Record 1916 snowfall crippled region
December 23, 2003
The towering Sierra Nevada usually protects western Nevada valleys from intense winter storms that barrel in from the Pacific Ocean. The heavy accumulation in the high country blesses us with a winter wonderland perfect for sports enthusiasts, and the deep snowpack provides vital water supplies for residents, ranchers and farmers. It’s a magical combination of sun, snow and water that makes life here so attractive.
This benevolent climatic profile is a real winner for residents who enjoy living in relatively balmy western Nevada, but occasionally the Sierra Storm King targets the Silver State for a serious dose of winter. Cold Pacific storms can dump two feet of snow or more on east slope communities, but every once in awhile one of these low-pressure systems stalls. The counter-clockwise circulation can generate upslope winds and produce heavy snowfall along the east flank of the Carson Range. In 1916, a series of powerful Alaskan-bred cold fronts produced the region’s snowiest month on record, even greater than the blockbuster January of 1890.
January dawned cold and gray in 1916. Unsuspecting residents in Nevada welcomed the New Year with song and revelry, but things were about to change. A light snow falling in the Sierra quickly developed into a raging blizzard that downed all Western Union, postal and telephone lines between Reno and San Francisco. Over the next 36 hours, the storm channeled frigid air into western Nevada and lowered snow levels to the valley floor. Both Carson City and Reno picked up about a foot of snow. The storm soon cleared, but 48 hours later another strong system blasted the region, dumping an additional foot of snow on western Nevada. Four to six feet of new snow buried locations around Lake Tahoe where the snowpack was already 10 feet deep.
On Jan. 10, Southern Pacific Railroad suspended all freight traffic as crews struggled to get crowded passenger cars across the storm-wracked Sierra. In communities along the eastern Sierra automobiles proved worthless in the deepening snow. Country physicians making housecalls soon abandoned their cars for horses.
Snowfall totals were phenomenal in western Nevada. Despite nearly three feet of new snow in Carson City and five feet in Virginia City, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad managed to keep its trains on schedule. When skies cleared on Jan. 12, temperatures plummeted to well below zero.
The respite in the weather didn’t last, however, and on Jan. 15 another powerful storm blasted the region. Frigid air over the Silver State chilled the abundant moisture arriving with the new Pacific system and snow literally cascaded out of the sky. In Reno the storm dumped 28.5 inches, with nearly two feet of that total falling in less than 13 hours.
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During this time frame, normally snowy Donner Summit received only nine inches of the white stuff. For the first time in five years the reliable V&T railroad couldn’t get through Washoe Valley, isolating Carson City from Reno for several days. It took an army of men and a snowplow powered by four locomotives to break the blockade.
Traveling to the Comstock was out of the question. In Virginia City, where the snow was seven feet deep, butcher shops ran out of fresh meat, butter and eggs. One N.C.&O. train departing Reno for the north country was still snowbound at the end of the month.
The storms of January 1916 effectively shut down railroad and mining operations throughout western Nevada. Snowfall that month in Gardnerville exceeded four feet with 52 inches recorded. Only six more inches were tallied for the rest of the winter.
Carson City probably got more but no official weather readings were taken in the Capital City after the death of Nevada Weather Service Director Charles W. Friend in 1906. Official record keeping began again in 1923 when the Sierra Pacific Power Company volunteered for the task.
Reno’s exceptional 65.7 inch January snowfall exceeded the January 1890 record by more than 11 inches. The “Biggest Little City” finished the season with an all-time record 82.3 inches of snow.
Mark McLaughlin’s books “Sierra Stories” and “Western Train Adventures” are available at local bookstores or at his Web site http://www.thestormking.com.