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SNOW-BOUND IN THE SIERRAS — 1890
The Rotary Snow-Plough at Work on the
CENTAL PACIFIC RAILROAD

THE Rocky and the Sierra Nevada mountains, which so greatly tax the forethought and constructive ability of the civil engineer in the building of railways through their rocky barriers, also cause the railway companies much difficulty in the operation of the roads after their completion. When the line has been located through the narrow winding passes which divide the mountain ranges, and the immense work of blasting tunnels and deep cuts through the rocky location, with the frequent turning or bridging of the channels of foaming streams, has been effected, there remain constantly to be combated the devastating floods of summer and the snow blockades of winter. Even in the most arid and parched regions of the elevated plains, the high mountain ranges that separate them constantly gather clouds which condense and fall in rain or snow. The loftier peaks, which until midsummer have retained their snowy mantles of the winter before, begin in early autumn to don their white caps, and they whiten from the tops downward as the season advances; by November the peaks of the main range are a procession of snowy pyramids. The snow-storms of the Western mountains and of the high plains at their feet arise almost without warning, and the dry snow caught by the gale is rent into an impalpable powder, which is blown horizontally like a mist along the ground. Along a smooth surface this fine snow whirls without lodging, but wherever it encounters an obstacle it instantly forms a drift, and it curls into and masses deeply in the hollows. This snow mist is drawn together, as if into a funnel by the strong winds that suck down through the canyons, and as it sifts rapidly into the channel cut through the snows on the line of the railroad track, it is beaten down hard by the wind, which packs it so solidly that sometimes a team and wagon can be driven across a snow-filled hollow without hoof or wheel sinking deeply enough to obstruct their progress.

Early in winter the liability of trains to encounter a blockade is comparatively slight. The snow-plough then can usually be forced through the snow, scattering it to left and right. The drifts thus created remain by the track without melting and every storm adds to the walls of a narrow channel which serves to catch and retain the snow whenever it is blowing. But from mid-winter to mid-spring the thick clouds that hang about the mountain peaks break in earnest with driving winds; then the trains of the transcontinental lines that are so unfortunate as to be caught in a storm are usually brought to a stand still, and the passengers and train-men have a weary siege of it. Without warning, a dense cloud swirls down the mountain pass, borne on a suddenly risen and shrieking gale. The eye can scarcely penetrate, even for a few feet, the air thick with driving snow. Even when the day is mild and fair upon the plains below the foot-hills, a storm may be raging fiercely in the mountains, and at times when the sky is clear about the peaks a gusty wind may lift and bear onward the snow that fell at a former time, and cause serious drifting in the railroad cuts.

When it is found that the train is snow-bound and cannot proceed, the first effort of the train-men is to back it to a siding, if this manouver is successful, it is fortunate for the passengers, who can wait in comparative comfort while the snow-plough is being brought up and placed before the locomotive. Whether they are to remain for one day or ten is in such cases a matter of profound uncertainty. If the blockade occurs late in the winter, often several snow-ploughs, backed by powerful locomotives, are unable to penetrate the drifts upon the track. Then there is nothing to be done but for the train-men and all railroad laborers that can be summoned to fall to shovelling. The passengers, weary of sitting in the cars and anxious to proceed, often turn out and assist them. Within the coaches of the train there is usually a sufficiency of fuel, and the passengers seldom suffer from cold, but when the train is caught between stations, those travellers who have not provided themselves with well stocked lunch baskets sometimes realize keenly the pangs of hunger before food can be got to them.

The peculiar difficulties developed in the way of snow blockades in the railways crossing the great mountain ranges have led to the invention of the rotary snow-plough. This machine is vastly more effective for its purpose than the "heater"-shaped plough formerly in general use, which depended for its usefulness upon the capacity of the locomotive to drive it like a wedge through the drifts. When the snow is of considerable depth or solidly packed, the old-style plough cannot penetrate it. The rotary plough, with its revolving cylinder, which works some what on the principle of the cylindrical knives of a hay-cutter, easily carves its way through snow, even when the drifts are of considerable depth and hardness. With snows so deep as those which sometimes fall in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains, even so powerful a machine as the rotary plough cannot supplement the need of extensive shovelling, but the saving in labor and time effected by their introduction has been important.

The change caused in the appearance of a prairie or mountain landscape by a heavy, drifting snow is remarkable; the entire scene assumes so strange a look that even a person familiar with the locality often finds it difficult to identify the landmarks. The filling of hollows, and the formation of great drifts, the total disappearance of many objects, and the different appearance of others partially buried—make the whole aspect of the scenery seem strange. The illustration by Mr. Charles Graham depicts a scene of the recent protracted snow blockade in the Sierra Nevadas, when many miles of the Central Pacific Railroad disappeared beneath a solidly packed field of snow, the locality of the railway being indicated only by the telegraph poles, which for long distances barely peeped from the great drifts formed beyond the track.

On such an occasion snow-ploughs and shovellers work indefatigably night and day at both ends of, the blockaded part of the road, and the busy wires, if haply they are not down and useless, announce their progress as a few miles at one or the other end are opened, or some half-buried train is rescued. Happy are the laborers if they effect their task without serious frost-bites or worse accidents, and before another storm arises to efface the result of their labors. When at last the two forces of workers have met, and the welcome news is telegraphed to head-quarters that the road is clear for through travel, the vestiges of the storm remain in the wrecked locomotives and snow-ploughs that have rolled down the embankments, and in the great walls of piled-up snow upon either side of the track.


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