Donner Route Accidents and Other Incidents

Each month our newsletter features a brief description of accidents or incidents that have occurred on the Donner Route.  Below is a summary of those reports.  The list will be updated with new items that appear in the newsletter.

JANUARY 28 1937 A westbound rotary snow plow was rear-ended by a westbound freight at Blue Canon. Both were powered by cab-forward locomotives. The plow had stopped just west of a signal to put out a fire in the plow and build up steam. Weather was snowing and blowing with about 10 feet of snow on the ground. A flagman was posted the proper distance behind the stopped plow. The westbound freight had picked up a relief crew so there were 6 people in the cab. The engineer did try to stop the train when he saw the flagman but the freight hit the stopped plow at approximately 8 MPH, damaging both engines, injuring 6 employees and derailing six cars. The investigation determined the cause to be failure to observe automatic block-signal indications and to obey the stop signals of a flagman. Report provided by Phil Smith from the Tortoise Tattler

From earliest days of operation, wooden snow sheds were a major aid in keeping tracks open over Donner Summit during winter snowstorms, but they were also a fire hazard. The Grass Valley Union included this item in its Dec. 31, 1876 issue: “SNOW SHEDS BURNED – There were 3,100 feet of snow sheds burned, on the Central Pacific Railroad, yesterday morning. The sheds burnt were between Blue Canon and the summit. The result was that the mail train bound West was delayed several hours. The “wreck” was promptly cleared away, and business over the line is now going forward as usual.” An article in the Sacramento Daily Union noted the fire that started near Summit Valley was supposed to have been caused by the locomotive of an eastbound tea train, and nearly 4000 feet of sheds were lost in the extremely hot fire.

In 1898 the boiler of an eastbound train’s lead locomotive exploded as it was passing the Dutch Flat station. The engineer, fireman and an unidentified person were killed by the blast. The explosion also demolished the adjacent saloon, boarding house and depot operated by the Faller family. Three members of the family and one other person were injured by the flying debris.

Newspaper reports documented other locomotive boiler explosions on the Donner Route. On Oct. 15, 1894 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the head engine of eastbound freight train No. 9 blew up as they were pulling into Colfax. The engineer, fireman and one other person received burns and other injuries but no one was killed. The only damage sustained by the second engine was a broken headlight and cab windows. The grade is slight where the incident occurred, and “no other cause can be assigned to the accident except low water in the boiler.” Not so fortunate were the crew members on a double-header Central Pacific freight train as it neared the Summit in 1879. The Jan. 4, 1879 Grass Valley Union reported that the boiler of one of the locomotives exploded, instantly killing the engineer and fireman. The engineer and fireman of the other locomotive were injured along with three or four others.