Johnson’s Ranch.

Today the town of Wheatland is near the location of the ranch. Nothing remains of the original ranch. Just California Registered Historical Landmark No. 493. The plaque sits in the town’s park near the railroad tracks. It reads:

The first settlement reached in California by emigrant trains using the Emigrant (‘Donner’) Trail, this was an original part of the 1844 Don Pablo Gutiérrez land grant. It was sold at auction to William Johnson in 1845, and in 1849 part of the ranch was set aside as a government reserve-Camp Far West. In 1866, the town of Wheatland was laid out on a portion of the grant.


South Bay Ski Club

I think it must be rare that you can trace your existence to a time and a place that is still in existence. And I don’t mean the hospital where you where born but the place where your parents met and started a relationship which led to your appearance in the world.

For my genesis, it can be firmly placed in a certain location: Norden, California and a building: the South Bay Ski Club cabin on Historic Highway 40.

The cabin is a short drive to one the oldest ski areas in the Lake Tahoe Region: Sugar Bowl (1939), where the first ski lift in California was erected. To this day, Sugar Bowl remains my favorite ski resort in the Tahoe Area. Mammoth Mountain, where my parents honeymooned, will always be my favorite ski area in the Golden State.


The “cabin of my birth”, the South Bay Ski Club cabin in November 2017. The snow on the deck is from an early November storm. In late November, there was not enough snow to open the ski resorts in the area.

In 1965, my mother returned from teaching in Germany and joined the South Bay Ski Club in 1966. At the time the president of the club was Jack Perry.  They both loved to ski, no matter what the weather and went up to the snow every weekend of the season. They fell in love and in 1968, they were married. A few years later, I was born on August 31. And I was on skis four years later.

My parents gave to me the love the mountains and skiing. I have snapshot memories from the South Bay Ski Club. I remember one summer night in the upstairs dorm as a violent thunderstorm passed over. Being a coastal Bay Area native, these metrological dramas where very rare and I always remember my first Sierra Summer thunderstorm hiding under the bed with a pillow covering my head.

On another summer visit, we watched as a helicopter flew in the towers for the chair lifts at Soda Springs ski area.

On this day I was heading back from the railway tunnels of the Transcontinental Railway at Donner Summit. And I came back along Highway 40 looking for the large rocks on the right that signaled the driveway of the South Bay Ski Club cabin. On the day after Thanksgiving, there was no cars in the driveway and not much snow on Soda Springs and Sugar Bowl but this building was full of memories of my father, the Sierras, and the South Bay Ski Club.

A photograph from the early 1970’s. My father up in the Sierra snow. Me in one hand and his trusty Nikon in the other. He is wearing his ski hat that he wore for many years on the slopes of California: an engineer’s cap with the South Bay Ski Club pin in the middle.

One of my father’s South Bay Ski Club pins.