Home > ALL POSTS > City Of San Francisco – 1952 Blizzard Traps SP Streamliner in Donner’s Pass – Part 1
City Of San Francisco – 1952 Blizzard Traps SP Streamliner in Donner’s Pass – Part 1

City Of San Francisco – 1952 Blizzard Traps SP Streamliner in Donner’s Pass – Part 1

The new streamliner City of San Francisco was the fastest thing on wheels between San Francisco and Chicago.

  • For three days, its 226 passengers and crew were cut off as rescuers struggled to dig them out.
  • Help arrived just as hope began to dim.

Rescuing the City of San Francisco

  • It was late Sunday morning, Jan. 13, 1952, and the Southern Pacific streamliner City of San Francisco was already 22 hours behind schedule.
  • The train carried 106 sleeping car passengers, 90 in the coaches, and a crew of 30 men including Conductor, Pullman Conductor, Brakeman, Engineer, Fireman, Pullman Porters, Chair Car Porters, Dining Car Stewards, Dining and Coffee Shop Chef, Cooks and Waiters.
  • This was wartime; factories in Nevada needed to get munitions to San Francisco and on to Korea. If one train — passenger or freight — got stuck, all were delayed.

Onboard the City of San Francisco.

  • Advertised as the fastest thing on wheels between San Francisco and Chicago, the modern streamliner City of San Francisco carried chair car and Pullman passengers. There were chair cars (all seats reserved), coffee shop car, dining car, coach and Pullman lounge cars. Pullman accommodations included: Sections, Roomettes, Duplex Single Rooms, Bedrooms, Compartments, and Drawing Rooms.
  • The City of San Francisco was an Extra Fare Train.

Thousands of stories on the rescue; From the New York Times to the Fresno Bee; When newspapers were read by everyone.

The 18-car train bound for San Francisco rolled out of Norden, Calif., near Donner Summit, at 11:23 a.m., and into a blizzard. It carried 226 passengers and crew.

  • Winds gusted to 100 mph, whipping the snow into huge drifts. Miles ahead of the train, a snowplow cleared the tracks.
  • But after the plow passed, two snow slides covered the rails again. No one knew.

The City of San Francisco westbound schedule; It was fast; One day and two nights en route; 39 and 3/4 Hours turned into a 70 plus hour nightmare.


The train reached Yuba Pass about noon and plowed through the first snow slide at 35 mph. But the second slide — 10 to 18 feet high — stopped the train.

  • Railroad workmen hiked a quarter-mile to a call box to report the incident.
  • Passengers assured that help had been summoned, settled in to pass the time. Steam generators supplied heat.

Passengers, Crew Members, and Rescue.

  • A card expert gave bridge lessons.
  • A salesman organized a talent show. Dr. Walter Roehll of Middletown, Ohio, took charge and set down rules: no drinking.
  • He needed the gin from the bar to sterilize his only needle.
  • “We laughed and played games, making bets [on] how long it would take the snow to build up on the outside of the windows,”


Railroad workers cracked the doors open at the ends of each car for ventilation. Snowdrifts had covered the train.

Great video on the train trapped by the blizzard…


Railroad historian Robert J. Church describes the incident in “Snowbound Streamliner,” published in 2000. Church, a Sacramento dentist who has loved trains since childhood, had heard about the incident decades earlier.

Rescue begins!

  • “I was giving a talk at the Sacramento Railroad Museum when an old, stooped-over guy said he was one of the snow pilots who tried to get to that stranded train,” Church said in a recent interview. “He kept track of everything in his logbook, which piqued my interest.”
  • Church used the log as a source.
  • Aboard the snowbound train, the jovial mood began to fade early the next day as supplies ran low and the blizzard continued.
  • Water froze in the pipes and toilets backed up.

The new Donner Pass party! Grim conditions developed on the train. Many were sick.

  • Battery-powered lights ran down. Food was rationed. Steam heat stopped. Soon, there was only darkness.
  • Outside, the blizzard worsened, the wind howled and the temperature hovered near zero.
  • Meanwhile, local residents and skiers at Rainbow and Soda Springs lodges joined with the railroad, electric, and highway crews to use dog sleds and cross-country skiers to deliver supplies.
  • Rescuers went without sleep or food, using bulldozers and Sno-Cats around the clock as they tried to clear a road to the train and plow the tracks. Their heroics drew the eyes of the nation via a relatively recent medium: television.

CONTINUED IN PART TWO – To be posted on Tuesday! 

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