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Donner Pass, Summit Tunnel and Truckee Tour 5/19/2023

by Chris Guenzler

Trip Information -- The Third and Last Railway and Locomotive Historical Society/Southern Pacific History Centre/National Railway Historical Society event of the 2023 joint conference.

Buses will load at 12:45 PM and will leave the hotel at 1:00 PM and head to the Donner Pass with a time of arrival of 2:15 PM. Here you will see the famous Central Pacific Railroad Summit Tunnel and hopefully the China Wall both constructed by skilled Chinese workers in 1866 and 1867. The buses load at 3:30 PM for a 3:45 PM departure and after the tour we will drive through Truckee and the tour will leave Truckee at 4:45 PM with the tour ending at 6:15 PM.

The Start of Our Day

Elizabeth and I arose and after doing our usual morning routines, we went down the elevator to Rosie's Cafe for breakfast then returned to the room and I watched trains from our 16th floor room.

A Union Pacific freight entered the Sparks yard.

Three SD40Ms are assigned here.

BNSF had a long train with Ferromex ES44AC 4624. We went down to the bus and waited to board then once underway, went west on Interstate 80 into the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Southern Pacific station in the Sparks yard.

The views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains covered by deep snow. We drove through Soda Springs saw the snowsheds at Norden before stopping at the ski resort where I led the way to to Summit Tunnel Six.

Donner Creek.

Summit Tunnel Six with ice blocking the way in.

Two adventurous hikers showed what they were up to. We left this spot and proceeded east of Donner Pass Highway or old US Highway 40.

Showing where the railroad used to run.

Two views of the Chinese Wall. Between Tunnel 7 and 8 was a deep ravine that needed to be filled. The downhill side was very steep, so using fill with a fill slope was not practical. This wall, constructed by skilled Chinese workers of hand-placed stones without mortar, was 75 feet hight at its highest point. The foundation and 4' x 5' box culvert were started in autumn 1866 but not completed when winter hit and the ravine filled with snow. They needed to have the foundation and culvert completed by the start of the spring runoff, so a tunnel was built through the deep snow with a cave at the end so the Chinese workers could complete the lower wall and culvert. As the snow melted in spring 1867, the remainder of the wall was constructed.

We stopped at a pullout area and everyone disembarked.

Two more views of the Chinese Wall.

The snowshed built by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

More views of the Chinese Wall.

One of the old Highway 40 bridges along this route.

Donner Lake, named after the Donner Party, who resorted to eating the remains of their party to survive after they died in the long winter because they started their crossing of the Sierra Nevadas too late in the season in 1846.

The snowsheds had wonderful results for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The historicial marker along this route.

The Chinese Wall one last time.

Donner Lake again.

Snowsheds covered most of this route. I took this route twice in my earlier days of train riding until it was removed.

We descended to Donner Lakes and only the snowshed to survive then made our way to Truckee and had over an hour to enjoy this great city.

Southern Pacific Truckee station built in 1891. I walked east and found a few railroad-related items.

Southern Pacific rotary snowplow 7210, nee Southern Pacific 210, built by the American Locomotive Company in 1937. It was initially steam-powered with fuel oil and water supplied by tenders SPMW 7210A and 7210B. In 1957 it was converted to electric power and stationed in Sparks, Nevada and Roseville, California. SPMW 210 was last used to clear snow over Donner Pass in January 1967. It was retired from service in 1983 and relocated to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. In 2007, the Rotary was donated to Truckee Donner Railroad Society by the California State Railroad Museum and moved to Truckee by the Union Pacific Railroad without charge. It was moved to its current location in 2018.

During its active service, the Rotary was used to clear snow from the Southern Pacific right-of-way over Donner Pass, most notably participating in the rescue of The City of San Francisco which became snowbound at Yuba Gap in 1952. Rotary snow plows have been used for snow fighting throughout the United States, particularly in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. While they still play a roll in severe snow conditions, they have effectively been replaced by modern spreaders and flangers.

There are two items on display here.

Southern Pacific steam derrick PMW 7050 built by Bucyrus-Erie Company of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1930. It was originally numbered SPMW 691 and spent most of its career working on SP's Sacramento and Salt Lake Divisions between Sacramento and Ogden. It was stationed in Carlin, Nevada in the 1960's. In more recent years it was based in Sparks and spent its final years awaiting a call to action in the Truckee yard. Records indicate that its last Southern Pacific service date was February 13, 1988. The term derrick was used to describe wrecking cranes; locomotive crane or simply crane was used when describing all other types. They were also referred to as the "big hooks" by railroaders. Derricks were used primarily to clean up wrecks but could also be used for heavy construction projects such as bridge building.

Most wrecking derricks had two hoists, the main and the auxiliary. The auxiliary hook, located at the end of the boom, could not lift as much as the main hook but it had a greater reach and was suitable for moving debris and railroad cars. The main hoist was used to drag and lift locomotives back to the roadbed and onto the rails. Cable slings, chains and spreader bars were used with the main hoist. The main hook itself was never attached directly to the load. Many steam derricks, including SP 7050, were self-propelled and could move at speeds up to five mph. This was used for minor positioning only, not for movement to a job site.

I walked back to the staton and visited the two museums including one in the station.

Southern Pacific truckless caboose 1268, built by American Car and Foundry in 1947, now houses the Truckee Railroad Museum which I visited before waiting for the bus. Once everyone was back on board, we returned to the Nugget Hotel then Elizabeth and I drove the short distance to the Black Bear Dinner for dinner before going back to the hotel for the night.