The Big Snow


Donner Pass...

Ever since men laid rails across the Sierras, the mountains fought them tooth and nail, giving no quarter in a relentless struggle between man and nature. Nature's weapon of choice is snow, or as men came to call it, the Big Snow: blizzards marching in one after another from the Pacific creating white-out conditions which can go on for days. Men fight back with grit and determination, steam and steel, shovels and bulldozers, snow plows and dynamite. Men suffer, equipment breaks down, trains stall or are swept away by avalanches, but somehow they always manage to keep the traffic moving.

This year would be the worst yet. The Weather Service scientists in San Francisco crunched their data, studied their computer models, and made dire predictions. Nature-lovers noted how the birds flew south early that autumn, and the animals had thicker fur than usual. Old-timers studied the dirty gray skies, and shook their heads, and muttered to themselves. This was going to be a bad one.

The storms came early that autumn, driven by a disastrous shift in the jet stream and a catastrophic rise in ocean temperatures. The world was heating up, to hear it told, overturning the traditional patterns and creating more bad weather than ever. The old snow record—884 inches—fell by early November as the mountains were relentlessly pounded, and the Weather Service made dire warnings of more than that — far more.

900 inches...

It hardly seemed possible. The crews read the bulletins and shook their heads in disbelief, wondering if this was the year nature would win the ancient battle. The Big Snow kept coming: wave after wave of storms, often blending into each other so the blizzards went on non-stop. The battle went on non-stop as well, men working until they dropped from exhaustion. More men — road crews, clerks, shop personnel — were pulled in and the battle continued, pushing mortal men as hard as human flesh could endure. They barely managed to keep ahead for all their efforts, and sometimes even that wasn't enough.

1000 inches...

The National Guard was called in, but this was something they never prepared for. They were needed down in the lowlands to help with the disastrous flooding anyway, so good intentions were about all they could offer. The railroad struggled on. The men developed a grim, weary determination to beat this muther if mere human flesh could do it. As time went on that seemed more and more doubtful.

1100 inches...

Trains had to feel their way by GPS reckoning and radio dispatching, since they often ran in white-out conditions. The signals were erratic at best, anyway, and no one trusted them. Traffic slowed to a crawl as the trains groped blindly across the Sierras and the snow crews struggled against hopeless odds.

1200 inches...

Lineside buildings collapsed. Turnouts froze. Trains stalled more frequently. They ran out of helper engines, and had to bring power up from Southern California, who could ill-afford the loss. The new year arrived in a blinding blizzard. The exhausted, frozen crews hardly noticed, but went on because they simply didn't know what else to do. Down in San Francisco, the Weather Service scientists crunched their data and studied their computer models, and were grimly silent.

And the Big Snow kept coming...



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