Weather History



In the early 1990s while going to school at the University
of Nevada in Reno, I had a conversation with John James, an associate geography
professor at UNR, the Nevada State Climatologist, and my academic advisor. I
told him that I wanted to produce a book on the weather history of the Sierra
Nevada. He said that it was a great idea, it would be an important contribution
to regional meteorology and climatology, and that he wished he had done it
himself. The book never happened, but I have been writing about weather ever

As a starting point for the weather history project, John
James, who over the years became a good friend, suggested that I read George
Rippey Stewart’s classic 1941 novel “Storm.” The storyline is based on a
fictional Pacific weather system that batters drought-stricken California in January
1935 with rain, wind and snow.

Cover jacket from my copy of Stewart’s Storm, 1947 edition.

I am currently working on an illustrated Tahoe-Sierra Snow
book for publication next summer that will include profiles of the Top 10
snowiest winters at Donner Pass. (1935 ranks #8 with a total of 56 feet.) Over
the past two weeks I’ve been perusing newspaper archives to study weather
activity from that year for the new book.

Although it’s been more than 20 years since I read Storm, I quickly recognized real-life
weather events in 1935 that most likely provided important story ideas for the
dramatic subplots that Stewart utilized in his novel a few years later. I’ve
included a few in this Nugget.

In his book, Stewart does not use this October 1934 aviation incident. Sensitivity to the victim’s families may have made the topic off limits, as well as military secrecy before WWII.  In November 1942, an AT-7 Navigator aircraft carrying four crew members on a routine training flight disappeared over the Southern Sierra. Sixty-three years later, in 2005, the body of airman Leo M. Mustonen was discovered near a receding glacier in remote Kings Canyon. In 2007 the remains of Ernest G. Munn was discovered as more ice melted. Munn had enlisted in the Army at age 23 to serve in World War II. Before he left he kissed his sisters and told his mother never to cut her long hair. His mother lived to 102, never cut her hair and died awaiting word on his fate.

Stewart’s main character and protagonist is a powerful, extra-tropical storm. He tracks the weather system from its inception in the western Pacific Ocean to its rampage over California, where it flooded part of the Sacramento Valley; stalled a
westbound transcontinental streamliner train by track washout; and dumped 20
feet of snow on Highway 40 near Donner Pass, shutting down the road. Stewart
named his mythical superstorm Maria, pronounced “Ma-rye-a.”

Railroad crews shovel snow from the roof of a building along the Southern Pacific RR tracks in Truckee in 1935. 

Reading Storm in
the 1990s, a half century after its release, I was struck by its prescient tone,
especially when compared to the epic winter of 1952 that followed 11 years after
the book’s publication. During January 1952, a powerful Pacific storm just like
“Maria” barreled into California. And in an impressive example of life-imitating-art, the Sacramento Valley was flooded, a luxury streamliner train
became snowbound in deep drifts, and Highway 40 was blocked for 30 consecutive
days by snow. That Jan. snowstorm in ’52 dumped 154 inches on Donner Pass in 8 days.

Stewart wrote about an electrical lineman named Rick who slips and falls from a pole while repairing a broken wire on the Central Transcontinental Lead. Rick’s sternum was injured when he fell onto his ski poles and the injury led to the lineman’s death in the snow.

Storm is often cited as the inspiration to
US Navy meteorologists in assigning female names to Pacific tropical storms
during World War II. The book’s best-selling paperback edition was a popular
read for deployed troops. After the war, the practice of naming these weather
systems shifted to Atlantic hurricanes and eventually to tropical storms around
the globe. 

Stewart went easy on his characters at times. In 1935 a highway worker died in an avalanche, but in his fictionalized version two snowplow crewmen are buried in a slide, but both walk away unhurt.

Stewart’s “Maria” also inspired the song, “They Call the
Wind Maria” written for the 1951 musical Paint
Your Wagon
starring Clint Eastwood. The popular song has been covered by
many artists, including most recently Mariah Carey.

Heavy rain and snow during the winter of 1935 was good news for California and Lake Tahoe. The region had been decimated by years of drought and Lake Tahoe was at its lowest level in history. Giant pumps were being used to suck water out of the lake to feed the Truckee River. 

George R. Stewart is the author of several good books
related to California history, including The
California Trail
, Donner Pass,
and his Donner Party classic Ordeal by
. He wrote more than 20 books in all.

Stewart adapts his story to this headline for a young Reno couple reported missing during a big snowstorm. In Storm, Max Arnim and his love interest “Jen” had attempted to drive over Donner Pass, lost control of the vehicle, and crashed over an embankment. Their car and bodies were found days after the storm.

In February 1935, the $5 million dirigible Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Point Sur, about 120 miles south of San Francisco. Lt. Commander Herbert V. Wiley told reporters that he didn’t think wind caused his 785-foot long airship to dive 3,000 feet and crash stern-first into the ocean. However, his second in command, Lt. Commander Jesse L. Kenworth, blamed the incident on “a heavy wind gust.” This is another incident of a weather-related military mishap that Stewart declined to develop as a subplot in his book. Protecting the U.S. military was every citizen’s patriotic duty in the late 1930s in the lead-up to the United States’ entry into world War II.