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When ‘Ole Man Winter’ was a Real Threat
by Harry Spencer
Mar 04, 2011 | 1496 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy Photo - The story of the snowbound Southern Pacific’s steamliner called the City of San Francisco trapped in the snow of the high Sierra in the winter of 1952 will be shown on video at the Good Old Days Club’s luncheon on March 18.
Courtesy Photo - The story of the snowbound Southern Pacific’s steamliner called the City of San Francisco trapped in the snow of the high Sierra in the winter of 1952 will be shown on video at the Good Old Days Club’s luncheon on March 18.
Long time residents of the Truckee Meadows can probably give you book, chapter and verse about how tough some of the winters of the previous century were here. The granddaddy of them all seems to have occurred in 1952.

The most thorough description of the “Great Blizzard of 1952” was authored by retired Nevada Historical Society’s Phillip I. Earl, for one of his memorable releases that appeared in newspapers statewide titled “This Was Nevada” series.

As Earl tells it, “the ‘big blow’ held off until Friday afternoon, Jan 11.” Once the storm hit, however, Reno was soon isolated with all roads leading in having been closed. Another Earl quote that is impressive about that era was, “A reading of three degrees above zero had greeted early-rising Renoites on New Year’s Day, 1952 and those who ventured out that morning observed another increase in the thickness of the ice pack on the Truckee River – five to six feet they estimated.” How long has it been since anyone here has seen that much ice covering the Truckee?

This frigid start to the new year heralded what was to become one of the top stories in the nation less than two weeks later and that leads us to the purpose of this article. The big story concerned a Southern Pacific passenger train that became stuck in the snow just over Donner summit and east of the Yuba gap. It was a 15-car luxury diesel streamliner carrying some 196 passengers. Those passengers were marooned from Jan. 13 to 16 before an effective rescue effort could be mounted. According to the Earl article, “The streamliner was pulled free of the slide Saturday, Jan. 19, and passenger and freight service resumed four days later.”

A video of the event, titled “Snow on the Run” was produced by Southern Pacific and it will be the feature of the March 18 meeting of the area’s Good Old Days (GOD) club at noon at the Tamarack Junction casino on South Virginia Street. Making the presentation will be Larry Kirk. GOD club meetings are open to the public for the $15 cost of the luncheon but reservations have to be made by 5 p.m. March 15 by contacting Bill Berrum at 787-1663 or by email at

As one who trudged through these enormous snow drifts during the winter of 1951-52, I can recall how the people in the area felt about being literally cut off from the outside world. With all of the road closures and flights into and out of Hubbard field cancelled, it seemed the railroad was the only avenue to the rest of civilization — but that changed with the snowbound streamliner blocking the track.

To give some perspective of how challenging the work was to get Reno accessible again we refer back to the Earl article, wherein he states, “Work on reopening the entire length of Highway 40 was continuing, the crews on Donner Summit using crescent saws to slice up blocks of ice and dynamite to clear the snowpack. The highway was finally opened to traffic on Feb. 8 after being closed for 28 days.”

The credit line on the Southern Pacific video, scheduled for showing on March 18 reads, “Snow On The Run.” This Southern Pacific produced film is dedicated to its employees who fought the snow on Donner Pass. It was shot during the record-breaking snowfall winter of 1951-52. All of Southern Pacific’s snow-fighting equipment is put to use — from hand shovels to giant rotaries pushed by cabforwards, as well as flangers and Jordon spreaders. An interesting graphics display shows the decline of the snowshed system and the depth of that winter’s snowfall. There is rare footage of a frozen city of San Francisco being dug out and pulled free after having been trapped for three days in a snowslide. Still dominant steam power is featured in this, the best snowfighting film ever made.

While rescue efforts were accomplished by steam driven locomotives the time marked the beginning of the transition to diesel, which is what powered the beleaguered city of San Francisco streamliner.

In addition to the well-researched article that Phillip Earl produced on the wintertime tragedy in the Sierra there was another local that had firsthand experience in covering the event. His name was Jerry Cobb, who at that time operated the top photo shop in Reno. During the research of the Earl article at the Nevada Historical Society, Jerry’s son, Neal Cobb, showed up and immediately accurately quoted the date of the stuck train incident and then repaired to the archive room at the NHS to bring out a copy of a San Francisco daily newspaper that featured shots taken by his dad Jerry in a four-page layout. In addition to the newspaper, Neal had a stack of 8x10 glossy photos that his father had snapped of the train and the surrounding area while leaning out of the cockpit of an open airplane. The photos are sharp and clear and give the best image of what the scene looked like some 49 years ago.

Next time someone here complains about six or so inches of snow on the valley floor, respond by saying, “Let me tell you about the winter of ’52.”

Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.

Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.
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