Snowbound Streamliner

Rescuing the 1952 City of San Francisco

by Robert J. Church

Full Text of Some Reviews:

Review from Trains magazine, April 2000, p. 78

"Intense winter storms and record snowfall greeted the opening days of 1952 on the high reaches of California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Even Southern Pacific's big rotary snowplows were hard-pressed to cope with the drifts on Donner Pass. On January 13, with one track open across the summit, the railroad's premier pasenger train on the route, the City of San Francisco, was sent on its way.

"As the train neared Yuba Pass, it suddenly encountered deep snow left by two massive snowslides. With its Alco PA's half-buried in 8- to 12-foot drifts, the train's 226 passengers and crew were trapped in a howling blizzard, deep in the mountains.

"Snowbound Streamliner details the events leading up to the stranding of the train, followed by a meticulous hour-by-hour account of the massive three-day effort to rescue the passengers--an operation that disabled five rotary plows, including one that was engulfed in an avalanche that killed an engineer. 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


Review from The Lexington Quarterly, June 2000, p. 1

"Southern Pacific had "Four Great Routes West," each one having unique characteristics, but the historic Overland Route with outlet to the East via Ogden and Union Pacific typically captured attention of the man in the executive suite at San Francisco. Never was that more the case than when Donald J. Russell dominated SP's affairs in the 1950s and 1960s. SP had always taken pride in its ability to deal with whatever "the mountain" (Sierra Nevada) dished out. Russell took it personally. Thus when the City of San Francisco became trapped at Yuba Gap in January 1952, the entire organization was embarrassed; Russell was mortified.

"Robert J. Church has designed a compelling account of this event--sketching the nature of Sierra winters, SP's historic tactics in handling monumental snowfalls, the event itself, life aboard the stranded train, rescue efforts, extrication of the stalled train and stranded work equipment, and restoration of service. The book is nicely laid out and is marvelously illustrated.

"D.J. Russell's estimation of the book would have been mixed. He was immensely proud of SP's response to the emergency, but he was forever irritated that it ever happened--and color went to his face if ever reminded of the event. "

-Don L. Hofsummer


Review from Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, September 2000, p. 24

"Snowbound Streamliner tells the fascinating story of the rescue of the passengers aboard Train 101, the City of San Francisco. The train became snowbound near Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains on Sunday, January 13, 1952. The rescue took three days as the result of a series of incidents which incapacitated much of the Southern Pacific's snow fighting equipment, and the extreme weather conditions during mid-January 1952.

"The author interviewed many of the people who were involved in these events, researched Southern Pacific records, and used a variety of other sources to construct a detailed description of the sequence of events which took place. The first person recollections are especially interesting because they give a good feel for 1950s railroaders and railroading. The book makes good use of many carefully chosen photos, and several informative maps, to help tell the story..

"The first two chapters gives a history of snow fighting in the Sierras. The severity of the California mountain winters was underestimated at first because the snowfalls were light during the winters when the line was surveyed and during the early years of construction. A table from the SP archives lists the total snowfall at Donner Summit during several severe winters between 1879-80 and 1951-52. The snow fighting equipment and tactics which were in use in the 1950s are described and illustrated by many photos.

"Chapters Three and Four provide an overview of the events leading up to the train becoming stuck, describe a series of unsuccessful rescue attempts, and the successful rescue of the passengers from the stranded train, and finally the cleanup which followed the rescue. Two maps of the area where the train was snowbound are included.

"The last part of Chapter 4 details the run of Train 101 starting at Norden and culminating in its becoming stalled in a deep snow slide at milepost 176.6 just outside Tunnel 35 in an area known as Smart Ridge. A graphical timeline would be a useful addition here, as an aid to the reader in following this complex story, with many parallel threads.

"Efforts to rescue Train 101 were mounted from both the east and the west and are described in the next three chapters. The unsuccessful efforts from the east are described in Chapter 5. By mid-day on Monday the 14th, four of the SPs six Sacramento Division rotaries were out of action, seriously hampering the attempts to rescue Train 101 and its passengers. The conditions on the train are described in the sixth chapter. There was no heat on the train from mid-morning on Monday until Wednesday when the passengers were rescued. The train crew, and a doctor who was traveling to San Francisco, worked almost non stop to make the passengers as comfortable as possible under these adverse conditions.

"Chapter 7 describes the successful rescue efforts from the west. The last working SP rotary was successful in plowing to the streamliner on the morning of Wednesday the 16th. The passengers were taken on foot and by auto convoy to a nearby lodge for a short rest and a hot meal. They boarded a relief train and were finally able to continue their journey to Oakland at 8:29 p.m. on Wednesday the 16th.

"Chapter eight completes the story. The City cars and locomotives were freed on Saturday the l9th, using a combination of bulldozers and a wreck crane. The line over Donner was not returned to normal operations until Saturday the 26th. The final chapter is an epilogue describing the evolution of SP snow removal practices and equipment since 1952. The have been few changes in the procedures and equipment. The disaster of 1952 has not been repeated even though severe snowfalls have occurred several times since then."

--Larry Kline


Review from Model Railroad News, June 2000, p. 25

"Among the latest titles released by Signature Press covering the Southern Pacific is Snowbound Streamliner--Rescuing the 1952 City of San Francisco. Written by Robert J. Church, the new book covers the events leading up to, and the effort required to rescue the westbound streamliner on the Espee's Overland Route.

Murphy's law states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Such was the case during the first days of 1952 when the Southern Pacific found itself battling a series of fierce winter snow storms. The storms threatened all train operations. At one point, the railroad's famed Sierra crossing at Donner Pass became blockaded and train movements were brought to a standstill.

"On January 12, the City of San Francisco, Train 101, was sent westward over the pass. With a cab-forward acting as point helper, the train hit a snow slide two miles west of Troy. The impact broke the windows of the cab-forward and filled the cab with snow, trapping the crew. After the men were dug out, the train was pulled back to Norden leaving the diesels and cab-forward frozen in the drift. Sending two more cab-forwards to retrieve the locomotives, Espee crews managed to free the diesels but not the lead cab-forward.

"On the way back to Norden, one of the cab-forwards pulling the stricken diesels derailed, taking the diesels with it. And this was only the beginning. The City of San Francisco of January 13 left Sparks at 11:23 a.m., and by 12:15 p.m. was stalled in the heavy snow near Yuba Gap. The engineer attempted to back the train out, but it too could not break loose. It would be three days before the railroad could reach this train and rescue the stranded passengers.

"The book begins by covering a little winter history of the area. The text, as well as several vintage photographs, explain the efforts and hardships encountered on the Donner Pass route in the late 1800s when the line was operated by Central Pacific. These early snow fighting efforts often called for a Bucker Plow, weighted with pig iron ballast and backed by as many as twelve steam locomotives, to be rammed into snow drifts to clear the line. Once stalled, the entire consist was backed up, then charged ahead to clear more rail!

"The second chapter covers more modern types of snow fighting equipment and how they operate. Included with the many photographs in this chapter is a roster of equipment for the Mountain District--Sacramento Division in the winter of 1951-52. The chapter also includes elevation charts, along with a graph illustrating annual snowfall at Donner Summit from 1878 to 1985.

"An overview of events, listed by date, as well as a map illustrating the stranded train and other equipment follow. The map is a nice addition, as some of the details given in the book can be overwhelming without this excellent point of reference. Each car number and/or name, as well as locomotive and snowplow numbers and their stranded positions are indicated on the map. The map would make an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to model the train or its predicament.

"The author then gives an account of the events leading up to the disaster. This is followed by the next 100 pages which describe: the rescue efforts from the east, the conditions on the train itself, the rescue efforts from the west, the removal of the passengers, extracting the train itself, then finally the restoration of rail and communication lines. An epilogue covers some of the lessons learned, and actions taken by the SP after the disaster. The 8-1/2"x 11", hardcover book with dust jacket features 168 pages and 210 photographs. The book also includes a bibliography and index.

"The text is extremely detailed, with locomotive, snowplow, milepost, snowfall, and train numbers seemingly listed in almost every paragraph. The names of practically everyone involved is included in the text as well-the only thing missing is a complete passenger list. This is not a critique, but an illustration as to the amount of information contained within the book. This book is an exhaustive effort on the part of the author. The five or six minor errors suggest that one more proof read would have been in order.

"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. Although occasionally hard to follow due to the repetitive nature, this method provides a much more personal feeling to the story than if it had been simply the recounting of events by a non-participant.

"The book also covers the tragic details of the disaster. Engineer Rolland "Rolly" Raymond was buried in an avalanche on the 14th of January, 1952. Jay Gold, a 33-year-old Pacific Gas and Electric employee who helped in rescue efforts with full knowledge of an existing heart condition, died on Sunday, January 20 from a massive heart attack. One small, but intriguing detail was that there was a few million dollars worth of paper currency bound for the San Francisco mint on board the City of San Francisco.

"The photographs in the book are well reproduced, especially considering the harsh conditions under which most were taken. All are in black and white and capture the area around the stricken train (including some dramatic overhead shots), the equipment and locomotives used in the rescue efforts, as well as some of the passengers and people involved. The layout is well organized and easy to follow. Personal and company letters, notes, and the Gold Medal Certificate awarded to Jay Gold by PG&E are also reproduced.

"Although the book covers only one event in the annals of railroad history, this one event has drawn the attention of scores of people railfan or not, and deserves to be told in detail. The story itself is compelling, and proves that when certain conditions arise, even common working men can be considered heroes. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to share in this type of railroad history. "

-- Michael J. Pratt