year has just barely started and it is already off to a good start for
the museum. On January 8th we had our first locomotive rental of the New
Year. What makes this event so unusual is that the museum rarely operates
in January. And then to spice it up was all of the snow that we have had
so far this year. In fact we took locomotive 204 out of the engine house
on the 7th and went to Adverse to check the track and to make sure we
could get through the snow. As we broke through the drifts and threw the
snow to the side it got me to thinking about past winters when railroads
had to fight snow. As I mentioned before, I just recently read Mr. Peterson's
autobiography. Mr. Peterson was one of the last General Managers of the
Nevada Northern Railway. I thought I would share with you some of his
railroading experiences in the snow.
Mr. Peterson's autobiography:
"Probably the wildest experience, during the five years I was
in Elko, was fighting the snow along the railroad. While we generally
did not have a heavy snow of more than 8 or 10 inches, we had lots
of trouble, because of the high winds blowing the snow into big drifts
over the tracks. We had only steam engines in those days, and some
of them were equipped with small snowplows on the front end. We also
had a large plow mounted on the front of a flat car, which we called
a spreader. This car had large air tanks about 15 feet back of the
snow plow, and with air pressure we could raise and lower the snow
plow a few inches when we were passing over road crossings, or switches.
Ordinarily, a trainman went along to operate the air valves to lift
or lower the plow. The spreader also had air-powered wings, which
could be moved out from the main body, then lowered, to plow snow
away from the side of the track. In some cases the spreaders were
used to clean snow from an entire train yard, such as Portola, where
they where experienced three and four foot snowfalls.
Beem put me at the air valves whenever we went out with the spreader.
We had many hair-raising rides on the spreader, but one of the worst
was a winter day when part of the railroad between Elko and Wendover
had trouble with drifting snow. Part of this line was double track,
used by both Southern Pacific and Western Pacific. By noon on this
day, word came that some of the cuts between Elko and Wells had six
feet of snow in them, and there was fear the Southern Pacific passenger
train would get stuck on the east bound track, which was owned by
Western Pacific. By 1:00 p.m. I was on the spreader with Mr. Beem.
He stood on a platform looking over the front. I was 15 feet behind
him at the control valves. We had a rope tied around Mr. Beem and
back around my waist, so he could pull me signals. One pull was to
raise the snowplow, two pulls to lower it. Pushing us was a big freight
locomotive and caboose. Off we went ahead of the passenger train.
When we got into snow I could not see Mr. Beem, but when he jerked
the rope I lifted or lowered the snowplow. We must have been going
along about 40 mph and Mr. Beem had to be sure we lifted the snowplow
before we hit a road crossing or went over a switch. If we had left
the plow down, we would have torn out the rail and ended up in a wreck.
This went on for 30 or 40 miles, but finally we reached the end of
the double track, and when we pulled off on the Western Pacific line
near Wells, we stopped to watch the passenger train go by. Mr. Beem
was completely covered with snow, and I had snow up as far as my hips.
I had many days on a spreader while I was in Elko and also at Sacramento
on the Western Division. Snow in the Sierra Mountains was higher,
wetter, and rolled off the plow like cheese. I had some hard days
around Portola and Keddie in the Feather River Canyon."
few years later Mr. Peterson relates another story about his first experience
with a rotary snowplow. (The museum has a rotary snowplow as part of its
snow trouble started and I was marooned in Portola with everyone else
on that end of our Division. Mr. Beem had already left Elko and I
was working for Mr. Curtis, the new Superintendent. Portola had three
feet of snow on the level. We were using the spreader to clean the
snow off the main track through the mountains. My first experience
on a rotary snowplow occurred with the two-branch lines from Portola
out though the woods to two large lumberyards that were blocked. In
some places the snow was six feet deep. I remember standing on the
deck of the rotary, five or six feet above the track and the snow
was level with my feet. The rotary was powered by steam, and had a
huge 8 ft. wide steel wheel with flanges, which turned at high speed
and could throw snow 50 feet high and 100 feet away from the track.
We took two days to reach the two lumberyards and clear the tracks
so we could reach the carloads of lumber being shipped out, then spotted
empty cars to be loaded."
Mr. Peterson's experiences on the Southern Pacific he came to work for
the Nevada Northern.
did not have much snow in the winters, but the heavy wind built up
big snowdrifts. We also had a spreader at the Nevada Northern and
we used it several times to clear the ore line. This spreader had
a large snowplow on the front and it would throw snow out 20 or 25
feet if you were moving at our speed limit of 30 mph. The winter of
1949 turned into a big mess. It was called 'Hay lift' winter, because
the snow was so deep and the drifts so high many sheep and cattle
were marooned out in the valleys. We ran special freight trains from
Cobre and Shafter to East Ely with 15 or 20 carloads of hay. The hay
was unloaded from boxcars onto trucks and taken to the airport, where
the bales of hay were loaded into big cargo airplanes, which flew
out to the stranded sheep and cattle and dropped the hay out of the
the same time, the highway from East Ely to McGill had snowdrifts
15 or 20 feet high on both sides, where the highway snowplows had
built them. In the meantime, we had trouble all along the railroad.
In the middle of the night, the dispatcher called me to say we had
an ore train stuck in the snow near Hiline (three miles east of Ely).
We called out an ore crew and went with two steam locomotives from
East Ely until we located the caboose of the train. We hooked on to
the caboose and tried to pull the train out of the snow, but nothing
moved an inch. So we uncoupled the rear ten cars and were able to
get them back to East Ely ore yard. On our next attempt we were only
able to pull back three of four cars at a time, then we had to shovel
around the locomotive to clear enough snow away from it's wheels so
we could move it. The snow was at least ten feet deep and in a narrow
cut with banks up 20 feet.
this time, the ore trains were far off schedule and the Mill was asking
when we would be able to deliver more ore to them. I went with the
ore crew and two freight locomotives and started for the mill. The
front engine had a fairly large snowplow on the front and we traveled
fast, throwing snow high and wide until we got within three miles
of the mill. Then we got stuck again in a big cut full of snow. We
discovered that the leading engine had become derailed at a switch
two miles behind us and we had been running along the top of the frozen
ties. If the track had not been frozen we would have torn out a lot
of rail. Well, we all got shovels, including the trainmen and enginemen,
and dug around all the wheels of the rear locomotive until it was
able to back out of the snowdrift. Then we shoveled the track clear
until we could couple on to the leading engine. After we dug out all
along the inside of the front engine, we were able to move it back,
then put down a pair of rerailing frogs and the wheels went back on
the rails. What a relief. From there to the mill we made good time.
The conductor and I went to the phone and reported we had made it
though to the mill and were ready to return."
I rode out to Adverse, I thought about Mr. Peterson's experiences getting
to the mill. The mill location would have been beyond our current end
of track at Adverse. On this particular day we had it easy. The sun was
shining, there was no wind and 204 just plowed through the drifts, rather
spectacularly but easily, all I had to do was watch. I found it hard to
image myself on a spreader being pushed at 40 mph with a rope around my
waist for signals. Knowing if I missed a signal, I would cause a train
wreck. And they called that the good old days?