Jim Ciaffoni: How deep was the snow?
March 1, 2019
If western Nevada County had gotten half the snow that was predicted in the last couple of weeks, we might have set a record for snow depth, or would have we?
How deep was the snow in the past?
This is a tricky question for a couple of reasons. The most important caveat is that the honest snow depth is measured on the level in a large open area, not in a drift. Secondly, climatologists are interested in, and consequently only report, the total snowfall over the course of the winter, because that is the measure corresponding most closely with runoff. Snow depth is only sporadically reported.
The maximum depth of snow occurring at lower elevation, such as ours, usually comes to us in the form of stories, told to us by longtime residents or reported in the newspaper at the time of occurrence, which are usually much more accurate. Stories told by persons who were children at the time are almost universally overstated.
Until conducting the research for this article, I believed that the winter of 1952 produced the highest snowfall in recorded history in the Grass Valley/Nevada City area. Some may remember that a passenger train got stuck in a snowdrift near Cisco Grove in mid-January, when fortunately after a four-day rescue effort, all 226 passengers and crew survived.
The maximum snow depth at the summit was the historical record of 25 feet!
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However, the official National Weather Bureau snow depth at Nevada City (2,600 feet) was only 26 inches. One differing account was from a resident of the town of Washington (also 2,600 feet) who reported the snow was 4-5 feet deep. This is doubtful, but maybe we can hear from some old-timer from Washington who might like to challenge me on this.
For western Nevada County, the granddaddy of them all was the winter of 1894-1895. A close rival would have been five years earlier in 1889-1890, but most news from that time was consumed with mining affairs, leaving few accounts of snow depth. In 1890, Judge Searls, a pioneer who arrived in Nevada City in 1849, stated that anyone saying that in the "old days" the snow was deeper was sadly mistaken, that in fact the only year even close was 1852, when the snow was 24 inches deep in Nevada City.
Beginning on Jan. 18, 1895 the snow level dropped and the mail carrier to the town of Washington was turned back at Central House (Missouri Bar Rd. on Hwy 20). The next day there was 18 inches of fresh snow in Nevada City. Another day of snow, and roofs in Nevada City began to cave in from the weight. The next day 3 feet was reported at Gold Flat in Nevada City, and 4 feet at the current intersection of North Bloomfield and Lake Vera Roads. Peter Arbogast from Blue Tent area (3,100 feet) reported 4.5 feet, "just covering the tops of pickets on an ordinary fence." His neighbor, John Cable, reported the snow "up to his chin" while cutting a path into town (maybe a drift, or perhaps Mr. Cable was rather short).
Meanwhile, Washington was stranded. Provisions were dwindling and, of course, the mail had to get through. Frank Vaughn and Axil Olsen trudged through the snow for 24 hours to arrive at Washington with the mail, convalesced on Sunday, and returned the next day. The snow was about 10 feet at Central House, 15 feet at the junction of Highway 20 and Washington Road, and 2.5 feet at Washington.
Well-known Nevada City resident Phillip Goyne, left on snowshoes with provisions to Washington where he had relatives, planning to spend the first night at his in-laws' house, the Fraser Ranch (where the author currently lives). He was turned back by 5 feet of snow, and hunkered down for the night at the Jones Ranch, near the current corner of North Bloomfield Road and Honeysuckle Lane. The townspeople were greatly relieved to see him return the next day.
Given all of the reliable, anecdotal information, it appears the maximum snow depth in recorded history for the Grass Valley/Nevada City area is probably between 2.5 and 3 feet, and that is being generous. I hope I haven't disappointed too many "four-and-five-footers" out there. Believe me, I've heard plenty of stories all my life, even from people who are pretty good with a tape measure.
But, hey, we still have March Madness ahead of us. You never know.
Jim Ciaffoni is a semi-retired public utilities manager and amateur historian who lives in Nevada City.
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