20 miles of history: Interactive Donner Pass museum a rewarding experience

A visitor reads the interpretive plaque installed by Bill Oudegeest and the Donner Summit Historical Society below the Sierra China Wall. Photo: Mark McLaughlin
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.

As a vital gateway for America’s 19th century westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean, Donner Pass is arguably one of the most storied locations in the United States.

One of the lowest passes in the Sierra Nevada at about 7,000 feet, the gap in the granite has always been a highway of sorts. For thousands of years before California-bound pioneers with farm wagons first breached the Sierra there in 1844, Great Basin Indians used the trail over the mountains to trade with tribes from the Sacramento Valley and near the Pacific Coast, and vice-versa.

At its location on the Sierra Crest, Donner Pass represents the Pacific Divide, where its western watershed begins above the broad, tilted flank of the Sierra range. The North Fork of the American River gets its start near here, as does the South Fork of the Yuba River, long before their final destination in the Pacific Ocean.

The steep and rugged eastern watershed of Donner Pass, however, drains quickly to Donner Lake, which in turn feeds into the main stem of the Truckee River. These waters flow into the Great Basin where they feed Pyramid Lake, the terminus of the Truckee. This system of rivers created a viable trail across the mountains for early pioneer settlers while providing nourishing water for fatigued people and livestock.

Washoe Indians referred to this vital stream east of Donner Pass as “a ‘wakhu wa’t’a.” The pass itself was initially named “Truckee” after a friendly Paiute Indian chief from present-day Nevada, who acquired the moniker because he frequently used the word when speaking to Anglos.

Highway 40 snakes its way over Donner Pass. Note the underpass was built in 1913 to avoid crossing railroad tracks. Contributed photo: Donner Summit Historical Society

Accounts differ as to the exact meaning of the word Truckee, but suffice it to say this Paiute medicine man played a key role in opening the California Trail over the summit in 1844 by assisting the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy wagon company.

When the 50-member party became bewildered at the edge of the Forty Mile Desert west of the Humboldt Sink, it was Truckee who guided them to the river that now bears his name. That stream led directly to Donner Pass, which despite unimaginable hardships, the group successfully crossed.

History is fickle, however, and although the name Stephens Pass made good sense, to honor the first emigrants with wagons to cross the Sierra into California, in 1846. A group of 81 pioneers were trapped by October snowstorms on the east side of the pass. Consisting of mostly families with children, along with single men hired on as teamsters, this wagon train is known as the Donner Party after electing George Donner captain.

The story of the Donner Party is a classic American parable about humanity, heroism, treachery and the will to survive winter storms and famine. Of the 81 people snowbound that winter, 36 died. Of 45 survivors, 25 resorted to cannibalism. The sensationalized news of the Donner Party incident shocked California and the nation, and the previous historic contribution by the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party was forgotten in the hysteria.

The Rainbow Bridge on Highway 40 is a good starting point for exploring the history of Donner Pass. Photo: Mark McLaughlin

Today, the name Donner has a virtual monopoly in the region; featuring two passes, a peak, a summit, a lake, a creek, and state park. The Stephens Party finally received credit for their achievement with the dedication of Mount Stephens in 1994. Nearby Schallenberger Ridge is named for 18-year-old Moses Schallenberger, a member of the Stephens wagon company who survived the winter of 1845 alone at Donner Lake.

Emigrants quickly learned that there was a better way to cross the mountains than over the cliffs and boulders at Donner Pass. A new route a few miles to the south was opened at Roller Pass in 1846 and emigrants slowly stopped using the original trail established by Stephens-Townsend-Murphy. With the onset of the California Gold Rush the bulk of trans-Sierra traffic moved south to the Carson Pass.

The multi-year construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad by Central Pacific Railroad in the mid to late 1860s over Donner Pass revived the route as a vital transportation artery. By 1864 Central Pacific had financed the Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road to supply their track laying operations.

This toll road, which connected California-bound traffic to Central Pacific’s railhead at Cisco, also diverted lucrative freight wagons from the Comstock mining region in Nevada. Freight and drayage companies had been using Carson Pass to reach California since the Comstock discovery in 1859.

In 1844, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party forced their wagons over Donner Pass to open the California Trail. Contributed photo: Donner Memorial State Park

As technology changed and automobiles became the primary mode of travel, the United States’ first coast-to-coast highway rolled across the country and weaved its way up and over Donner Pass to San Francisco. Highway 40, also known as the Lincoln Highway, became one of the most heavily traveled roads in America. Train and automobile access during snow season gave birth to the Lake Tahoe region’s first alpine ski resorts with quality lodging and early rope tows in the 1930s. When the Sugar Bowl ski area opened in 1939, it boasted the country’s third chairlift and California’s first.

Early aviators flying the nation’s first transcontinental air route also utilized Donner Pass starting in the late 1920s, where electronic flashing beacons were installed on local peaks, including Beacon Hill and Signal Hill. The beacons helped pilots negotiate the often storm-prone flight path.

More recently, the 1964 completion of modern Interstate 80 (parallel but north of Highway
40) over Donner Pass re-established the summit region as the most important travel and commercial route across the Sierra Nevada. History has once again come full circle.

In recognition of the unique place Donner Pass holds in the annals of American history, the Donner Summit Historical Society has developed its “20 Mile Museum” concept as one of the most rewarding outdoor experiences in the Truckee-Tahoe region. Blessed with accessible terrain and unique geologic and transportation features, visitors of all ages can interact firsthand with the kind of American history most have only read about.

The views and history at Donner Pass are stunning. Photo: Mark McLaughlin

Concentrated along the Highway 40 corridor west of Donner Lake, DSHS board member and summit historian Bill Oudegeest has done a commendable job of installing interpretive signs at many locations that offer a reference map, a brief profile of the area, and suggestions for things to do there.

Among its many “exhibits,” the 20 Mile Museum boasts an impressive array of visible physical evidence showcasing many aspects of this legendary transportation corridor, including the most dramatic 19th century construction project in the West. The first transcontinental railroad, built by Chinese laborers during the 1860s, was considered an engineering marvel in its day and is only a short distance from Donner
Pass Road.

Also easily accessible is the graded roadbed of the Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road, as well as the original route of the Lincoln Highway, the United States’ first coast-to-coast interstate road completed in 1923. Purchased and preserved for hikers, bikers, and explorers of all ages, the Summit Canyon Trail follows these historic roadbeds on both sides of the canyon east of Donner Pass.

Near the top of Summit Canyon are ancient and mysterious Indian petroglyphs, only a short walk from the car. The 75-foot-high “Sierra China Wall” is just a little bit further. Constructed of waste rock to support the railroad grade over a deep gorge, the wall was laid in place by Chinese workers without mortar or concrete.

Just a bit further up the road is the rusted cap of a vertical shaft built by Central Pacific RR to accelerate tunnel excavation with four bore heads instead of two. A historic plaque at the site explains how this shaft advanced the opening of the longest railroad tunnel on the summit. Be sure to visit the historic Royal Gorge terrain west of the pass where exhausted pioneers in covered wagons got their first look into the Sacramento Valley, and realized that their long, arduous journey was nearly over.

The original line of the first transcontinental railroad was abandoned in 1993. Photo: Mark McLaughlin

The Royal Gorge tract, acquired by the Truckee Donner Land Trust and Trust for Public Land in 2013, consists of nearly 3,000 acres of open valleys, meadows, peaks and alpine lakes. To top it all off, California has commemorated the dramatic evolution of travel and transportation over Donner Pass with exhibits and information in a new $6.8 million High Sierra Crossing Museum that will open in 2014.

To get a free guide brochure visit the Donner Summit Historical Society research cabin on Donner Pass Road at the blinking light in “downtown” Soda Springs, or download a printable version from their website, www.donnersummithistoricalsociety.org.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker and former freelance writer for Tahoe Magazine. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com.
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