The last flight of Galaxy 203 – Jan.21, 1985

Lockheed L188


‘Tis said that when an aviator simultaneously runs out of airspeed, altitude and bright ideas that something will go bump in the night, and that’s exactly what happened at four minutes past the hour of one o’clock on the Monday morning of January 21, 1985.

[NOTE: Take the following two paragraphs with a grain of salt, as the lone survivor of the crash, George Lamson Jr., remembers it differently from these accounts I developed 28 years ago from official records – which – in the confusion, could be aberrated. I’ll yield to George’s recollection, which follows in italics. Karl, Jan. 15, 2020]

Galaxy Airlines, a charter carrier, transported 71 souls – crew and passengers – from Minneapolis westward early on a Super Bowl weekend.  Some flew to San Francisco and then motored by bus to nearby Stanford, the site of the 1985 Super Bowl.  The remainder stayed aboard to Reno for bus travel to a casino in Stateline.  The airplane, a Lockheed Electra propjet, reportedly made several other flights during that weekend carrying passengers unrelated to the Minneapolis junket.

Following the game the Stanford contingent traveled by bus to Reno, and a number of them elected to stay at the Hilton, (then MGM) [now Grand Sierra Resort], for a time.  They were the lucky ones. The others rejoined the Stateline group at the airport for passage home.

[OK; that’s how the newspaper text compiled from eyewitness accounts and the after-action report read many years ago. George Lamson recalls that all flew together to SLT, and departed together from RNO, save for two who stayed on at Caesar’s at Stateline. We respect George’s recollection.]

There were 65 passengers and a crew of six aboard the Electra when it was cleared for southbound takeoff on runway one-six at 1:02 a.m.  It is known that at 1:03 the co-pilot reported a severe vibration in the aircraft to RNO tower, requesting expedited clearance to land with emergency equipment standing by.  Per the flight recorder on the plane he pulled power to reduce the vibration, causing the plane to stall below the airspeed needed to maintain control.  And it is speculative that he then looked for a “black hole” – an absence of ground lights – to aim the doomed aircraft toward for an “unplanned landing” – the FAA euphemism for a crash – without effecting danger to those on the ground.  That hole, if in fact he was in control, was in the area of Del Monte Shopping Center on South Virginia Street.

The plane, now heading west, initially hit the ground near the old V&T railroad right-of-way, then caromed into a ditch and broke in half, coming to rest in a motor home sales lot adjoining the then-Normark Furniture Store with some debris spilling across South Virginia.  The plane and seven motor homes became instantly involved in a conflagration fed by 12,000 pounds of fuel in the wings.

Sixteen fire engines – firemen, cops and robbers

The emergency response was immediate and massive; records show 16 units from the Airport Authority (who were alerted by the tower with the initial MayDay), Reno Fire Department, and Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District arriving at the scene in short order.  Two sheriff’s deputies investigating a burglary at a store a long block from the crash were virtual eyewitnesses to it, and relayed that this was not a light-plane incident, as one radio transmission had indicated, but a large-scale disaster. They were soon joined by a hundred more deputies, Reno Police and highway patrol officers.  Crowd control became paramount.  South Virginia Street was closed and traffic rerouted to then-rural, two-lane Longley Lane, as it would be for another day to follow.

The three fire departments protected the furniture store, extinguished the aircraft fire and a number of spot fires in the fields surrounding the site.  Some Sparks Fire Department apparatus were relocated to Reno stations to back up the committed Reno engines; off-duty Reno firefighters manned older reserve equipment and Nevada Air National Guard units covered the Airport Authority’s duties at the airport.  Most the agencies were released by 4:28 a.m.  Truckee Meadows FPD (which would years later to merge with Reno Fire) would remain on the scene for days to follow and later took primary responsibility for the victim recovery. Trustees from the county jail were employed to place opaque masking along South Virginia Street to prevent the slow-down-and-gawk syndrome that impeded traffic when the street was reopened on Tuesday.

Three passengers initially survived the crash – one was transported by helicopter to St. Mary’s Hospital, which had established the medical administrative command post.  Of those three only one, a then-17-year-old boy [George Lamson] with relatively minor lacerations, would survive.  The victims were removed to a temporary facility at the Washoe County Fairgrounds for identification by a team headed by an FBI unit assisted by local medical and dental professionals.  Washoe Med, St. Mary’s and numerous local social services performed family notifications and inventorying of the victims’ personal property in the days to come.

In all, 40 governmental agencies participated in the tragedy, some in the minutes, others in the weeks, following the crash.  A grim reminder remained for many years out on Highway 40 West just past the Mayberry intersection: a half-dozen carcasses of burned-out motor homes, relocated there from the site for salvage.   

And the vibration that started the whole sequence down this fatal path?  Speculative on all investigators’ parts, but generally attributed to the airstart-port door – where compressed air is forced into one of the four Allison turboprop engines to get it spinning to then pressurized to start the other – being left open prior to takeoff. I give attribution to archival Reno Fire Department and RGJ accounts, resources in the Nevada Historical Society and the excellent 46-page post-incident report signed off by Sheriff Vince Swinney, a copy of the NTSB report, Coroner Vern McCarty and Truckee Meadows FPD Chief Gene Leblanc, that night’s incident commander. 

And we’ll explore all this in greater detail in the next chapter. (Use the back-arrow on your browser to return to these links)

One family’s tribute to the passengers, and a photo of the plaque they placed,   here

• • •

The 1949 Haylift


The Herculean effort to save livestock pinned down by snowstorms in the Rockies this week refreshed a vivid memory held by many of my contemporaries, of the incredible snowstorms of 1948 that closed schools and businesses from the Sierra eastward to the Rockies and even dropped 6 inches of snow in Las Vegas.  The earliest bellwether of what lay ahead for ranchers might have been a blurb in the Jan.27, 1949 Reno Evening Gazette about two C-46s dispatched to Arizona from Luke Field in Riverside, Cal. to search for 50 ranch hands lost in the back country.  As kids we caught a lift to Reno’s Hubbard Field to watch some arriving 1942-vintage Air Force C-82 (later re-designated C-119) Flying Boxcars (pictured above), twin-engine planes with huge clamshell cargo bay doors that could be operated in flight. The planes were staging in Fallon from all over the nation, some from nearby McClellan Field in Sacramento and many more from the 316th Air Carrier Wing in South Carolina.  The initial plan was to airlift hay to Ely and Elko, from where Nevada and Utah National Guard trucks would deliver it to the isolated livestock. But eastern Nevada airports and roads were useless due to being snowed in, so the Air Force pilots suggested dropping the hay from the planes directly into the herds and bands of livestock.

            Hubbard Field saw incidental haylift activity for the next month, as the majority of the airlift centered at Minden’s and the Navy’s Fallon airstrips.  We recall our friends’ fathers, many relatively fresh out of WWII service, departing Reno for two or three weeks with the Nevada National Guard’s heavy trucks, and, if memory serves, a couple of Isbell Construction’s low-boys with drivers. Reno restaurants and food provisioners were pressed into service providing meals around the clock; and merchants kicked in to provide a few creature comforts to the legion of personnel amassing for the airlift.  By the first day of February it had become a major federal project directed by no less than Harry S Truman, with the Nevada effort repeating itself all over Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Montana.  The Feb. 4, 1948 Gazette relates that a pattern had become established, of five to six tons of hay being loaded into each C-119 for the 220-plus-mile one-way trip to the ravaged areas.  The hay arrived by commercial trucks from California’s Central Valley where it was handed off to 48 National Guard and army trucks shuttling between Reno, Minden and Fallon.  The Feb. 5 Gazette reported that the storm had increased, temperatures had dropped below zero and that the S.P.’s City of San Francisco passenger train had become marooned in Wells.

            Each plane carried an Air Force pilot and co-pilot, a flight engineer and a loadmaster, who were joined by two civilian volunteers.  Over the drop area the two civilians pushed four 75-pound hay bales aft toward the open clamshell doors where the FE and the loadmaster then kicked the bales out to the animals below (all four crewmen in the cargo bay were tethered to the plane.)   My youthful recollection was that volunteers lined up five-deep to get to be one of the two civilians aboard each sortie.  A contingent of ranchers and hands who knew their own topography rode along to assist the pilots in navigating to drop points where their own cattle and sheep were likely to be found.          

            One can only speculate of the thrill experienced by a Basque herder getting his very first airplane ride while the plane dove down a box canyon at 150 knots with a 30-knot wind bouncing it around and 15-below-zero air screaming through a hole as big as a garage door in the back of the plane.  Over the deafening roar one can almost hear him utter “Well, son-of-a-gun!” in Euskara Basque, Spanish and English.  Nevada writer Beltran Paris, a Basque sheepman who’s made this column before, wrote an excellent account of his terrifying ride over his own ranch.  A Nevada Guardsman who flew as a volunteer on two flights from Minden related to me that they often needed to make multiple passes over a herd or band, and after a first drop the pilot made a sharp turn down a walled canyon to start his second run. The remaining load of hay slid, pinning another Guardsman under a half a dozen bales and confronting the pilot with a ton of weight suddenly shifting his center-of-gravity while already holding a steep bank.

            These guys were good.

            On Feb. 27 the Journal carried a photo of a sort-of victory celebration with a bunch of guys at the Elko airport; visible are Elko rancher and hotelman Newt Crumley and local ad icon Gene Evans, then editor of the Elko Free-Press.  Why the celebration?  The 27 reciprocating-engine aircraft had logged 1,600 flight hours on 26 out of 28 days under Arctic conditions, with some 330 take-off-and-landing cycles in high winds on icy runways and dropped 1,800 tons of hay (they lost two days to weather or unavailability of hay.)  Save for one errant hay bale entering a rancher’s shed at a high rate of speed in Little Cherry Creek and demolishing his wife’s brand-new-fangled washing machine, nary a glitch was reported.  And the sun had come out…

            Eastern Nevada’s Operation Hay Lift was a success – when the snow melted off in the spring, the ranchers determined that 80 to 85 per cent of their livestock – cattle and sheep – had been saved, and this was typical throughout the western states where similar endeavors had been ongoing.

            Now anticipating a couple of e-mails: Yes – there was a second Operation Hay Lift, in March of 1952, and yes, the City of San  Francisco was marooned once again, that time on Donner Summit.  I thank James A. Young of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the Nevada Historical Society and Phil Earl for their past research. 

The stranding of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s City of San Francisco premier passenger train a few miles west of Norden on the Donner Summit on January 13, 1952 with 226 souls on board always generates a great deal of ink. And I’m as guilty as any writer in beating it to death; after all it put little Reno in the national spotlight for the five days it took to get them off the hill.

Many years ago, making contact with or visiting the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento, SP Railroad’s headquarters at One Market Street in San Francisco and raiding the morgues at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner, the Call-Bulletin, the Sacramento Bee and the Truckee Sierra Sun, I amassed a lot of stuff about the event. And I give attribution to John Kelly’s excellent book about it, Stranded Streamliner. (Upon the sale of the Mighty SP to the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996, the SP’s archives were split among the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the Stanford University library, and the California State Railroad Museum.)

Long story short, it’s that time of year again, and this year rather than strugging to rewrite an old column, I’m dusting of a few pictures you may enjoy…

All images subject to copyrights as shown. All image captions and the website in its entirety are © Karl Breckenridge 2020

50016 sp_overhead

Here’s the train … this is looking west, the head end of the train is going away from the viewer. The smoke column at the rear of the train is from a steam cab-forward locomotive that attempted to pull the train towards Truckee but derailed. It did supply steam for heat to the passenger train all of the first night, but its boiler flamed out when a valve was left in the wrong position. Toward the left/east of the steam loco is the carcass of a steam snowplow that also died on the rails, obstructing rescue efforts. Above the plow the east portal of a tunnel, which appears in many photographs, is visible. This tunnel serves the westbound track, parallel to the track in view and covered by snow. The snowbound train, while westbound, is on the eastbound track because the City of San Francisco on the prior day was also stuck, but towed to Colfax by a steam locomotive, causing light damage to the tracks. Highway 40 is apparent in the lower right hand corner, where the passengers eventually walked out to the awaiting vehicles. This photo, taken early the first day the train was snowbound, was taken from a light plane rented by the San Francisco Chronicle, with attribution given to Ken Yeo, a Chron staff photographer

60012 chp car

Communication with the site proved a huge dilemma, abated by the California Department of Highways appropriating a California Highway Patrol Oldsmobile as the best walkie-talkie available in 1952, loading it on a flatcar and utilizing its two-way radio quite liberally. On a lighter note I’ve never used this shot in a Power Point presentation that some audience member didn’t  pick up on the hogleg revolver on the CHP trooper’s hip!

60025 weasels!

The California National Guard sent three flatcar loads of Weasels from Fort Mason, but like the Coast Guard helicopter, they had trouble with the terrain and the savage weather and accomplished very little

60050 sikorsky

The piston-engined chopper sent by the Coast Guard from Alameda proved to be of little benefit, due to high winds and poor visibility, deration of the lift of the rotor at this altitude, and an inability to land in the snow adjoining the snowbound train

60059 site

60032 grump

“I’m already late for my granddaughter’s recital, by legs have been wrapped in potato sacks for three days, this dingbat in the hoodie has been babbling about God-knows-what the whole time; I’m hungry, I’m cold and now this young man says I have to take my smoke out to the vestibule where it’s four-below-zero. Next trip I’m taking the BUS!”  © SP

60014 roehll

Dr. Walter Roehll of Chicago was accompanying his patient to San Francisco, and was the only doctor traveling on the train. There were a group, (4,6?) nurses aboard enroute to a convention in the Bay Area. The SP gave high praise to the significant number of soldiers, sailors and marines aboard, enroute to meet sea transportation to the Korean Conflict for their skills in medicine, survival and a general “can-do” nature. © SP


60013 kid

Jeffry Wise and his mother Orell — where are you now?

60080 depart

The skies cleared, the winds abated, and SP laborers had stomped out a trail in the snow from the snowbound train to a point on US-40. All but a few (4) passengers walked to the highway and waiting vehicles, assisted with their baggage by the SP. Four passengers were taken by stretcher to the highway. All of their baggage went home with them that afternoon!

60084 - cars

The only transportation available in the Norden area were those vehicles that were  already there when US-40 closed a week-and-a-half earlier. Their owners were located and – reports vary – about 18 cars and pickups were pressed into service to haul the 255-or-so people the four-mile distance on the one–lane road, making numerous trips, turning together in the turn areas plowed by the highway department, and taking another group. (As a matter of explanation, the 226-passenger count excluded 19 SP employees on board and a number of people involved in the rescue who got to the train but couldn’t get back to civilization and stayed aboard)


No words are necessary…

60091 rescuetrain

The “rescue train” (left) at Nyack Lodge – the SP, weary of having their rolling stock derailed by the snow, located 11 heavyweight Pullman cars which had been sidelined prior to WWII, and tied four large F-7 diesels at either end of this train. It was filled with food, spirits, clothes, blankets and medical supplies. SP plowed the track to Nyack Lodge, the California Department of Highways plowed US 40, which had been closed for 11 days, and the rescue train was spotted at Nyack. Passengers walked some 1,080 feet to the train from the lodge (traveling on I-80 today, their route remains evident where the freeway passes over the railroad tunnel). © SP

60095 train

Aboard the rescue train – the passengers, now showered, with a change of clothes, a cocktail and a steak dinner, kicked back on the ride from Nyack Lodge to Oakland. A very few disembarked in Sacramento, but rode all the way to the mole, where many were met by friends or relatives. SP made phone service available, but it was spotty

70000 oakland mole

The Oakland “mole” – the west terminus of SP trains, where the rescue train arrived at 3:40 a.m. on January 17, 1952. A UP ferry boat took the passengers across the Bay to the SP passenger station on Townsend Street on the Embarcadero (postcard)

sp townsend

The end of the line – the massive, classic Spanish Revival SP passenger terminal (now razed) near Oracle, formerly  AT&T, SF Giants ballpark © KB


Jay Gold, 31, was an employee of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company working out of Drum, a few miles west of the site. Word of the train’s predicament reached Drum and Gold trailered a Sno-cat as close as possible to the site. He worked virtually non-stop for three days and nights, hauling stuff and people to and from the snowbound train between rounds of blizzards (he was joined by a second Sno-cat donated by Pacific Telephone a day later)> He passed away 31 days after the passengers were rescued. Unknown to but a very few, Jay had a preëxisting cardiac condition.  His family was generously compensated by both the SP Railroad and PG&E, but I have championed, to no avail, an effort to have a short stretch of I-80 below the snowbound train’s location designated in his honor, with appropriate signage for all to see while traversing Donner Summit. (courtesy Gold family)

Jan. 10, 1952 – Boy, it’s cold in Reno!


“Slim” Dickens, fourth and illegitimate cousin of Charles

School’s out this Saturday morning in Reno so I bundled up and rode my bike downtown to see what was going on in this cold winter – coldest I’ve seen since we moved back here in 1945; not  above 20º so far this year and that’s starting to take its toll. And it’s snowing a lot too and sticking!

Out by my buddies Gordy, Willy and David Chism’s house on West Second Street I saw people ice skating on the Truckee River and the Idlewild ponds. And a locosnowplow train went behind their house – a push-plow [below left somewhere] being pushed by a heavy “Mallet” steam engine [right] with the cab in the rear, that SP uses east of Sparks. Don’t see them much this side of Sparks.  The guys say the plow train has been running for three days, back-and-30072 snowplowforth from Reno to Truckee, trying to keep that section of track clear. And I saw the three steam rotary snowplows [left] that are usually in the Sparks yard being towed by a pair of diesel-electric locos toward Truckee.

30078 Norden snowshedAs it happens, the Dean of the University’s Electrical Engineering College is my neighbor, on University Terrace across from the tennis courts at Whitaker Park. His name is Dr. Palmer, but us kids are supposed to just call him Stanley. He has a big model railroad layout in the basement of his home, and took his grandson Jim Ceander, me and our friend Jimmy Doll up to Norden a few weeks ago where we got to see the SP’s turntable inside a snow shed and a bunch of trains go through. There’s a lot of stuff on that summit of the railroad’s, and PG&E power company, that you can’t see from Highway 40.

coal truckThere are quite a few buildings in Reno with no heat – and Southside Elementary School on Liberty Street east of Center Street is one of them. The kids who go there have been out of school since Wednesday. Colleen Morgan wrote in “Southside School wasn’t heated?!!! Our house on Humboldt Street had (and still has) an oil-fueled furnace. Our next-door neighbor’s house was a bit older and they were still burning coal. Every few weeks the coal truck would park out in the alley to deliver a load of coal to the bin in their dug-out basement. My brothers and I used to borrow pieces of coal to write on the sidewalk. Never got any in our Christmas stockings though… Thanks, Colleen!

There are a couple guys who are, well, homeless I guess is the word, who are sleeping in Reno High’s gym on West Street along with anyone else who needs a warm place to sleep because they are out of oil or coal. And Sierra Pacific Power is sending its grey trucks to customers whose water pipes are frozen hooking one end of a welding cable to the water bibb on the house and the other to the street valve, to warm up the water main enough to let water flow to the house. They’ve been doing that for days now. Mary S. Doten School’s janitor, Mr. Minetto, is leaving the boiler room in the school’s basement open so that we can put our gloves and galoshes in there to dry out.

rhdrThe main highway (US40) has been closed by snow for a week and the grocery stores are getting low on stuff. Reno and Sparks just got a gas plant out east of town on Alameda Street but with the road closed they can’t get the stuff in to make gas with so the houses north of the Truckee River with gas heat areprestolog becoming concerned. Mr. Madsen told Dad he has tons of coal at his plant, which is what heats most houses, so he’s not worried. Reader and lifelong buddy Mike Robinson wrote in Karl, Your column reminded me of one time when I delivered Presto-Logs from that yard on Ralston. They were six to a bundle bound by baling wire, and heavy. I went down steps to a lot of basements in the old Northwest. The fellow at the yard loaded up the pickup truck with Presto logs. I had a good pair of gloves and a list of addresses with numbers of bundles to be delivered. I went down into a lot of basements in old Northwest Reno and saw lots of coal chutes that I didn’t know existed. I was just filling in for someone who had this route and I never did it again. 

But Mr. Jacsick, who owns the Presto-Log factory on Ralston Street, is sweating it out as people are buying logs quicker than he can make them. (What I didn’t know, nor did anyone else, was that Reno’s Presto-Log factory on Ralston Street would burn a day later on January 11, 1952, in a blaze one could see from Elko. That fire put the already-cold town in a bind… Mr. Jacsick was able to restore his inventory from his Boise factory after a long week.)

sleigh2On my ride downtown I saw a number of sleighs – many of which I’d seen stored at Mr. Baker’s ranch. My Dad and Mr. Baker – Ted – were friends and a bunch of kids were always out at his livery stable south of Reno in the swimming pool during the summer, and the sleighs that belonged to his customers were stored in a barn by the pool. When there was enough snow in town, as there had been since Christmas, the sleighs and some pretty high-stepping ponies would hit the street. I heard that there had been a Nevada White Hat party at the Stirrup Cup out west of town on the Lincoln Highway last night and the sleighs were all there with their kerosene lamps burning. As I rode this morning a few were just parked by the Q-ne-Q and Hilp’s Drug Store, their bells still dinging as the horses jostled around.

early helicopterI thought of our Mary S. Doten School classmates, stranded atop Peavine Peak, their dad an engineer with the telephone company at the new relay station atop Peavine. We hadn’t seen them for a week. We sent them notes and stuff from school that was supposed to be dropped in to them by a helicopter from Reno Air Base, but we wondered if that if ever happened. (It did!)

30069 donnerBut the trains – they kept rolling. I feared that one would get marooned atop Donner Summit, but they kept rolling. After Christmas a few troop  trains went through town westward, carrying soldiers to San Francisco where they’d ship out to Korea, where an ugly war was being waged. The troop trains were distinctive – grey government Pullman cars being towed by SP diesel electric locomotives, with a steam-cab forward tied on in Truckee, as much for the additional steam to heat the cars as for its tractive effort. They would turn south at Oakland and circle San Francisco Bay, so that they could arrive in The City then traverse its Embarcadero non-stop to Fort Mason, where a troopship would await.

A passenger train stuck, in this cold weather, atop the summit would be50010 iconic Cityof SF loco unthinkable…


Yet – I worried, even as a little kid – someday a passenger train is going to become stuck atop Donner Summit.   (click here to read about it…)

And the cold and the falling snow continued. 

Snowbound locomotive photo at right © Ken McLaughlin San Francico Chronicle – used with permission



And here, a confession: I used the railroad term “Mallet” to designate a heavy locomotive. The Mallet valve process, developed by Swiss engineer Anatole Mallet for management of steam in large locomotives in the 1920s, proved cumbersome and was removed from most locomotives – SP  records indicate the last Mallet-type cab-forward locomotive rolled through Reno in 1929. But the designation stuck around and is still in use…