The Snowiest Winters in Tahoe History: The Great Snow Blockade of 1890

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.

By February 1890, Southern Pacific had shelled out $55,000 for snow removal on Donner Summit. Photo courtesy of the Truckee Donner Historical Society.

In 1889, residents of Tahoe-Sierra were desperate for a wet winter. For two years, Northern California had been plagued by dry weather, and the mountains were smothered in smoke from forest fires. By January 1, 1890, the situation had taken a turn for the better, with an impressive 22 feet of snowfall on Donner Pass, 15 feet of which came in December. Meanwhile, in Truckee, the snowpack measured just over seven feet.

In early January, a dome of high pressure brought frigid temperatures to the region, with Reno reaching an all-time low of 19 degrees below zero on January 8. Two weeks later, low pressure systems moved in, unleashing unrelenting blizzards that overwhelmed snow removal crews. Central Pacific Railroad was forced to mobilize an additional 1,600 men, many of whom were Chinese, as well as more plows and locomotives. The battle for Donner Pass had become an all-out war.

On January 15, a string of cattle cars derailed in a snowshed near Emigrant Gap, causing the shed to collapse into a pile of snow and splintered timber. The “Great Snow Blockade of 1890” had begun. Thousands of men worked to clear the line, and 15 days later, the blockade was lifted, and stranded passenger trains finally moved through the mountains. By February 1890, Southern Pacific had spent an estimated $55,000 solely on paying shovelers to remove the snow. The editor at the Truckee Republican newspaper wrote that “the distribution of this money in the community has made for pretty good times.”

The winter of 1890 saw railroad traffic blocked on and off for almost two months. In Truckee, the total snowfall measured over 36 feet, which was an incredible amount of precipitation that broke the drought. That year, railroad crews fought against a total of 776 inches (nearly 65 feet) of snowfall.

Despite the tremendous amounts of snowfall, the region’s residents were grateful for the wet winter. It brought much-needed relief from the drought that had plagued the area for so long. The increased precipitation also meant that the forests could recover from the damage caused by years of fire and drought, and the local ecosystems could once again thrive.

Today, the Great Snow Blockade of 1890 is remembered as one of the most challenging periods in the history of the Sierra Nevada. However, it is also a testament to the resilience and determination of the region’s people, who persevered through extreme weather conditions and worked tirelessly to keep the railroad lines open.

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