Donner Pass Part 1

SP’s Sierra Crossing.

 

Shortly after sunrise on June 7 1992, I made this silhouette of Denver & Rio Grande Western SD45 5318 leading SP’s westward 1UPOAM (Union Pacific to Oakland manifest) at Soda Springs, California. Nikon F3T with f4.0 200mm lens and Kodachrome 25 slide film.
Shortly after sunrise on June 7 1992, I made this silhouette of Denver & Rio Grande Western SD45 5318 leading SP’s westward 1UPOAM (Union Pacific to Oakland manifest) at Soda Springs, California. Nikon F3T with f4.0 200mm lens and Kodachrome 25 slide film.

Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass crossing was one of my big projects. I’ve called this ‘the mother of all mountain grades,’ other authors have simply described it as ‘The Hill’.

I wrote in my Southern Pacific book:

“Where other SP mountain crossings can claim steeper grades, heavier traffic and more sinuous track arrangements than Donner, no other grade is as old or as formidable as this storied mountain crossing. Donner’s exceptionally long eastbound grade—96 miles—rising from near sea level in California’s Central Valley to a summit 7,000 feet high in the Sierra, would test the mettle of any railroader, but what places Donner in a class by itself, is exceptionally harsh, and often unpredictable, winter weather.”

I made my first trip over Donner in my white Toyota Corolla on the final leg of my drive to California, yet I was already well acquainted with the pass through the photos of Richard Steinheimer. In October 1989, I began exploring the pass.

At one point I phoned Steinheimer to ask his advice on making photographs of the pass. His kindness to me told me more about the man than his thousands of wonderful photographs. He spent a least an hour on the phone and inspired my efforts. In later years I occasionally encountered him working SP rails, and he always acknowledged me.

Fellow photographers aided my efforts: Brian Jennison, whom I met in the snow on Donner, and former SP dispatcher J.D. Schmid—known for his skilled use of light to expose Kodachrome slides.

While I’ve explored many of the difficult to reach locations on Donner, for this essay I’ve chosen a favorite image made at one of the most clichéd places, the easy-to-reach Soda Springs grade crossing.

I’d been up on the pass early; I found this westward train led by a Denver & Rio Grande Western SD45, complete with classic dual headlight arrangement. Soda Springs offered nice more ‘glint’, and the train is bathed in an ethereal blend its own exhaust and ground fog illuminated by the rising sun. The details make this image for me; the warm morning light provides atmosphere, while the searchlights on distant SP signal bridge mimic the vertical pattern of the SD45’s headlights.

Between 1989 and 1994, I made more than 50 trips to photograph Donner, and perhaps another dozen since then. Despite my many books, most of these Donner Pass photos remain unpublished. Stay tuned . . .

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2 thoughts on “Donner Pass Part 1”

  1. Fabulous shot! The lighting is amazing. If it was a digital image I would have been convinced it had had some HDR treatment.

    Mark

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