With a historical winter currently blanketing the Lake Tahoe region, we decided to dive deep into the history of epic snowfall in the Basin. We have found the snowiest winters in Tahoe’s recorded history, based in the North Lake Tahoe Region near Donner Summit.
In the winter of 1938, the snowfall began late and was relatively mild until the end of January. At that point, a series of cold storms slammed into the high country, dumping 12 feet of snow in less than a week. This marked the beginning of a period of extreme weather that lasted for 21 consecutive days.
Over the next few weeks, Tahoe City residents found themselves shoveling out from under 17 feet of new snow in just 16 days. Fresh food was in short supply, with no deliveries for more than a week and no fresh food for twice that long.
In February, another week-long blizzard hit the Tahoe communities, burying them under an additional nine feet of snow. At one point, Tahoe City was cut off from the rest of the world, with no automobile traffic and all communication lines down for two weeks.
By Valentine’s Day, the snow was 20 feet deep on Donner Summit. During a brief respite in the weather, a steamer that regularly circled Lake Tahoe with mail and deliveries arrived back in Tahoe City. The captain informed residents that fresh horsemeat was available at Glenbrook, Nevada. A caretaker there had shot his animal due to injury and was willing to share the meat if anyone was interested.
Rumors began to spread throughout California that snowbound Tahoe residents were running out of food and were close to starving. Memories of the Donner Party tragedy, in which a group of pioneers was trapped by heavy snowfall and forced to resort to cannibalism, began to surface.
A San Francisco newspaper organized an emergency food drop at Tahoe City, and residents built signal fires in the middle of the Tahoe City Golf Course to guide the planes. Two planes dropped boxes of bread, meat, and vegetables, but half of them shattered when they hit trees. The rest were retrieved by cross-country skiers and distributed throughout the community.
Despite the late start, the winter of ’38 made up for lost time with powerful storms in February and March. By May, a record 819 inches (68.25 feet) of snow had buried Donner Pass, marking the greatest seasonal snowfall ever recorded.
The heavy snowfall quickly began to pile up, making travel and communication difficult. Residents of Tahoe City found themselves cut off from the outside world for extended periods of time, with fresh food in short supply. The isolation and hardship brought on by the snowfall led to rumors of starvation and comparisons to the infamous Donner Party tragedy.
Despite the challenges, communities banded together to support one another in the face of adversity. The emergency food drop organized by the San Francisco newspaper was a testament to the kindness and generosity of strangers during times of crisis. And while the winter of 1938 may have been a difficult and trying time, it also demonstrated the resilience and strength of the human spirit.
In the end, the winter of ’38 set a new record for seasonal snowfall in the Sierra Nevada region, with a staggering 819 inches (68.25 feet) of snow burying Donner Pass by May. Though it may have been a difficult time for residents of the area, the winter of 1938 remains a remarkable example of the power of nature and the ability of communities to come together in times of need.