Headed to the Bay Area on Jan. 13, 1952, the luxury streamliner City of San Francisco stopped to assess a 10- to 18-foot high avalanche that had slid across the tracks. The slide was 17 miles west of Truckee at Yuba Gap, and the conductor attempted, but failed, to forge through the wall of snow. For three days a heavy blizzard hammered the area, wreaking havoc on attempts to rescue the train and its 226 passengers and crew.

Despite the death of an engineer who was killed by an avalanche while attempting to meet the City on a rotary snowplow (a train with a large set of circular blades on the front to clear snow), there was a happy ending.

“It’s really an example of the human spirit and how everyone pulled together to save lives,” said Barbara Czerwinski, a volunteer with the Truckee Donner Historical Society.

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On Sunday, the day the train stalled, roadmaster J.T. Fulbright hiked a half-mile through the snow to a phone at Yuba Pass to alert the railroad to the situation, setting off a series of rescue attempts.

Two rotaries were immediately dispatched. One made it to the rear of the train but suffered a broken air pump, then derailed on the ice. The other got to the front of the train but couldn’t get the train to move. Later in the evening, a crew of 35 section men arrived at the train, employed to try and dig out the train by hand. They made progress but lacked the numbers to fully clear the snow.

By nightfall on that first day there was an estimated 206 inches of snow on the ground and winds of 100 miles an hour. The winter of ’52 would end with 800 inches of snow on Donner Summit, the second highest total since 1879, according to the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory.

On Monday, two more rotaries were deployed but both were hit by the same avalanche that killed engineer Rolland Raymond. The railroad coordinated with army headquarters in San Francisco to deploy three snow weasels, heavy machinery that resemble tanks but is designed for snow travel. However, the weasels were unable to reach the train, and a fifth rotary also failed to make it after running out of fuel.

Meanwhile, famous rescue dog Rex the Blizzard King, a Samoyed with more than 30 mountain rescues, was put on the case. After being taken out of a dog show in San Francisco, Rex was flown to Truckee and put on as lead dog on a sled team that delivered a Truckee doctor and medical supplies to the train.

On board, spirits gradually sunk as the train lost heat and had to use a generator that was hiked in. Passenger Dr. Walter H. Roehll put himself to work and enlisted the help of five registered nurses who were also on board, treating six non-fatal heart attacks, about 20 people who had become ill from carbon monoxide created by the generator, and one unruly drug addict who had to be isolated in a cabin and given metered doses of morphine.  

On the fourth day, the snows remitted and a rescue rotary succeeded in making it to the Nyack Lodge, site of a current rest stop on westbound Interstate 80 near Emigrant Gap. The Highway Department opened Old Hwy 40 to the Nyack Lodge and the passengers were led to the highway, then driven by private automobile to the lodge, where food and warmth waited.

The train remained buried in snow and, on Thursday, 300 laborers and an array of heavy equipment arrived to extract the train. Normal operations for the route did not resume until Jan. 26, almost two weeks after the train became trapped.

“These laborers, working in grueling conditions, are the unsung heroes of the whole ordeal,” Cwerzinski said.

Barbara Czerwinski will give a presentation on the story of the stranded streamliner Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Truckee Veterans Memorial Building on 10214 High St., Truckee.

Author

  • Dave Zook

    Dave Zook has been aiming to turn interests in outdoor activities like snowboarding and surfing into a professional endeavor for quite some time. He is elated to be writing and editing for Moonshine Ink and still have time to explore the ample offerings of the Sierra.

    Connect with Dave

    Visit:
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    10317 Riverside Dr
    Truckee, CA 96161
    Email: dzook (at) moonshineink.com

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