The searchlight signals at Norden were special to many railroaders, railroad photographers and historians. The US&S Searchlight Signals withstood the test of time, enduring decades of brutal winters atop the infamous Donner Pass Route.
While an exact installation date is not known at this time, railroad historians estimate the searchlight signals were installed in the mid-20th century. The bridge support they stood upon is believed to have been installed in the 1920’s with an interlocking machine, followed by semaphores and eventually replaced by searchlights.
At nearly 7,000′ in elevation, Norden is effectively the “top of the hill” for the railroad. The true summit is located in Tunnel 41 (“The Big Hole”), which passes under Mount Judah (8,243′). Being that Norden is on the western side of the summit, it is subjected to heavy snowfall. With an annual average snowfall of 140″, keeping the railroad open is difficult. The Union Pacific Railroad uses a variety of methods to keep the tracks clear of snow and trains moving.
Union Pacific’s “snow fighters” work throughout the winter months, removing snow from the right-of-way. The snow fighters consist of snow cats, flangers, spreaders and the famous rotary snow plows. While these are effective in battling snow, the railroad also uses snow sheds. At Norden, a snow shed protects the crossovers (definition: a crossover is a pair of switches that connects two parallel rail tracks, allowing a train on one track to cross over to the other). Crossovers are especially vulnerable to snow and ice build up since the switches actuate. Any build up of snow between the switch can render it out-of-service. Searchlight signals guarded both ends of the Norden snow shed.
With only single track through “The Big Hole” (1.3 miles east), these signals and crossovers were often utilized by the dispatcher to move trains and keep the railroad running efficiently. The original mainline between Norden and Eder (also known as track 1), was retired in the mid 1990’s due to dwindling traffic levels. This left only a single track (through the Big Hole) connecting Eder and the western slope. Because of this, Norden was often a great place to watch rail traffic and train meets.
A Particular Interest
Over the last several years, I had taken a particular interest in photographing the Norden Searchlights. Knowing that replacement plans were scheduled, it was just a matter of time before the classic signals would be replaced.
Searchlight signals are being replaced nationwide due to legislation passed by Congress. Many searchlight signals have already fallen across Northern California. Because of this, documenting searchlight signals has become one of my special projects.
Fortunately, the Norden searchlights provided many unique photo opportunities. At over 7,000′ in elevation, capturing the signals in all four unique seasons was a challenge. Fall colors, followed by snow and a springtime thaw were quickly replaced by smokey skies during the California summers.
In addition to the Norden signals, Union Pacific replaced many of Southern Pacific’s target tri-lights and signal bridges. The target tri-lights have a similar shape to searchlights, but sport three individual signal lights. The signals at Cisco and Troy were replaced prior to the searchlights at Norden. Fortunately, the signal bridge at Truckee still stands… for now.
On the morning of November 23rd, 2021, I traveled to Norden to document the signal replacement process. The week prior, signal crews had completed extensive work and were preparing for the “cut over” to the new signals.
The signal foreman requested track & time as crews prepared to physically turn the signals. The process appeared relatively simple from an outsider’s prospective. The new signals were energized and tested while the old signals were de-energized and rotated. I am sure the real complexity of the signal replacement process happens in the signal box, where computers and fuses control the indications.
Within a couple of hours, the process was complete and the new signals were in service. Dispatcher 9 impatiently waited for the release of track & time since there was a high priority Z train and Amtrak’s California Zephyr waiting to come west. Once track & time was released, the UP 7834 quickly arrived leading the ZG2LT 21. The UP 7834 became the first train to pass the new signals.
After the signals were cut over, crews began work to remove the signal masts from East Norden. Utilizing some heavy equipment, the crews were able to quickly remove the masts. The signal bridge would be a little more challenging and would be removed during the following week.
The replacement of the Norden Searchlights serves as a good reminder that nothing lasts forever along the railroad. An image you may capture today could hold increasing sentimental value as things change in the future. So get out there and shoot!
Here are some of my favorite moments from Norden over the years.
I often receive many questions regarding snow fighting operations on Donner Pass. In this article, we will take a look at how the Union Pacific Railroad keeps the infamous Donner Pass Route open during fierce winter storms. So if you’re planning on visiting Donner Pass this winter, check this out!
Since the beginning, winter on Donner Pass has been a challenge for the railroad. During the original construction of the transcontinental railroad, work crews for the Central Pacific Railroad had to contend with 44′ of snow in one winter season (1866). Snow storms dramatically slowed construction and cost the railroad a tremendous amount of money.
In 1952, Southern Pacific’s “City of San Francisco” (a premier passenger train from Chicago, IL to the S.F. Bay Area) became stranded during a snow storm on Donner Pass. Over 200 passengers and crew members were forced to endure a cold night aboard the train until they could be evacuated to the highway. It took Southern Pacific crews several days to rescue the train and clear the railroad from snow.
In 2011, a fierce winter storm caused an avalanche near Shed 10 (Eagle Lakes). The avalanche buried a flanger (snow fighting train), forcing to the crew members to climb out of a window and seek rescue. After several days utilizing the rotary snow plows, the Union Pacific Railroad was able to clear the tracks and open the route.
Fierce winter storms have made the Donner Pass Route infamous among railroaders. The route is commonly referred to as the “snowiest mainline” on Union Pacific’s system. Every winter, the railroad utilizes special “snow fighting” crews and equipment to clear the tracks and keep the mainline open. Let’s take a look at how they operate.
The Snow Fighters
The snow fighting effort along the Donner Pass Route is headquartered in Truckee, California. “Truckee Snow HQ” is staffed by hard working railroaders who have experience along the Donner Pass Route. They coordinate snow fighting operations, working closely with the Roseville Yard and the Omaha dispatchers. During the winter months, snow fighting equipment is staged in Truckee. Crews monitor weather conditions, rail traffic and maintenance needs from this headquarters office.
The railroad’s original solution for snow fighting was by utilizing “snow sheds”. The Central Pacific Railroad constructed over 40 miles of wooden snow sheds along the Donner Pass Route. These sheds would shield the tracks from snow storms and avalanches.
While snow sheds were a great concept and helped keep the railroad open for many years, they had drawbacks. Often, the blowing snow would create large snow drifts at the shed portals. These were difficult to remove due to the confined space inherent with a snow shed. The sheds would also create ice due to the snow melting, seeping into the shed and then refreezing. During the summertime, the large wooden sheds created a considerable fire risk. Dry, wooden boards next to railroad operations were a perfect recipe for fire. Lastly, the snow sheds were despised by passengers. The sheds blocked the scenic views for passengers as they ventured through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As snow removal techniques improved, most of the snow sheds were eventually removed from service.
Today, there are still a few snow sheds left in service. They serve to protect “cross overs” from snow and ice. A crossover is a pair of switches that connects two parallel rail tracks, allowing a train on one track to cross over to the other. Crossovers have moving parts, making them especially susceptible to failure from snow and ice buildup. Snow sheds on Donner Pass are still located at Shed 10 (M.P. 178), Norden (M.P. 191) and Shed 47 (M.P. 196).
Today, the railroad’s “first line of defense” against snowstorms are the flangers. To the untrained eye, a flanger may appear to be a caboose. A flanger is designed to clear snow and ice from between the rails (where the wheel flange fits). Flangers have two blades, one which throws snow to the left and one which throws snow to the right. As soon as snow starts to accumulate, the flangers will begin making “flips” between Truckee and Fulda. Two specially designed “balloon tracks” allow the flangers to go back and forth without having to make reverse movements. Flangers are relatively lightweight, therefore they are more susceptible to derailment during reverse moves.
During winter storms, flangers will often “escort” trains over the pass. By running a flanger just ahead of a freight or passenger train, the railroad can ensure the tracks remain safe and clear of snow. Often, flanger crews are on duty for 12 hours, making flips between Truckee and Fulda. The best bet to see a flanger is just ahead of Amtrak’s California Zephyr. Due to the high priority and sensitivity of these trains, a flanger will almost always escort the California Zephyr over Donner Pass (during winter storm months).
Besides clearing snow, flangers are also equipped with icicle breakers atop the locomotives. These metal structures prevent the buildup of icicles near tunnel portals and snow sheds. Flanger crews also provide critical, first hand intelligence on mountain conditions. While the railroad utilizes experienced meteorologists, it can be important to have “boots on the ground” who can report on the current weather conditions.
While flangers clear snow from around tracks, they do not clear the entire right-of-way. As snow builds up along the roadbed, Union Pacific will call in the spreaders. These massive snow plows use powerful, hydraulic arms to clear snow away from the tracks. Preventing snow build up along the tracks can help keep the railroad open after several days of heavy snow.
In some locations, the spreaders are able to push the snow directly off a hillside. This helps prevent the “tailings” from building up and creating a solid wall of snow. Where there is not a hillside, Union Pacific utilizes “snowcats”. Snowcats are fully tracked vehicles that are designed to operate in snow. They are equipped with plows, which allow them to clear the tailings left by the spreaders.
The spreaders have unique operations. They can usually be found operating between Truckee and Shed 10 during or just after a heavy snowstorm. Two spreaders are typically staffed and go on duty around 4am. “Truckee Snow” will take both mainlines out-of-service as the spreaders work west. The spreaders work in conjunction with each other, clearing both mainlines. After they arrive at Shed 10, one spreader set will head back to Truckee while the other will continue to Switch 9 or Fulda (clearly the single track portion between Shed 10 and Switch 9). On the way east, the spreaders will often stop to fuel & service generators and the snowcats.
Most winters, the spreaders, flangers and snowcats are enough to keep the railroad open. When conditions get really tough, Union Pacific has to go to the last line of defense.
The iconic rotary snowplows are the railroad’s last hope during fierce winter storms. Although the flangers and spreaders work tirelessly throughout the winter months, their efforts are not always enough. As snow accumulates beyond the pace of the spreaders, the rotaries are called to the rescue. Years of service in the harshest conditions have made the rotaries somewhat of a legend along the railroad.
“They were sometimes called war wagons” said retired Southern Pacific superintendent Bill Lynch, “going to war against Mother Nature.”
Historically, the rotaries have only been called out once every ten years or so. During a historic winter in February of 2017, Union Pacific called upon the rotaries to clear snow from the Donner Pass Route. Union Pacific issued the following special statement to their customers:
“To Our Customers,
Union Pacific’s most powerful snow-removal machine, the rotary snow plow, was in full operation this past weekend during the third snowiest winter in the Sierras in recorded history. The plow cut through snow that reached depths of 13 feet, across 14 miles near the Donner Pass. The railroad’s first and second lines of defense against snowstorms – flangers and spreaders – were unable to keep the tracks clear due to the depth of snow walls, so the rotary was required to clear large amounts of snow in a timely manner.
We have three one-of-a-kind rotary snow plows to use as needed during winter months. Union Pacific’s plows were originally built in the 1920s and operated by steam, then overhauled and converted to diesel electric in the 1950s. In 2012, we made the first major makeover in more than 60 years to one rotary plow enhancing its productivity, reliability and power. We plan to enhance another rotary plow in 2017.
Union Pacific is working diligently during the winter months to keep our lines cleared of snow and ready for your business.”
The rotary snowplows are incredible pieces of machinery. Their power is unmatched and is called upon during the worst conditions. If you have the opportunity to see a rotary in action, it will be a memorable experience.
Railroad Photography Tips
An old Norwegian saying… “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.”
As always, remain a safe distance away from the tracks. Remember that these trains are designed to move snow, and therefore a normally safe distance away from the tracks may be inadequate. Always prepare for snow & ice tailings coming from flangers, spreaders and rotaries.
Conditions on the Donner Pass Route can change quickly. Often times, road conditions will deteriorate first. Make sure your vehicle is winterized. In addition to having a full tank of gas, it is important to carry tire chains, extra winter clothing, food and water. Stay up to date on road conditions by googling “CalTrans Road Conditions”.
Photographing snow fighting operations can require additional equipment in order to be successful. Remember, if you are not comfortable, your images and creativity are going to suffer. Plan ahead!
Make sure you have proper snow attire. Wearing waterproof, insulated snow boots along with heavy winter socks will keep your feet warm. Waterproof snow pants, jackets and gloves are also critical. When it comes to staying warm, layers are the key. A beanie and/or hat can help keep your head and ears comfortable as well.
Snowshoes will make your life much easier while hiking in snow-covered terrain. Most of the Donner Pass Route is inaccessible by car during the winter months. In order to access desirable photo locations, snowshoes are a must-have. I use the Tubbs Mountaineering Snowshoes. While pricey, they are built for extreme environments and will keep you safe. Check them out: https://tubbssnowshoes.com
A waterproof camera bag and water-resistant camera equipment will keep your gear safe. There is an inherent danger of using electronic equipment in bad weather. Water and ice can wreak havoc on your equipment if it is not properly protected. Invest in a good camera bag that is easy to wear and will protect your equipment. I trust LowePro: https://www.lowepro.com
Radio communications can be very useful during snow fighting operations. There is often additional radio traffic between trains, Truckee Snow HQ and UP Omaha Dispatcher 9. Being able to hear and understand radio traffic will make you more successful trackside.
Radio Frequency: 160.320
I hope this article provided insight into snow fighting operations along the Donner Pass Route. As always, if you have any questions, please send me a message. Find “Contact Jake” on my website and I will happily get back to you.
Finally, I would like to thank the Union Pacific snow fighting crews. While many folks are at home enjoying the holidays, the snow fighters are working around the clock to the keep the railroad open. It is a difficult job, but they have always displayed a great deal of professionalism and pride in what they do. I’ll see you guys out there soon!
On March 3rd, 2018, I ventured into the Feather River Canyon. With a grain train, MNPRV and ANPMI all due out of Portola in daylight, along with several BNSF trains coming on/off the Gateway Subdivision, things were looking good. The weatherman called for snow showers throughout the day, with the main “storm” arriving at dusk. To my surprise, UP was not utilizing the bronco escort service between Keddie and Intake. Although the day’s precipitation amounts were low, the ground had become very saturated due to several intense winter storms in the days prior.
BNSF 7797 races up the Canyon Subdivision at the Rock Creek Trestle.
The morning started off like most do, lots of maintenance of way. An eastbound BNSF train was feeling the full affect of the work crews. After getting stuck behind an Elsey-bound work train which was playing around in Oroville, the crew was starting to get low on hours. They would need a “straight shot” to make it up the canyon. Unfortunately a work gang at Pulga was in the way, with a foreman requesting “just another 15 minutes to clear up”. It seemed to take more like 30-45 minutes…
I did a calculation and found that the BNSF train averaged under 20mph between Mounkes (MP 173 on the Sac Sub) and the Rock Creek Trestle. That is over 75 rail miles. The crew and dispatch decided to take a chance and make a mad dash for the siding at Virgilia. The train made it just in time and a new crew was waiting at the crossing. They wouldn’t move for another 8 hours or so.
Once the BNSF train was stopped at Virgilia, I drove up to Keddie expecting a westbound UP and the eastbound BNSF. Somehow, the UP 2636 West (grain train) snuck by me near Paxton. Things were still looking good though, considering a couple UP trains were about to leave Portola and the BNSF was waiting to head east.
After an hour or so at Keddie, I heard Dispatcher 57 radio the UP 2636 West. She asked, “hey are you guys still on the move there?” The crew responded with “yes mam, but all of our intermediate signals have been red since West Virgilia.” She then responded with “okay, I have you lined down to Pulga so you shouldn’t be seeing any colors.” Shortly after, the crew toned up dispatch and reported they had come across a rock slide just east of Belden. They were traveling at restricted speed (because of the red intermediates) and were able to stop the train.
UP 2636 stopped just before a rock slide east of Belden, California.
Dispatcher 57 started making calls to the MOW crews. At this point, it was early afternoon. She got ahold of Ken Ross, who provided at 16:30 ETA. Until then, the line was jammed.
Here is a list of trains stopped by the rock slide:
UP 2636 W Grain Train @ East Belden
UP 8136 W MNPRV @ Keddie
BNSF 7797 E QBCKDJ @ Virgilia
BNSF XXXX W Baretables @ Quarry Road (Keddie)
UP 7508 W ANPMI @ Blairsden
Also in the picture was a work train, ethanol train and grain train east of Portola as well as another eastbound BNSF train headed for the canyon.
Because the baretable train was stopped at Quarry Road, the BNSF 7797 had nowhere to go. They would have to wait until the fleet of westbounds had cleared before they could head for the hi-line.
Since nothing was moving, I headed towards Belden to get a look at the slide. Sure enough, the UP 2636 was stopped just east of the slide. An hour or two later, Ken Ross showed up and began clearing the rock slide. Within an hour, the rocks and damaged slide fence had been cleared.
Late in the afternoon, maintenance of way equipment arrives at scene and begins clearing the rock slide.
Because of the delay, the crew of the grain train was running low on hours. Unfortunately, their train was too long to fit into any sidings. The decision was made to pull down to Tobin where a new crew would meet the train in approximately 30 minutes. At this point, the main brunt of the storm had descended upon Belden.
In the “blue hour”, the UP 2636 heads west through a snow storm at Belden, California.
Eventually, the rest of the trains would fall in behind the grain train, making the slow, snowy journey down the canyon.
Nothing is easy up here.
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy the photos. Winter in Northern California can spell trouble for the railroad. With hard work and grit, the trains keep moving and the railroaders keep “Building America”.
It’s summertime! I just finished up another awesome semester at Chico State. Now that classes are over, I can focus more on creating, editing and sharing my images. Instead of staying up late to work on managerial accounting homework, I can stay up late posting photos. What an awesome time this is!
I recently posted a number of new photos to the website. You can find all of them in my portfolio on jakemiillephotography.com. I thought I would take a minute to share with you some of my favorite images from the most recent upload. Take a look and tell me what you think!
The Spectacular Feather River Canyon
An eastbound BNSF baretable train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle in the Feather River Canyon.
This image is special to me for a couple of reasons. First off, it shows just how spectacular the Feather River Canyon is. I am so lucky to live 45 minutes away from this epic place. There is nowhere like it. I am also lucky that I can share these places with good friends. On this day, I had a good friend come along with me and experience what “the canyon” is like. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.
Searchlight Signals: A Fading Piece of History
A pair of Norfolk Southern units lead a Union Pacific military train passed the north switch of the Anita Siding (north of Chico). A rare dwarf searchlight has since been removed.
Recently, I have been focused on capturing searchlight signals. Back in my childhood (which wasn’t too long ago), these signals were everywhere. Due to Positive Train Control (PTC) legislation, these signals are being replaced system wide. It is only a matter of time before there are no more searchlights left. I was able to capture this image at the north end of the Anita siding (north of Chico, California) a week before the searchlights were removed. Included in this photo is a rare “dwarf” searchlight.
Western Pacific Lives!
Union Pacific 1983 rolls passed the Keddie Wye as it serves as a DPU on a westbound stack train.
For those of you who are involved with railroads, you know what makes this photo special. Let me explain it for the people who don’t know. The Western Pacific Railroad (“WP”) originally owned and operated the Feather River Route, until it was purchased by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1983. In 2005, Union Pacific painted a commemorative locomotive to honor the Western Pacific Railroad. This unit is known as UP 1983 and is seen above crossing the Keddie Wye, a well known junction originally operated by Western Pacific. There is nothing quite like seeing “WP” on old WP trackage. To learn more about the Western Pacific Railroad, visit http://www.wplives.org.
I hope you enjoy my new photos. Let me know what you think! Am I missing any awesome locations?