Dealing with winter in the Sierra Nevada isn’t easy, but a new exhibit at the California State Railroad Museum shows visitors how the railroads have kept trains moving year-round.
“Clearing the Way,” which is on display through March, features a 251,000-pound rotary snowplow – a trainlike machine with a large set of circular blades that cuts through snow and blows it up and away from the tracks. The snowplow on display was built in 1920 and was donated to the museum by Union Pacific in 2008.
“In the Midwest and the East Coast, trains usually just put on giant wedges to push the snow out of the way, but that didn’t work so well here in California because our snow is more heavy and wet,” said Phil Sexton, an interpreter at the railroad museum. “Trains were derailing all the time, so we had to come up with something else, and eventually, we came up with rotary snowplows.”
While rotary snowplows aren’t entirely unique in California, they’re mostly used in the state and other areas on the West Coast, Sexton said. The plows hadn’t been used in California for the past six years because of the drought.
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This year’s heavy snowfall could bring rotary snowplows back out to clear the tracks, Sexton said, though the museum hasn’t heard any reports of the machines being used yet.
The featured snowplow was on reserve in Sparks, Nev., until 2004, when it was retired. It hasn’t been used since 1969. That’s not because it’s old – most rotary snowplows still in use were also built in the 1920s – but because railroads only take out the machines as a last-ditch effort for snow removal, Sexton said.
“They’re extremely expensive to run and maintain,” he said. “But even so, rotary snowplows remain the weapon of choice when all else fails.”
However, even the rotary plow is not infallible. There have been times in the past, such as a 1952 case in which a passenger train was marooned in the Sierra, that rotary snowplows sent up to help the train were also trapped by avalanches.
“The (snowplow) itself is big beyond belief, and you just look at it and go, ‘Wow that’s amazing,’ ” Sexton said. “Ultimately, nature wins over whatever man builds, but this shows what man is capable of.”