It’s been 75 years since the Tahoe-Truckee region was crushed under nearly 70 feet of snow in 1938. And similar to this winter, that epic season started off with a very wet fall, followed by a bone dry January. But the Storm King roared back after that and never let up until setting a snowfall record on Donner Pass that still stands today.

Most Tahoe winters exhibit a roller coaster ride of sun and storm, with an eventual accumulation of about 35 feet of snow on Donner Pass. The 2013 water year started off with a bang, but has recently taken a respite and we’ve seen hardly a flake since New Years. January, normally the wettest month of the winter has been a bust this year, but there is still plenty of time to ratchet up the storm machine. It’s a climatologically normal pattern and we just go along for the ride.

Pre World War II snowplows combined blades and blowers to remove snow.

The snowiest winter in history dumped 68 feet on Donner Pass and like this year the season started off with a few major weather events, but then precipitation stalled. Conditions were wet and mild during the fall of 1937, but nothing out of the ordinary. When the season’s first major low pressure system swept in off the ocean in the middle of December dumping snow on the peaks, mountain residents hardly noticed.

After that first storm, however, temperatures began to rise, raising snow levels to near 9,000 feet. Driven by gale force winds, a sub-tropical system surged into the mountains unloading 5 inches of rain in 24 hours. The deluge transformed portions of vital trans-Sierra Highway 40 into a raging river and shut down the road. Gullies and streams filled beyond capacity, and rushing water ripped out 180 feet of train track near Emigrant Gap, terminating train travel too.

Dog sleds were frequently used in Truckee during big winters. In a pinch, any breed will do. Note skier at far left. 

All the creeks draining Sierra canyons on Tahoe’s West Shore overflowed, inundating estates with more than 6 feet of debris-laden water. Racing waters displaced boulders and downed trees over Highway 28 making travel perilous and eventually impossible. Conditions were worse near South Lake Tahoe where a roaring wall of water swept down Glen Alpine Canyon near Fallen Leaf Lake carrying away homes and roadway.

The tropic-like storm dumped nearly 10 inches of rain on Lake Tahoe, raising the lake’s water level 9 inches in three days. When the skies finally cleared, there was barely a foot of snow left on the mountains. Most of January was dry, but at the end of the month a barrage of cold storms inundated higher elevations with 12 feet of snow in less than a week. From then on the storms hit hard and fast, swept along by winds gusting to 90 mph. It began a siege of extreme weather that would last for 21 consecutive days.

The highway over Echo Summit to South Lake Tahoe was rarely plowed before World War II, but that didn't stop these ardent motorists.

Small towns throughout the Sierra were inundated by the snowfall. Tahoe residents shoveled 17 feet of new snow in 16 days. Truckee businesses and expensive lake front homes were in danger of collapse so men and boys were hired to remove snow. There were no mail deliveries to Tahoe City for more than a week and no fresh food available for twice that long.

The heavy snow was a financial boon for locals who could earn 50 cents an hour shoveling roofs, nearly twice the prevailing wage. This is Frank A. Titus, an early resident of Truckee and an engineer on the Lake Tahoe Railway. 

In February a week-long blizzard buried Tahoe communities with another 9 feet of snow. At one point Tahoe City was completely isolated with no automobile traffic and all communication cut off for two weeks.

By Valentine’s Day, the snow was 20 feet deep on Donner Summit. During a rare break in the weather, the steamer that regularly circled Lake Tahoe with mail and deliveries arrived back in Tahoe City. The captain mentioned that if anyone wanted some horsemeat, it was available at Glenbrook, Nevada. Apparently a caretaker there had shot a horse due to injury and was willing to share the meat if anyone was interested.

Snow piling up at Homewood on Lake Tahoe's West Shore, circa 1938.

The story spread to San Francisco and even Los Angeles that snowbound Tahoe residents were running out of food and near starvation. Thoughts of the Donner Party tragedy began to crop up. On February 17, the San Francisco Examiner quoted Tahoe City Constable Harry Johanson as saying he was “holding in reserve 1,000 pounds of fresh horsemeat, should the situation get serious and the need for fresh meat become acute.”

California Governor Merriam was alerted and the San Francisco Call Bulletin newspaper enlisted United Airlines to organize an emergency food drop at Tahoe City.  Local residents built signal fires in the middle of the Tahoe City Golf Course and that night an airplane swung in low to 400 feet, dropping 10 boxes of bread, meat and vegetables. Most of the the boxes shattered when they hit trees, but the contents were safely retrieved by cross-country skiers and distributed around the community. 

Tahoe City residents on skis returning with a battered box dropped in the emergency airlift.

The winter of ’38 started late, but made up for it with powerful storms in February and March. By May, a record 819 inches of snow had buried Donner Pass, the greatest seasonal snowfall since measurements began in 1878.






8 comments (Add your own)

1. Ray Perryman wrote:
Mark, Another bit of history that is told so well! Thanx

Thu, January 24, 2013 @ 3:28 PM

2. Stuart Wm. Anthony wrote:
In the pic of those folks hauling out the Airlift, it looks like there's some gals on skis. Who might have performed the Airlift(?)--certainly not the National Guard--or did they?? They should have pushed the boxes out of the planes, at the beginnings of the fairways, not at the ends!! I wonder when parachutes became practical for cargo, as well as for men?

Thu, January 24, 2013 @ 4:15 PM

3. Chris H wrote:
Mark, thanks so much for sharing this great story. Hoping that we have some similar in the coming months to catch us up.

Thu, January 24, 2013 @ 4:53 PM

4. Mark wrote:
Hi Stuart. It was a private commercial plane that circled the Tahoe City golf course five times at 400 feet. The aircraft was piloted by Alexis Klotz and with each turn two boxes were dropped by newspaper reporter Kenneth McArdle.

Fri, January 25, 2013 @ 10:20 AM

5. Mark wrote:
Chris. Precipitation is still well above normal so far this winter, but we're losing ground every day it doesn't rain or snow.

Fri, January 25, 2013 @ 10:41 AM

6. Horse tails wrote:
Someone may want to check out the snow records in 1952 which I believe was a record snow year.

Sat, January 26, 2013 @ 6:01 AM

7. Mark wrote:
Hi Horse tails. You are forgiven for thinking 1952 was the snowiest winter, but Donner Pass picked up ONLY 812 inches, compared to 819 inches in 1938. It ranks SECOND.

Sat, January 26, 2013 @ 10:50 AM

8. Denise Bromagem Parrish wrote:
I was born in May of 1938 (in Sacramento).....6 weeks later I was lounging on a very snowy cabin porch at Homewood with my Mom. By 1944, our cabin was started on Sacramento St. I thank my parents for having the foresight to allow us to experience a lifetime of mountain spender.

Mon, March 4, 2013 @ 10:24 AM

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