Three Days Stranded on the City of San Francisco

by Nico Scopelliti

Let's take a look back at the storm of the previous century: the Blizzard of January 1952, which blasted the Pacific states with 80–90 MPH winds and an average snowfall of over 13 feet. Compare that, if you will, to the "Snowmageddon" event of February 2010 where the Mid-Atlantic was shut down by a little over three feet at the deepest.

The most notable and newsworthy event of the storm occurred on January 12, 1952. That afternoon, about 17 miles from the Donner Pass in the northern Sierra Nevada, the Southern Pacific Railroad's flagship luxury passenger train, The City of San Francisco, became stranded in the middle of a raging blizzard.

 The City of San Francisco was state-of-the-art in its time and was proclaimed to be "the largest, fastest, most beautiful, powerful, and luxurious streamliner ever designed." With six 900-horsepower engines, she was more powerful than any other train on the line. But even with all that power, she was brought to a painful halt when she struck a snow slide estimated to have been between 10 and 18 feet deep, stranding 226 passengers and crew.

The train was well-provisioned and luxurious, so the passengers settled in for what they expected would be a brief delay. They played card games and even organized a talent show. But by the next day it became apparent that there would be no rapid rescue. The storm raged on, and supplies were running low. Thirty hours after the train stopped, they ran out of diesel fuel. As temperatures dropped to near zero, they began pumping steam from one of the engines into the streamliner for heat, but that too ran out of fuel. Ultimately, they resorted to burning anything they could find made of wood.

Throughout the storm, workers and rescuers risked life and limb to deliver food and supplies to the train. Rescue trains and rotary snow plows inched their way up the track while dogsled teams, military track vehicles, and a Coast Guard helicopter were called in to support the effort.

There they waited for three full days. When the storm finally broke, the passengers were escorted on foot to a nearby highway where they climbed into automobiles and were finally delivered to the comfort of a lodge.

It wasn't until January 20, a full week later, that the train itself was freed.

All 226 passengers and crew survived the ordeal, but two rescuers perished. One, a rotary snowplow driver, was buried in a snowslide within sight of the train. The other, a Pacific Gas & Electric employee, died of a heart attack brought on by overexertion after many hours spent delivering food to the train.

The "Snowpocalypses" and "Snowmageddons" we experience these days seem unimpressive in light of the Blizzard of 1952. A few inches accumulate in Washington, DC, and people behave as if the fabric of society were coming apart at the seams. Noteworthy as well is the fact that not a single passenger on the ill-fated City of San Francisco filed suit against the railroad. Imagine if the passengers of a contemporary luxury train were stranded today for three days in a blizzard …

We live in a different world.

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