SNOWBOUND in The SIERRA A California State Railroad Museum Exhibit.

In the winter of 1952, 226 passengers and crew boarded a train named the City of San Francisco.

They departed from Chicago, Omaha, and Ogden, all headed for the Golden State. The luxury streamliner promised a speedy trip in absolute comfort. Little did the passengers know their trip would be interrupted by one of the largest snowstorms in California history. Passengers spent three long nights in the icy grip of the Sierra, near the infamous Donner Pass. This is the story of the men and women stuck inside the train, and the crew and rescuers who risked life and limb to save them.

“I didn’t dream I would come all the way to California and find this much snow.”

— Betty Pilato, Rochester, NY

"Watch for Snowslides"

With a full-blown Sierra blizzard raging around him, the road foreperson’s warning was ominous: “Watch for snowslides.” On January 13, 1952, at 11:23 a.m., engineer Tom Sapunor, piloted the luxury streamliner, City of San Francisco, out of the Donner summit snowshed. The passengers and crew hoped for the best, but blowing snow and eight-foot drifts slowed the train to only 12 mph — downhill! When a snowslide covered the tracks ahead of him, Sapunor plowed through it. A second slide stopped the train. At 12:15 p.m., Sapunor shouted, “That’s it! We can’t make it.

Day 1: Sunday, January 13, 1952, ‘California, Here We Come!'

“Conditions were such that all snow fighting equipment had been placed in use, but by midnight, there was a feeling that the depth of snow and wind rendered the cleanup squad impotent.”

—Lawrence Kearney, locomotive engineer, Rotary 7208

Reports of the snowbound streamliner prompted Southern Pacific (SP) railroad management to call out the most powerful weapon in its snow-removal arsenal: the rotary snowplow. First, managers sent Rotary 7222 to clear the tracks. Unfortunately, the snowplow derailed two car lengths short of the stranded train. SP sent a second rotary snowplow, No. 7205, to clear the way for rescue trains to get through. Blowing snow covered the tracks before the rescue team could reach them, so SP had to send Rotary 7205 out again. It was midnight, and the storm worsened

“We had three hot meals and we walked up and down, joking about how we’d be here a week. We played cards and swapped magazines.”

— Howard A. Norcross, City of San Francisco passenger

Initially, the streamliner's passengers took the delay in stride. They had heat, electricity, and food. Many gathered in the club car and sang songs like 'California, Here I Come.' Expecting to visit “sunny” California, the song reflected the irony of their situation. By evening, with 100 mph winds howling outside, the mood changed. Passengers wondered when they would be rescued. SP called upon section crews to dig out the train with picks and shovels. 35 Mexican crewmembers spent the night digging out the train in the middle of a blizzard. Inside the train, passengers heard the crewmembers singing as they worked. “It’s impossible to describe how good they made us feel,” the passengers reported.

Day 2: Monday, January 14, 1952, Tragedy Strikes

“When I got to where I thought the cab of Rotary 7205 was, I started shoveling and kicking. . . We then frantically dug around the 7205 for a long time but never could find Raymond because we didn’t know exactly where he had been before the slide hit.”

— Lawrence Kearney, locomotive engineer, Rotary 7208

12:55 am:

Snowslides posed a constant threat to rescue efforts. Southern Pacific (SP) managers decided to send two rotaries facing different directions. One rotary, No. 7207, faced west. The second rotary, No. 7208, faced east. Cab-Forward 4284 coupled between them to provide power. This “double rotary” could travel in either direction. It headed out on the eastbound track. Meanwhile, Rotary 7205 continued clearing the westbound track.

3:55 am:

A massive snowslide hit the double rotaries, stalling both. Deep snow covered the east and westbound tracks. Rotary 7205 was also trapped.

12:15 pm:

SP management decided to cut No. 7208 from the double rotary in order to free Rotary 7207. Working in a raging blizzard, an avalanche roared down upon the crews. The force knocked Rotary 7208 over. Tragically, Rolland Raymond, engineer of Rotary 7205, died in the snowslide.

6:00 p.m:

Since SP crewmembers started working 30 hours earlier, 28-inches of new snow had fallen. The total snow on the ground was 206 inches (17 feet). With one engineer killed and four rotary plows buried in the snow, the situation was bleak. Conditions inside the train worsened. The train lost power due to a frozen line that supplied water to the locomotive’s boiler. By mid-morning, there was no heat and no lights. Frozen pipes also stopped up toilets. Blowing snow completely covered the windows in the streamliner. The crew rationed food. Passengers felt afraid and forgotten. Lack of communication, uncertainty, and fear caused severe anxiety in some. Dr. Walter R. Roehll, and five nurses who were all passengers on the train, tended to medical issues.

Snow shovels and the rotary snowplow come to the rescue of the City of San Francisco passenger train in 1952.
“I’m from Denver and I’ve seen snowstorms, but never anything like this. It started drifting up against the windows and pretty soon, we couldn’t see out.”

— Howard A. Norcross, City of San Francisco passenger

Day 3: Tuesday, January 15, 1952, ‘It’s Against the Law to Keep Us Here this Long

When we got up the morning of the 15th, the weather was as bad as ever. This was the fifth straight day of blizzard conditions. I was born and raised in this country, and I had never seen a storm like this last for over three days.”

— Lawrence Kearney, locomotive engineer, Rotary 7208

3:25 am

Responding to a call for help from other divisions, Shasta sent Rotary 7209 and two cabooses with supplies and section workers. They could not make it past Emigrant Gap.

4:40 am:

Rotary 7210 plowed the eastbound track. Eight-to- fifteen-foot drifts made its progress extremely slow. It got stuck in deep snow four miles west of Soda Springs.

7:00 am:

Klamath Falls sent Rotary 7221 and Union Pacific sent Rotary 070. They cleared the line east to Truckee without incident.

11:30 am:

A rescue train carrying a doctor and supplies arrived from Reno. Since the train could not proceed, the doctor rode a dog sled to the snowbound train. A group of skiers and a PG&E Sno-Cat vehicle escorted them. Southern Pacific section workers brought in portable propane-fueled electric generators to recharge the train’s batteries. They hoped to bring warmth to a few Pullman cars. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide fumes from the generator seeped into the cars. This affected almost 60 passengers. Dr. Roehll and the nurses treated 27 for illness.

“Some of us didn’t think we would ever get out. We’d be rescued soon, we were told. But the promises were broken. Another day, another night, another day . . . but we were still there, the snow slowly burying the train.”

— Corporal Jenny Jains, Women’s Army Corps, City of San Francisco passenger

By the third day, fear turned to anger for many of the passengers on the train. Conditions inside the train were almost unbearable. It was cold and dark. Lack of ventilation, clogged plumbing, and noxious fumes from the generators made breathing difficult. Passengers could not open doors for fresh air unless crews shoveled snow away from the train. To keep warm in the frigid cars, passengers wrapped their feet and legs in curtains and any linens they could find. “It’s against the law to keep us here so long,” a frustrated passenger complained.

Day 4: Wednesday, January 16, 1952, ‘Thank God, it’s Over!’

“The fury of the storms was greater than the men with slide rules who designed the plows had ever anticipated.”

- San Francisco Chronicle , 17 January 1952.

The day finally broke. After three days battling one of the worst blizzards of the century, rescuers reached the snowbound passengers of the City of San Francisco. Their ordeal was finally over. It was also over for the rescuers. Southern Pacific (SP) management and crewmembers had worked around the clock with little sleep and food. The train’s 30 crewmembers suffered the same conditions as the passengers, but never stopped caring for their charges. That evening, everyone boarded the 16-car relief train bound for the Oakland terminal. Exhausted SP crewmembers detrained at Roseville, found their cars and drove home. With another storm in the forecast, they could not rest long.At 12:30 a.m. on January 17, City of San Francisco engineer, Thomas Sapunor, walked through his front door. His wife had no idea her husband was the engineer of the train that had dominated newspaper headlines for the past three days. He had a lot to tell her.

"And so, this morning, 221 weary men and women, released from icy captivity on a snow-blocked mountain ledge, rolled toward the bay area wrapped once again in warmth and streamlined luxury.”

- San Francisco Chronicle, 17 January 1952

Mexican section workers spent the night stomping back and forth outside the train. Their steps packed the snow and created a walking-path. By mid-day, passengers finally left the train and walked the path to waiting automobiles and trucks. “Thank God it’s over,” exclaimed one woman. They drove to Nyack Lodge, a ski resort that overlooked Emigrant Gap. There, the tired, bone-chilled passengers cleaned up and rested.

At 8:52 p.m., they boarded the relief train to Oakland. Some slept, but the majority celebrated in lounge cars. “I spent Christmas in New Jersey and I thought I would come to your west coast for a holiday. Nice holiday,” laughed Tom Purdy, traveling from London. When they arrived in Oakland at 3:55 a.m., relieved friends, relatives and media greeted them. It was a joyous end to a dreadful ordeal