The New Year weekend welcoming 1952 was a memorable one for many in California’s Sierra Nevada.
Eager to start the New Year skiing, I boarded a Greyhound bus in the San Francisco Bay area headed to Reno, Nevada, with a stop to drop me off at Donner Summit. Snow fell in the foothills, and zero visibility closed Highway 40 at Colfax. I joined other stranded skiers warming themselves around the potbellied stove in the one-room train depot at Colfax while awaiting word for the highway to reopen.
“Hey, let’s switch to the train!” someone suggested.
We were told the Southern Pacific streamliner the City of San Francisco had stalled up on the summit in the blizzard. As soon as it moved, we would be on our way.
We boarded a train we dubbed the Jesse James Special with broken windows, torn curtains and upholstery, and a rivulet flowing down the center aisle. No one cared because we were finally on our way to Donner Summit!
The train backed up. We sang about bottles of beer on the wall and eventually dozed off.
At dawn, it was still snowing, but the train had stopped.
Someone yelled, “Donner Summit!”
We grabbed our gear and jumped off. Outside we couldn’t get our bearings. No one recognized any landmarks. Fresh snow covered everything.
During the night, the train had continued to back up to allow crews to pass to aid the City of San Francisco. We were a mile below the Colfax depot.
Postscript: Blizzard conditions for three days and nights hampered rescue teams trying to reach the passenger train pulled by three locomotives that were almost buried under 25 feet of snow. Relief Diesels stalled and wheels froze on the tracks. Not until plows cleared U.S. Highway 40, did the 256 passengers and crew reach safety.
Similar snows in the same area the winter of 1846-1847 led to the Donner Party tragedy.