Cleaning up Donner Summit, 1952


Against my better judgment – I’ve never run two topics back-to-back, a day apart, but on the suggestion of a half-dozen readers, I’m going to tell now a bit about what happened after the passengers were extricated from SP101 – the City of San Francisco train – then the only train you’ll ever see on this website again is the one pictured above in an old yarn about Idlewild Park – all aboard! photo RGJ file


30065 pa1

OK, we’re off and rolling starting with the locomotives. The ill-fated train was under the tow of three Alco PA-1 locomotives like the one pictured above. Two would have been sufficient for the cars on the train, but a third was tied in, not only for additional power but to augment the steam output of the other two locomotives’ boilers. The bars  over the roof mark this as a loco assigned to Donner Summit – the bars knocking down icicles hanging in the tunnels and snowsheds to avoid damage to following freight cars  © SP




Following the event, in the six days until the next snowstorm, almost as powerful as the one that stalled the train, three D-8 Cat bulldozers rented from A. Teichert Construction were successful in towing each locomotive separately some distance to the west (after a considerable amount of hand- and machine-shovel work to remove the surrouding snow). One SP steam crane was also used. Freed and recoupled, the locomotives were towed as a unit to an SP maintenance facility in Oakland. Damage to the units was light – primarily from freezing of lines and valves – and the units were back in service in relatively short order


Here, one of the three 1913-era rotary snowplows which overturned or derailed is righted. The only fatalities of the event were of two SP engineers operating a snowplow that overturned and scalded them to death. Jay Gold was also considered a casualty of the event

20020 up cars

The train’s 15 cars – and the like number of cars for the other four “City” trains (the service ran daily in both directions between Chicago and Oakland after 1946) – were owned and marked for the Union Pacific Railway. They were staffed and towed from Chicago to Omaha by the Chicago Northwestern Railroad,  from Omaha to Ogden by the UP, then to Oakland by the Mighty SP.  They were the pride of the UP fleet, which still owns many of them, all in immaculate condition. They are often seen on UP trackage, 12 or 15 in a group towed by modern locomotives in retro paint livery – sometimes through Sparks – now with one or two dome cars in tow (the City of San Francisco had no dome cars in 1952 due to height constrictions in the snowsheds). These trains make for a Kodak moment as they snake through the Truckee canyon!  © SP


70064_124 (2)

Here hand crews are clearing the undercarraiges of the snowbound cars. The cars then separated and rolled fairly easily westward, and were then recoupled for a trip to a railcar maintenance contractor in the East Bay. Damage was fairly light to the running gear, but a major rebuild was necessitated by the burning of everything combustible within them to provide warmth and to operate the galley’s coal-burning stoves and ovens. The cars almost had a rude ending when being towed by a single diesel engine to the East Bay, for unbeknownst to anyone their airbrakes were almost totally non-functional, and the engineers noticed on a downgrade west of Norden that the car brakes were not operating when applied. A wild ride ensued, with some reports that the trainmen considered bailing out of the engine, until an upgrade east of Colfax slowed, then nearly stopped the train. Accounts vary, but a second locomotive and possibly another one trailing was cut in until the cars reached level trackage east of Sacramento  © SP



The top of a conventional phone pole, showing snow 28 feet deep. The area around Norden – a considerable array of SP infrastructure – was impacted, with the necessity of PG&E and/or Pacific Telephone replacing 5 poles and the SP resetting a like number for power, telephone and SP’s extensive train management system (Southern Pacific Railroad Intersystem Network Telecomunication, known better in 2019 as  SPRINT. Tracks and switches needed replacing as did signal and general illumination lamps. It took until mid-August to get Norden back to a fully automated condition © Sierra Sun

60087 hoppe

Above is Art Hoppe, then a cub reporte for the Chronicle who had been sent to Norden to write of  traffic and snow removal on Highway 40. He was trapped on the hill, and spent the next five days filing updates to the Chron read around the world, over a pay phone in Norden. He went on to receive numerous awards, and became a household-name columnist in the Chronicle

60089 chronphotog

Ken McLaughlin was Hoppe’s right-hand cub photographer, and was able to get film back to the Chron for the first pictures to come out of the mountain of the snowbound train. I met him (and Hoppe) years later. Ken’s memory is perpetuated by the annual prestigious award in his name conferred by the San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association 

30061 mt rushmore

In conclusion, this is a seldom-known vista seen only by passengers aboard the CoSF passing the north side of Mt. Rushmore © but who?





4 thoughts on “Cleaning up Donner Summit, 1952

  1. Thanks Karl it’s good to have a refresher on the details of that situation. The power of nature is something to keep in mind..

  2. Karl:

    Enjoyed both pieces immensely. Loved the detail…thanks for all the research and attention to that detail.


Comments are closed.