Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Today's Train of Thought- Donner's Passing Grade, December 19, 2012

Donner Pass has become synonymous with California's rugged Sierra Nevada range, America's westward expansion and cannibalism. It was also one of the operational hurdles the Union Pacific ended up with after their 1996 acquisition of the Southern Pacific.

Some 30 years ago, Union Pacific's only gateway to California was the Los Angeles-Salt Lake City line through Cajon Pass and Las Vegas. That began to change with the 1983 acquisition of the Western Pacific, whose line from Sacramento and the Bay Area cut through the mountains along the turbulent and flood prone Feather River before reaching Nevada and continuing east to Salt Lake City.

By 1996, the Union Pacific had acquired the Missouri Pacific, Missouri-Kansas-Texas, Chicago & Northwestern and Southern Pacific lines. And with the Southern Pacific acquisition came one of the UP's biggest operational headaches west of the Pecos- the Donner Pass line.

That particular stretch of the Sierras was made infamous by the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846 who had to resort to cannibalism after becoming trapped when they were attempting to traverse the Sierras in the winter months. 106 years later, the outcome of the ill-fated Donner Expedition was likely on the minds of some 200 passengers and crew of Southern Pacific's City of San Francisco as it became trapped under some 12 feet of snow and buffeted by wind gusts of nearly 100 MPH- all 196 passengers and 20 crew members were eventually evacuated by highway [an interesting footnote was that an escaped German POW from WWII took part in the rescue despite being on the FBI's most wanted list at the time- NANESB!].

The frequent accumulation of snow along this stretch meant that the SP had to be vigilant about not only clearing the line with plows, but also specially made flanges used to break up snowbanks and snowdrifts before they can become big enough to bring an entire train to a halt- as was the case in 1952 with the City of San Francisco.

Here, contributor Mike Haire caught Union Pacific GP38-2 #572 through a telephoto as it leans into a curve in Cisco, CA on the day after Christmas 2009 with five more EMDs and a flanger in tow- all on their way to Truckee, CA. The units assigned to snow clearing in the Sierras are of Southern Pacific ancestry and some of them were still in scarlet and grey until about five years ago.

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