On January 13, 1952, a train bound for San Francisco got stuck in the snow on Donner Pass.
Two hundred and twenty two passengers spent three days waiting to be rescued. That year, the snow depth on the summit reached 26 feet. The only way to reach them was with a team of rotary snowplows.
To describe rotary snowplows in simple terms, they are giant snow blowers fixed to the front of Southern Pacific locomotives. Thanks to a massive effort by the railroad and emergency responders, not one of 222 passengers died.
The rotary snowplows are still in use today and you can see one at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola. The museum has a working Southern Pacific MW208 Rotary Plow, which was built in 1927 by the American Locomotive Company. The SP MW209 was originally steam powered, but in the 1970, it was converted to diesel electric.
The SP MW208 was one of the rotary snowplows involved in the 1952 passenger rescue on Donner Pass. This particular plow overturned during rescue efforts and killed engineer Raymond Holland.
The SP MW208 was later recovered and put back into service until 1974. The Western Pacific Railroad Museum now owns and maintains the plow. The museum only fires up the plow during special occasions, but visitors can take tours of the plow during normal visiting hours.