Snowfall was early and heavy in December 1889, and Nevada stockmen were jubilant at the end of a long dry spell. The snow continued to fall, and by mid-January train service at all Nevada points came to a standstill. From Wyoming west, the country was in the grip of a disastrous winter. Sheep and cattle starved and froze. Trains were stalled. The Sierras were blocked, as fires in the Donner snow sheds had left the tracks exposed to the drifting snow.
A herd of wild horses huddled together and were frozen in their tracks near Virginia City. Cattle losses on the ranches were at 50 percent. A band of 400 sheep froze in one night in the Reese River Valley. Everywhere mail was carried by sleigh and later on snowshoes. Antelope bands starved near Wells, Nevada, and in Reno the temperature dropped to -42 degrees.
There were reports of temperatures less than -70 degrees near Deeth, in Elko County. One family drove 500 cattle to Elko by sleigh, but lost all the cattle and barely escaped with their lives.
All the mines in Virginia City were closed as snow blocked the ore tracks. With no train service and no way to haul freight up the steep canyon to the city, food supplies ran low, and the town was in danger of starvation.
Finally, ranchers and farmers in Dayton ran sleigh loads of potatoes to the mouth of Sutro Tunnel. The potatoes and other supplies were loaded into ore cars, and underground trains hauled them to the C & C Shaft hoisting works. Tons of the spuds were lifted to the surface in hungry Virginia City, amid cheers from the populace.
In Reno, the stalled Southern Pacific Railroad was caring for 600 unwilling passengers who were stranded, and the train yards were jammed with snowbound trains waiting to get over the Sierras. For weeks, the Virginia and Truckee, Carson and Colorado, and the Eureka and Palisade railways had been snowbound. The roof of Piper’s Opera House fell in under six feet of heavy snow. The 600 “guests” of the Southern Pacific in Reno petitioned for free rides back to Ogden, Utah, with a detour through the southwest to the coast.
The railroad stalled off the request until finally, on Jan. 30, 1890, the tracks over the Sierras were cleared. Twelve locomotives began blasting on their whistles, calling passengers from hotels, saloons and other points of local interest. Soon, mobs of passengers jammed the Reno platform and filled the street as they hauled out baggage and loaded up. The townspeople cheered the passengers and the passengers cheered the trains.
At 1:30 p.m., the first in a long series of trains chugged out. It was a scene of great excitement, equaled only by the great Reno fire, and still later by the great Reno flood.
Meanwhile, the rest of the state dug itself out. Many cattle and sheep outfits were broke, bodies of animals littered the range for miles and commercial life was almost at a standstill. But the thaw continued, and most stockmen, including the Cassinellis of Dayton, were saved and continued on for many more successful years. Another week or so would have ruined the entire state.
The winter of 1889-1890 had no real parallel in Nevada history until the dramatic winter of the Elko “Operation Haylift” of 1949, 60 years later. This was when military transport planes were used to haul hay to hundreds of starving cattle in Elko County.