The Southern Pacific tamed the great American deserts and crossed more mountain summits than any other railroad in the United States, but “King of the Grades” was Donner Pass, or better known to the men of the Sacramento Division as the “Mountain.” Everything about Donner Pass seemed monumental; the grade, the engines, the heavy tonnage, the men, and the heavy yearly snowfall.
This story begins with surveyor Theodore D. Judah and the four Sacramento businessmen who took Judah’s plan for a Pacific Railroad and actually pushed the rails of the Central Pacific Railroad over the “impossible” 7,000-foot Sierra Nevada summit. The “Overland Route,” of which the rails of the Southern Pacific form the western segment, is still the ultimate proving ground for the men and the locomotives of the SP, 125 years after the meeting of the rails at Promontory, Utah, in 1869.
In Donner Pass by John R. Signor, you’ll see how operations on the “Mountain” evolved from the early wood-burning 4-4-0 type steam locomotives to the era of gigantic cab-forwards, to the arrival of the first diesels, and to the generations of machines that have followed up to the current date.
Experience the tight granite tunnels whose black powder blasts would lengthen only seven inches per day, to the nearly 400 miles of wood and concrete snowsheds that once roofed-in most of the railroad to protect the rails from an annual snowfall of 50 feet or more. From the experts, learn about hte art of snowfighting with bucker plows, rotary machines, flangers and Jordan spreaders. Also, about the summers when men fought shed fires, and fire trains were a must.
So difficult was SP’s double-track construction over the “Mountain” during the Harriman years, that, actually, a large part of the line consists of two single-track railroads giving an appearance at times of left-hand operation.
Donner Pass — the full story of rail operations over the West’s first mountain mainline.
Meet Author John R. Signor
John R. Signor, a Southern Pacific System trainman who at one time was employed on that road’s Oregon Division, has devoted much of his free time in recent years to preserving and recording the history, legend and lore of railroading in the far West. A natural curiosity about railroads and the areas to which his job has taken him has led Signor to author Rails in the Shadow of Mt. Shasta and Tehachapi. Now, with Donner Pass, he has expanded his coverage of great mountain railroads in the West to include the grandfather of them all, SP’s Sierra crossing.
Working for the SP, and sharing an interest in railroad history, has given the author an ability to probe deeply into his subject. Stories and experiences handed down by fellow railroaders have blended with the facts distilled from musty archives and operating statistics, with the end resulting in a compilation of entertaining, yet definitive reading. In addition to his writing and railroading, the author labors as an artist and cartographer. Examples of his work appear frequently in books and magazines dealing with railroading and western Americana.