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Snowbound Streamliner

Rescuing the 1952 City of San Francisco

by Robert J. Church

Snowbound jacket

This book was displayed in the 30th annual design competition of Bookbuilders West at the December, 2000 BookTech show in San Francisco.

During the first days of 1952,the Southern Pacific found itself battling a series of fierce winter snow storms that threatened all train operations. Eventually, even the huge rotary snowplows could not keep ahead of the record snowfall. The railroad's famed Sierra crossing at Donner Pass became blockaded and train movements were brought to a standstill.

On January 13 one of the lines was cleared and it was decided to run a few priority trains across the summit. One of these trains was the flagship of the Overland Route, the streamliner City of San Francisco.

As the engineer approached Yuba Pass, he hit an avalanche that had just occurred off the sheer granite escarpments of Smart Ridge. The engineer attempted to back the train out but could not break loose. The Citywas frozen in the icy grip of a horrific Sierra blizzard. It would be three long and frustrating days before the railroad could reach the train and rescue passengers who endured the ordeal under conditions of no power, no heat, and low food supplies.

This is a railroaders' story. It is an accurate and detailed account developed from numerous interviews and reports from railroad personel which describe an incident that now stands alone in the annals of railroad history, and is supplemented by numerous unpublished photos from SP files.

The story is of the massive and heroic efforts to get to the snowbound train, It's the story of crew that were actually manning the rotaries and of the officials directing the rescue. It provides an hour by hour detailed chronology of events and actions attempted from both Norden and Colfax. Also related are the experiences of those on the train.

The account covers a 17-day period, starting a few days prior to the stranding of the streamliner, to the rescue efforts which disabled five rotary plows, one being swamped by an avalanche that killed an engineer. The narrative continues with the removal of the passengers, then the train, and finally all that was required to get both rail and communication lines back into service. It is a fascinating story of a Sierra winter at its worst and dedicated railroaders at their very best.

Reviewer Comments

"Along with the author's own contributions, the book recounts the disaster in a series of short narratives given by key individuals involved--often recounting the same events, but from a different perspective. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to share in this type of railroad history.

-- Michael J. Pratt, Model Railroad News.

"Among the most fascinating railroad books I've ever read. It was one of those books that I just couldn't put down."

-- Stan Kistler, railroad photographer.

"Based on extensive interviews with the railroaders involved, and supplemented by 210 black-and-white photographs, Robert Church tells the compelling true story of skill, dedication, and quiet heroism in the face of one of the worst winters ever encountered on Donner Pass."

-- Carl Swanson, Trains magazine

"Robert J. Church has designed a compelling account of this event...the book is nicely laid out and is marvelously illustrated."

-- Don L. Hofsommer, The Lexington Quarterly

Also available: Full reviews of this book as well as the Table of Contents of the book.

Particulars: Snowbound Streamliner,by Robert J. Church
Price: $49.95     Size: 168 pages, 8.5" x 11"; 210 B&W photos; drawings and records, bibliography, index
ISBN: 1-930013-01-9     Publication date: December 1, 1999
Distribution: Sunbelt Publications, El Cajon, CA; Western Star Distributors, Lompoc, CA; or direct from publisher.