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Winter was fierce 61 years ago
by Harry Spencer
Jan 21, 2013 | 3329 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It’s been said that timing is the essence of life and it proved to be true at this month’s GOD (Good Old Days) Club luncheon. Club co-founder Bob Carroll had scheduled local historian Karl Breckenridge to speak. His (Breckenridge’s) topic was on the famous snowbound Streamliner that was stalled on Donner Summit exactly 61 years ago. The train’s story, which was number one in the country at the time, began on the 13th of January and ended on Friday the 18th.

For his presentation, Breckenridge accompanied his talk with a series of archival photographs projected on the big screen. He obtained many of the pictures from the Railroad itself along with various other individual collections. When the saga was finally over, the many passengers were able to exit the train by foot to the nearby Nyack Lodge. The famous lodge itself disappeared around 1960 when the new I-80 was constructed.

Of all the media accounts of the ordeal, the San Francisco Chronicle was the premiere outlet. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was a correspondent named Art Hoppe on hand, who many years later I would face on a San Francisco tennis court.

As to the Nyack Lodge, during its heyday, since it was under an hour’s drive from Reno, it was a favorite place for newlyweds to spend their first night. My wife Ann and I were one such couple in October of 1950.

Back to the train story; some 20 feet of fresh snow had fallen on the Sierra closing both the train tracks and old Highway 40. Early efforts to aid the passengers were accomplished by snowcats, men on skis and small vehicles called “Weasals”. During the ordeal, the major objective was to keep the passengers warm so everything in the train that would burn was used for that purpose, including the wood paneling and the tables and chairs. Numerous trips to the train were made by rescuers whose primary purpose was to supply blankets and food for the passengers, as well as medicine for those aboard who happened to be ill. In many ways the train incident was eerily reminiscent of the infamous Donner Party experience that occurred more than a century before. Unfortunately, the original Donner Party did not receive outside aid.

During his talk, Breckenridge recounted how diesel engines replaced the original steam-driven locomotives that pioneered the trip through the Sierras. He also noted that some of the huge rotary snowplows that were used in those days are still on display at the Sparks Railroad Roundhouse adjacent to John Ascuaga’s Nugget.

In preparation for his talk, Breckenridge journeyed to the current railroad tunnels on the Summit and to the Sacramento Railroad Museum. His extensive research paid off in the garnering of several maps of that era, which gave his listeners an accurate perspective of the incident. His talk was well received with an early sell out of available seating at the God Club, according to Treasurer Bill Berrum.

Harry Spencer is a long-time northern Nevada resident.
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