Winter at Tahoe ain’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, the white season was regularly one of isolation and hardship, testing the mettle of those who chose to spend it above the snowline. In those days, the decision to “winter in” represented a serious commitment to self-reliance – quite a different world from the casual, come-and-go lifestyle that prevails in the 21st Century. Although only a few remain who can describe the ordeal first-hand, tales of that huge winter linger to remind us of what a different world Tahoe was then.
This is not to say that when Mother Nature decides to pitch a temper tantrum, life at Tahoe can’t still be very trying. Today the warning beep of a loader fills the air, buses run late, and there’s orange equipment at every turn, mandating a slow-down of our busy lives. Many modern Sierra travelers consider themselves put out when CalTrans closes the road or requires that their vehicles be chained up. However, these inconveniences are mild compared to the trials experienced by their counterparts of more than half a century ago, when the “Winter of ‘52” made life hard in the high country.
Local residents who can recall the winter of 1951-52 describe it in respectful tones, sometimes referring to a certain mark on yon tree trunk that has not been surpassed by any snow since. That mid-century meteorological milepost was The Big One, and was far beyond what most folks who now call the Lake Tahoe Basin home can possibly imagine. It was the Winter of the Second-Story Window, when six weeks of almost continuous snowfall made virtual prisoners of one and all.
It all started off unremarkably enough. Mid-October 1951 brought an early-season storm that left about 18 inches of snow at Lake level. Another winter system over the Thanksgiving weekend left two more feet, a portent of the winter to come. However, further foul weather held off until Christmas week, when it began to snow hard. On December 26, 1951, the Tahoe Basin lost power due to a slide that wiped out high voltage towers as it swept down the mountain. Though skies cleared on New Year’s Eve, Highways 40 (now the route of I-80) and 50 remained closed, and the respite was short-lived.
On January 10, 1952 a weather disturbance (later billed as “the worst Sierra storm in 60 years”) began, continuing without letup for eight days. Records of the USFS Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit show that the storm left 12.8 feet on the summit during that time – the third largest Sierra storm in recorded history. By this time, the repercussions of the storm had gone far beyond the plight of several hundred residents of the Lake Tahoe area. A slide near the summit had buried the railroad tracks in both directions, and on January 13, Southern Pacific’s express train, “The City of San Francisco”, became stuck in the formidable drifts, making national headlines as rescuers struggled for days to free the trapped rain.
The enormity of the local snow-moving challenge was recalled by Jim Williamson, then a resident of Tahoe City and an employee of the Placer County road Department. He recalled:
“Placer County had two rotary (plows). One was here (in Tahoe City). I had a contract with the County to operate and maintain this one machine. And then there was another one at Kings Beach – a similar machine. And that worked that area and I worked this area.
I was cutting through County roads and here’s an auger box that’s six feet high and there’s twenty-some feet of snow on the road. It’s like punching sand down a rat hole. So it took me forever and ever. I had to hire laborers to go up and break the snow. I would tunnel under it, back up, and then break it off with the shovel. It would take all day to go a city block.”
The going was even slower in the cleanup of a major slide at Deer Park (near the present entrance of Alpine Meadows.) Williamson recalled:
“At Deer Park, when those big drifts built up, they slid. It took boulders the size of this room and two- and three-foot (diameter) trees right on down the canyon into the road. So it wasn’t just removing the snow. They had to remove the snow and here’s a boulder – and go get a jackhammer and drill it, break it, take a loader, pick it up, take it out and so on. Then they came to a tree, with a chainsaw, and so forth and so on. So it wasn’t just blowing the snow out of the way. There were boulders and trees intermixed with the snow, and there were 30- to 40-foot slides through there.”
The River Road was reopened on January 30, but it was only a matter of time before it closed again. Several more systems of less ferocity continued to pummel the region through the end of January, each one adding to the load on local roofs. The January 31 issue of the Sierra Sun noted that a 60-foot wing of the Tahoe Tavern had crumbled under the weight of the snow, and a porch on the dormitory at the Forest Inn (now Black Bear Tavern) had also collapsed. However, the efforts of road crews continued, and by noon on February 2, one rotary had reached the gates of Bliss State Park, and was starting back toward Tahoe City through five to six feet of hard-packed snow.
Donner Pass, which had been closed for nearly a month, was reopened to vehicle traffic on Friday, February 8, and with a link to the outside world re-established, local life seemed to be once again under control. The February 10 issue of the Sacramento Union reported:
“In Tahoe City, the worst is over, for the road from Truckee was opened 12 days ago, but there is still a huge clean-up job facing residents and highway crews.
“Snowdrifts 15 feet deep are piled against the sides of houses with automobiles and other equipment buried under them. Many people still are using second story windows for front doors Others have cut gorge-like paths from their front doors to the street.
“Damage has been heavy to summer homes and buildings in the Tahoe City area. At least a half dozen are known to have been caved in by the heavy snow, and others that have not had the snow scraped from their roofs may cave in.”
Such conditions continued to work their hardships on local residents, and the rent in the clouds was not a large one. February 15 brought another storm, and little was seen of the sun between its departure and the arrival of the next weather system. By February 21, the Sierra Sun was reporting 35 inches of new snow from the previous week’s storm, and both major highways into the Central Sierra were once again closed. They were destined to stay that way for some time. By the end of the month, snowfall on Donner Summit had reached an impressive 49.2 feet, with 18.7 feet of this still on the ground.
Meanwhile, the nearly round-the-clock effort to keep the snow off roads within the Tahoe Basin was taking its toll on machines and their operators. Both County plows were soon out of commission – one near Tahoe City, the other in Kings Beach. Parts were ordered, and arrangements were made for them to be delivered by airplane – the only means of access available. Williamson recalled the calamity that ensued:
“So they airdropped some parts. (The plow in Kings Beach) needed a rear-end and I needed a transmission – same type of part. So naturally they dropped the rear-end here and the transmission in Kings Beach. So we played a kind of a game. One had hit on the Gold Course. Of course the rear-end was so heavy, and it was a small chute – a chute for a 150-pound person -and the rear-end weighed 800 pounds. It came down like a bullet, and when it hit the Golf Course, it just kept going.
“I had to build a wood platform over the snow and dig known and use come-alongs to get the thing back up to get it on a toboggan to get it out of here. Then I found out that it was the rear-end instead of the transmission. And the one in Kings Beach – good shot. They hit a two-story house right in the center.
“So then we had to dismantle them. They were too heavy to put into the boat. So I dismantled the rear-end and I would take 150-200 pounds of parts to Kings Beach in a rowboat (with an) outboard and swap for 200 pounds of my transmission and brought it back. So back and forth and back and forth and finally I got the parts swapped. It took a week or so to do that.”
The two Placer County Rotarys were back in service not a moment too soon, since the first three weeks of March would see the season’s snowfall statistics almost double, forcing continued use of second-story windows as temporary entrances to local dwellings. What was ordinarily a few minutes’ stroll became the labor of a full day in 20 feet of powder snow, and in the Basin, mobility was gauged by the distance one could travel on skiis.
Deprivations brought on by the Winter of ’52 were for the most part comical rather than life-threatening, though they were real enough for local residents. While most knew from experience to provision themselves for winter’s inevitable confinement, the 50-plus days during which storms rages almost constantly prevented the regular arrival of fresh produce and dairy goods. Some found the constant necessity of shoveling tolerable only by frequent interruptions for fortification, and evidence of elevated conjugal activity began to appear in early September – nine months after the meteorological nightmare began.
However, the days were passing, each a little longer that the one before, and it appeared that the benchmark winter was slowly winding down. By the middle of April, the much-welcome sun had reduced the snowpack on the flat in Tahoe City to a mere 100 inches (just over eight feet). For those who had survived the siege, things were improving. By Herculean effort, a California Department of Transportation crew was able to meet the traditional Memorial Day opening of the Emerald Bay road, cutting through snowbanks as high as 16 feet at some points along the route.
A decided down side of winter’s wrath began to reveal itself with the receding snow as owners of summer cabins arrived for the traditional opening of the season. Roofs of countless structures had caved under its tremendous weight, and property damage was considerable.
Some of the winter’s horrors took even longer to reveal themselves. The body of an employee of the Squaw Valley Land & Livestock Company, reported missing following an avalanche near Tower20 on December 29, was not recovered until late June, so deep were the drifts in Squaw Valley.
But, as pages were torn from the calendar of that epic year, the sentiment of local residents grew. Inconvenience and toil were forgotten as survivors of the deluge began to look upon themselves as heroes who had battled the elements and emerged in triumph from the ordeal. The epic “Winter of 1952” gave these stalwarts their share of meteorological memories, many of which are now preserved in the archives of the North Lake Tahoe Historical society’s Oral History Program. When this season’s snows have melted away, plan a visit to the Gatekeeper’s Cabin Museum in Tahoe City, operated by the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, where more photos and accounts of that epic winter await.