The Snowiest Winters in Tahoe History: 812 Inches of Snow Buries the Railroad in 1952

The winter of 1952 in Tahoe is remembered for its record-breaking snowstorms, which caused avalanches, trapped trains, closed roads, and created chaos across the West. Early storms had already accumulated six feet of snow on Donner Pass by mid-December. A powerful storm from the Gulf of Alaska on Christmas Eve led to closed mountain roads and stranded tourists in Tahoe City and Truckee.

The New Year began with sunny skies, but the region was hit with near-record cold temperatures. Truckee recorded minus-18 degrees, while Boca experienced a chilling minus-42 degrees, just three degrees shy of the state record set on January 30, 1937.

In mid-January 1952, Southern Pacific Railroad’s most powerful streamliner train collided with a dense snow slide east of Donner Pass and was stuck in blizzard conditions. After three days, the storm finally subsided, and rescuers were able to reach the stranded passengers, who managed to make their way to safety along the tracks. The sick and weak were carried in stretchers or on toboggans. Remarkably, all 226 passengers and crew members survived the ordeal.

March brought an additional 13 feet of snow, pushing the snowpack in Soda Springs to over 22 feet deep. On Tahoe’s North Shore, snowdrifts ranging from 15 to 20 feet buried the lake shore road, causing U.S. Highway 40 (which pre-dates Interstate 80) to be closed for 30 consecutive days.

In Kings Beach, Nurse Audrey Welch had to carry a backpack filled with medical supplies and wade through snow up to her neck to care for pregnant women on both sides of the state line.

The winter of 1952 is known for its seemingly endless list of weather superlatives, such as the deepest snowpack ever measured near Donner Pass at 26 feet, and the Summit’s second-greatest annual snowfall on record with 812 inches, just five inches short of the all-time record set in 1938.

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