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"The Case of the Stranded Streamliner"

The rescue of SP's snowbound "City of San Francisco"at Yuba Pass, January 13-19, 1952.

by Howard W. Bull

"Trains & Travel" Vol 13, #3
January, 1953

High in snow-swept Donner Pass, the "City of San Francisco" was marooned! Here is the dramatic story of how the Southern Pacific dug it out....

"Trains & Travel" coverSOUTHERN PACIFIC diesel passenger units 6019, 6914 and 6013 cooled their flanged heels at Norden, Calif., summit of the Sierra Nevada grade on the morning of January 13, 1952. They squatted at the head end of the swank extra-fare streamliner City of San Francisco, marking time on the snowshed covered westbound siding. The day before there had been trouble on the Hill, as Espee men call the Mountain Division between Sparks, Nev., next door to fabulous Reno, and Roseville, Calif., neighbor of history-packed Sacramento. Yesterday's streamliner had made Mile Post 182, 10 miles down the mountain west of the snow-swirled summit, only to stall its doubleheader of steam and diesel power in a huge snowslide. The train had been dragged back to Norden and eventually sent on its way down the eastbound rails — the same route that No. 101 would pursue.

Veteran Engineer Tom Sapunor and Fireman Gordon Painter made use of the forced stop at Norden to fill the diesel's steam generators with water— just in case. At 11:23 a.m. they rolled out of the high-timbered siding, along the shed-protected main line, past the covered turntable, and down the westbound rails toward the interlocking office. M. L. Jennings, superintendent of the Sacramento Division, stood beside the main stem, giving a stop signal. Beside him was J. T. Fulbright, Espee roadmaster. Sapunor brought 101 to a stop. The big boss of the Hill swung up the diesel's steps to cab level.

"Tom," he addressed the engineman, "you're going down the eastbound against the current of traffic." Jennings explained that Bill Brennan, road foreman of engines, was down at Crystal Lake, about 15 miles west, where he would cross the streamliner over again onto the westbound rails for normal operation.

Jennings dropped back to the frozen ground while Roadmaster Fulbright climbed into the diesel's cab on the fireman's side and seated himself in the middle chair. Train No. 101 moved forward slowly through the lower crossover just inside the cathedral-like sheds, then out into the raging blizzard. The wheels beneath the churning diesels gained speed as Sapunor opened the throttle after the rear car had cleared the crossover switch. The howling wind made plenty of throttle necessary even on the downgrade. Norden, top of the Espee at 7000 feet above sea level, faded in a swirl of lashing snow.

Block signal protection is afforded in each direction on either track of the hill, and automatic train stop further safeguards movement. Track magnets rise between the rails at each signal; there must be current energizing these magnets even in clear position, or they automatically act to cause apparatus on the engine to apply train brakes. When trackside sources of power fail, wet batteries are cut in. So Sapunor and Painter knew they were well protected, though the storm raged and their right of way was an alley the width of a rotary-plow cut through ice and snow.

"Clear!" shouted Painter.

"Clear!" echoed Sapunor. The language of the rails and the sentinel guardians of the steel highway were in action.

Roadmaster Fulbright had brought with him news of the streamliner City of San Francisco of the day before. The plush yellow train had struck a gigantic snowslide down the westbound iron. Deadhead crews and linemen were riding the steam helper's cab. Engineer Bell of the cab-in-fronter had sustained injuries and most of the men in that cab had been cut by flying glass. Fulbright and Assistant Superintendent Bob Miller had come along on an eastbound rotary.

Sapunor and Painter learned from Fulbright that two big four-cylindered cab-in-fronters sent to rescue the diesels on yesterday's City had left the rails at Troy. Another Mallet, the 4104, was on the ground at Gold Run. The Mountain Division was having trouble — plenty of it.

Much of the way the City snaked down through a deep cut of ice and snow. The blast of the blizzard alone was enough to keep fresh drifts ever piling up before the wedge nose of the diesel's pilot plow, but in addition, dangerous ice cones arched out over the top of the cut, threatening to tumble more tons of the heavy white stuff into the path of the train.

Tom Sapunor continually inched out the throttle as the relentless wind undercut down into that canyon at a terrific rate of speed. No. 101 skimmed out into the open for a brief run between newer, heavier drifts which blocked the way. Still the wedge plow of the 6019 sent the drifts into bits of swirling snow. Atop Donner Summit the weather station registered a wind velocity up to 100 miles an hour. The needle was against the peg, and the barometer hung around 22.88 and 22.90.

"Red fusee!" shouted Painter.

"That must be Bill Brennan," Sapunor said. "He's going to cross us over to the westbound." He eased off on his throttle as the snowsheds of Crystal Lake loomed out of the snow ahead. The light from the red fusee moved slowly up and down, easing him down for the crossover.

"Yellow!" called the fireman.

Sapunor let his trainload of 226 passengers plus crewmen roll slowly onto the crossover. Bill Brennan swung onto the lower step of the cab ladder, cautioning Sapunor to watch out for slides beyond Crystal Lake. He dropped off again, and No. 101 ventured once more into the full force of the Sierra storm.

Sapunor widened on the diesel's power supply as the rear car of the City cleared the switch points within the snowshed. Engines roared and traction motors sent flanged wheels biting hard at the frosty railheads. The train finally moved 28 and 30 miles an hour — downgrade. Once again on the westbound main line, running in the normal direction of traffic, the train skirted an open ledge which lay exposed to the full fury of the blizzard-blown whip of wind. Sapunor opened the throttle wider, but the train ran slower.

Around eastbound tunnel No. 35 on the westbound track swung the straining train, plowing through snow which rose to 12 feet on its left, the slope side, and clung tenaciously to the outer right-side cliff 5 to 6 feet deep. This was the exposed westbound track. The streamliner, now barely crawling, made its way part way around the rocky point which houses the more protected eastbound line. The motors whined and the diesel engines rose in crescendo.

"That's it!" shouted Sapunor. "We can't make it!"

Reversing his motors after the forced stop, the engineman attempted to back his train out of the towering drift, but diesel-electric traction was not enough. Perhaps steam power could have backed that train, perhaps not. But the City of San Francisco was stalled, and immediately began freezing up underneath her snaky length.

"I'm going to the phone at Yuba Pass," announced Roadmaster Fulbright. He was out of the cab, churning through the snow, and out of sight. And he made it — to the only remaining means of communication on the mountain.

Superintendent Jennings and Assistant General Manager E. D. Moody were at Norden, so was T. E. Billingsley, terminal superintendent. Floods on the valley divisions required attention too, but the Hill received the major consideration. General Manager R. E. Hallawell and General Superintendent of Transportation C. H. Grant bore the brunt of it. While men and machines fought the storm on the mountain these men kept sensitive fingers on the progress being made. They reported often to President D. J. Russell. The dispatcher was out of the picture; Jennings and Moody were dispatching trains, rotary snowplows and Mallets up and down the mountain. Telephones were important too, and the plucky linemen were keeping the wires hot.

Fulbright got through to Norden from Yuba Pass, and Assistant Superintendent Bob Miller promised a rotary and a big Mallet right away. "We'll get them out."

Fulbright found the City frozen fast when he returned to it. Brake rigging, under-floor tanks, everything, was frozen solid. The storm raged on with no signs of easing up. A modern Donner Party was marooned on the bare face of the wild Sierra with a 100-mile-an-hour blizzard for company!

The Overland Route became a road of rotaries, for the whirling blades of the big steam-driven plows were the only hope.

The day before, Elmo [Zaleah] "[E.Z.]" Hardison and his engineer, Lee Moore, had been called from the roundhouse in Roseville. The message had been: "We want you to deadhead somewhere east on a cab hop. 11:30 p.m. on duty." Now these men were manning rotary snowplow No. 7222 at Emigrant Gap, some five miles down the mountain from the immobile streamliner. Their Mallet pusher was the 4188.

Bob Miller's plea for help sang out over the wires from Norden to the Gap. [E.Z.] and Lee were the first to reach the snowbound City. They plowed up the eastbound, past the frozen length of the train, through the tunnel covering their track, and crossed over behind 101 at Crystal Lake. Within a car and a half of the stalled train they halted. Then everybody used hand shovels. There were only three in the outfit, but they relieved each other, and finally they dug right up to the marker lamps of 101. But the City, now truly icebound, would not budge. And an air pump failed on rotary No. 7222 in back of Mallet 4188 behind the ill-fated train.

Engineer Frank Neugebauer and Fireman Jack Paight, with Conductor Lawson and Brakemen Lee and Nunn, also had been called out of Roseville early in the storm, and were manning rotary No. 7205 with Mallet 4245 pushing. Engineer Holland Raymond and Fireman Bob Dahl mauled the 4245 up the grade out of Emigrant Gap. By noon of January 13 they reached Norden, and soon after that they heard about the City of San Francisco.

They plowed back to the Gap, turned, picked up Bob Miller, and plowed back the westbound track to the City. There they sent shovels flying. Tom Sapunor personally dug snow away from the 6019's blunt-nosed pilot to get at the coupler. He tried to pull the City free again with its own power, but the cold had a firm grip on it. So Bob Miller sent for a diesel of four units from Norden to back up to get the City. But the blades of the big plow would have to get out of there before anything could couple to Sapunor's train.

The first night closed down on the City of San Francisco. Extra 2768 East, a caboose hop, brought in Section Foreman Nelson and 35 men. They dug all night to try to free 101, but the wind only lashed more wickedly and the men's fingers froze to their stiff gloves. Lucky and providential that Engineer Sapunor had filled those diesel steam-heat generator boilers to capacity. They were sorely needed to keep passengers and crewmen warm and alive. Lucky too that the air pump had failed on rotary No. 7222, for she was there to provide steam heat for the passengers after the diesels' generators finally ran dry. The Mallet did yeoman's duty in making the steam heat, with Fireman Hardison and others shoveling snow into her tender.

There was yet no alarm aboard the snowbound City. It was a lark to most of the 226 passengers, who felt sure they'd be free before long. No. 101's Conductor Clyde Baldwin and Trainmaster R. D. Spence kept them advised of rescue efforts.

The morning of January 14 was bitterly cold. Fireman [E.Z.] Hardison herded the shivering, exhausted section men into the small confines of his rotary plow and squeezed them alongside the hot boiler to thaw them out.

Later in the morning, officials of the Espee stranded on the train with the passengers called these men and all the crewmen into the streamliner's dining car. Food was plentiful, and coal lugged from Crystal Lake on the backs of some of the section men warmed the car. So the real heroes of the event ate.

The passengers' spirits were high. Eddie Tschumi, dining-car steward, announced that lunch was being served on the house. Bob Miller assured everyone that assistance was on the way. It was on the way — but long, hard, weary hours off.

Rotaries were storming the mountain, not once or twice, but again and again. But the blizzard never let up. The temperature was down to 22 degrees, and with the gale-proportioned wind it was tough.

Miller was everywhere, riding the rotaries most of the time. He'd walk back from some trouble on the line to reassure passengers and crew.

"Relief trains? Sure. We've got two of them coming — one from Sparks, one from the west. One's close now — at the Gap." He'd be gone again into the wind and snow.

"That man needs rest," opined Dr. Walter H. Roehll, a passenger.

But Bob Miller couldn't rest; rescue was near. A scant five miles away at the Gap a rescue train with doctors, nurses, food and sleeping accommodations chafed at the bit, waiting for the steel path to be cleared to the stalled streamliner.

Women and children in the forward coaches of 101 had been transferred to the Pullmans, but Miller knew that rescue before long was imperative. So out again, wading waist deep through the snow he went, to the other stalled equipment. There was a railroad to get moving. No sleep, no rest — a man can take just so much.

"Miller! Hey Frank, it's Miller!" Conductor Lawson in the cab of the 7205 shouted the warning. Bob Miller was crumpled in a heap on the deck.

"Got to get him up to the streamliner," rasped Frank Neugebauer. "Up to that doctor." The engineman urged the whirling teeth of the rotary faster. Behind them the 4245 shouldered the rotary on.

Dr. Roehll came from the streamliner immediately. "Rest—lots of it. That's what he needs."

Lawson's crew backed down toward Emigrant Gap again. Maybe an engine should still get in to free the snowbound City, or maybe the relief train could churn up to it that same perilous way. Perhaps, too, a pair of rotaries with a big Mallet sandwiched between them could get down from Norden above the streamliner.

They were on the way, 7207 and 7208 with steamer No. 4284 between them. But Lawson's outfit, backing down the westbound, got stuck in the drifts behind it! Lawson got to a roadside phone and called Norden. Jennings told him, "I've got two rotaries coming down the eastbound. Wait for 'em. Don't try to move."

They waited until they saw a figure on foot emerging through the blizzard like a ghost.

"We're stalled, too! Not far ahead of 101. Can you get back up the westbound and come alongside?"

The blades of the plow were faced east, so back up the mountain went the 7205 and the 4245. Fuel and water were running low, but they made it. The two rotaries and the Mallet were covered under a mammoth snowslide. Section Foreman Nelson's men were there, digging with shovels. It was no use — and the danger of another, bigger slide was ever present. Bob Miller, working with the men again, ordered all crewmen and section men out of the area back to the train. A short time later Engineer Raymond and several other crewmen who had been on a trip to the streamliner on their own returned to the frozen snow-fighting equipment. In trying to free the rotary. Engineer Raymond was buried beneath it as it overturned.

Cheerfulness still prevailed back in the coaches.

"Those section men tramped all last night beating down a path just in case rescue does reach us. They'll do it again tonight," said a passenger. "How about raising a purse?" In a short time $80 had been gathered.

"I heard Espee's got a snowplow — a coal-fired job — coming from the Union Pacific," offered someone else. "This outfit's trying, anyway!"

Southern Pacific was trying everything humanly possible to effect a rescue. So were many others. The Sixth Army, under Major G. C. Cotton, loaded weasels on flatcars and took them to the farthest point of penetration. But they couldn't make it. The Pacific Gas & Electric Company's Sno-Cat got through, but one double-trucked track-laying vehicle could not take 226 people out. So it brought supplies in — and word of rescue efforts by rail, highway and air. Jay Gold, who later died of sheer exhaustion, Charley Swing and Roy Claytor manned the Cat. Claytor was the first man from outside to contact the isolated train, and his mere presence gave the passengers a needed lift.

The men of the California Division of Highways were hard at it too. They thought they could get through to the train from Emigrant Gap and Herschel Jones' Nyack Lodge.

Would one of the rescue trains make it first? Nobody knew, but everybody prayed and hoped.

The telephone company was on the job all this time, keeping the lines of communication open and answering as best they could the frantic appeals for word of loved ones aboard the stranded City. It operated a mobile two-way radio-phone automobile which helped to locate and save a truck of precious foodstuff for Nyack Lodge.

Assistant Road Foreman of Engines Charlie Carroll meanwhile recognized an essential but irksome task. He organized a latrine patrol, and with cans from the baggage car of the City he and the engineers, firemen, conductors, a brakeman and a baggageman performed the necessary operation.

The night of January 14 the steam-heat generators gave out, and the big Mallet behind the train took over. Soon snow-choked exhausts around the train's air-conditioning equipment under the cars caused obnoxious gas to enter the Pullmans. That night and the next day Dr. Roehll and an Espee doctor now aboard the train tended to the ill and reported no serious cases. Everybody was on the job helping one another. Sid Paradee of Chicago, a passenger, dragged [E.Z.] Hardison and Bill Murray from a sleeping compartment to fresh air at the car's vestibule end.

"My legs just crumpled under me," said Hardison. "It was a Godsend that Mr. Paradee found us."

January 16 broke calm and clear. The wind had died. A Coast Guard helicopter soared overhead. Visions of food, supplies and perhaps a doctor descending by parachute with accurate news of a real rescue went through the mind of every person. Supplies, medical aids and food were dropped, but the doctor could not be safely parachuted.

"Look out, Colonel!" someone shouted, as an Army man made ready to catch some food stocks floating earthward fast.

"I'll catch 'em," he answered. And he did. Eggs! Some new stripes were added to his already spangled uniform.

Yet no rescue was in sight. Was it the calm before the next storm? A minor one broke at that moment.

"Dat cook! My third cook! He's crazy—look at him go!" This was from the chef in 101's dining car.

[E.Z.] Hardison heard and saw the gaunt scrambling figure of the terrified Negro dive through an open diner window into the slithering snow beside the train. Deep, fresh drifts of snow on the nearby highway all but engulfed the third cook.

Where it came from no one knew, but Hardison produced a ball of twine, strung it out so he wouldn't get lost himself, and started in pursuit of the terror-stricken man. Careful cajoling persuaded him to follow the drift up to the diesel on the head end. He returned to the train — and unbelievably to his duties in the kitchen.

Tension, partly a product of the dead calm following all the howling wind and furious snow, was high. Still no rescue. While the City of San Francisco lay snuggled helplessly against a mountainside, rescue was creeping nearer.

At the train a committee bent on rescue was formed, but to the group Bob Miller said, "Your idea is fine, but first let me go to Crystal Lake again. I'll find out what Mr. Jennings has worked out for us. I know they'll get us out of here."

On this venture through the wind and snow Bob Miller collapsed again and was cared for in a trackside shanty by other crewmen.

The snow trail to the turnaround near the stalled train had been packed hard by the weary, persistent tramping back and forth of Nelson's men. It was ready for eager feet. Steam heat had played out in the dead Mallet behind the City. January 16 was silent, calm and clear as a bell.

"They're through! They got through! We can get out down the highway!" broke the silence. The hopeless inertia of more than 200 imprisoned humans transformed itself into movement.

"The Highway Department got 40 open," reported a crewman returning from the highway turnaround. Highway 40 is the transcontinental road over the High Sierras. Dogged determination on the part of the state highwaymen had blazed a way clear. It was just a short distance through a perpendicular cut through solid ice and snow to freedom.

Highway Department cars and private automobiles from Herschel Jones' Nyack Lodge crawled up the canyon, swung into the turnaround, and waited to effect the final rescue.

Women and children made the jubilant exodus from the train protected from the stinging cold by pillowcases with eye holes cut in them. Blankets wrapped them against the weather. There were a few stretcher cases — none serious.

The autos took the passengers, crews and officials out down the sheer-walled canyon to the Lodge and to the waiting train at the Gap. Most of the people went directly to the rescue train. Steaks and the trimmings were on the house and beds were ready. Doctors and nurses took charge where they were needed.

Leaving the City, Dr. Roehll turned to the Army colonel. "Colonel, we can fight an army, but we can't fight the elements."

Powerful caterpillars and bulldozers from A. Teichert & Sons and Luntz Construction Company in Sacramento dragged the diesel units and the cars free up there on the mountain. But her human cargo was safe.

At the headquarters of Espee in San Francisco the news of the freed train eased tired minds. Wrote newly elected President Donald J. Russell: "The people of Southern Pacific again have lived up to their proud tradition of proving equal to every emergency. During the time the City of San Francisco was caught in the Sierra snow by one of the worst storms in history, all concerned worked together in the unceasing round-the-clock effort to liberate the passengers and the train. It was an inspiring demonstration of teamwork that wrote another epic chapter in the history of Southern Pacific. Every man and woman who participated in this successful endeavor has my sincere thanks and deep appreciation."

© 1952 Kalmbach Publishing Co.
"Trains & Travel"
Reproduced with permission.

Courtesy Kalmbach Publishing Co.
Transcribed courtesy of the Bruce C. Cooper Collection.


From: "Connie Hardison" Conniehardison@surewest.net
Subject: Errata - Elmo Z. Hardison's nickname was "E.Z.", not "Ed"

My father's name was Elmo Zaleah Hardison. He retired from the Southern Pacific Railroad as an Engineer (hoghead) about 1975, after 35 years of service.

I am writing regarding the article on The Streamliner -The City of San Francisco that was stranded in Norden in 1952. I am the daughter of Elmo Hardison whose name is included in the article because he worked for the Southern Pacific and we nearly lost him on that trip. I am requesting whether a correction can be done. He is referred to as Ed in the article. He was never known as ED. All his family and friends and railroad buddies called him E.Z. which were the initials of his first and middle name. I was happy to discover this website and hope that you can humor me with a correction.

... Attached are photos of my father Elmo Z. Hardison after his last trip as an engineer in 1975. ... wish he had not given away the historical photos he took during that trip that turned into the story of the Stranded Streamliner in 1952. Photo on far right is E.Z. Hardison and his brother Glenn. I believe the other (taken the same day) is him with the crew, but there were no notations so I am not sure.

— Connie Valine Hardison



The crew on Placerville Local at Citrus Eng. #4317, Oct. 30, 1975, Elmo's last trip.
Left to Right: Head brakeman: Les Erickson, Conductor: Owen Brewer: Engineer: Elmo Hardison, Rear Brakeman Norman Pilliard and Fireman: Ivan Conway.

Images courtesy of:

Also see: "The Most Eventful Journey in the History of Railroading: 36-day blizzard-filled transcontinental adventure." Walter Scott Fitz, letter, 1872.

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