(KTXL) — Donner is a name synonymous with the Northern Sierra Nevada and the Lake Tahoe area, but with so many things using the Donner name, it can be complicated to keep track of them all.
As most students of the California public education system know, the name Donner comes from a wagon party that met a tragic end in the area, leading to the renaming of geographical features, roadways and other locations, with the most well-known of these being Donner Pass, Donner Summit, Donner Lake, Donner Peak and Donner Pass Road.
History of the area northwest of Lake Tahoe
The Donner Summit Historical Society describes the area of Donner Pass, which is between Truckee and Soda Springs, as “the most important historical square mile in California and maybe the entire Western United States.”
While that title may be debatable, there is no denying that the area has been an essential transportation route, evolving from foot travel to ox-driven wagons as the first wagon trains into California crossed through what would come to be known as Donner Pass.
The Donner Party
Thousands of people migrated from the Midwest to California through the pass, with the tragic events that happened to a large group of travelers in October 1846 gaining national attention and leaving a historical mark on the area.
During that fateful winter, extremely heavy snowfall trapped more than 80 pioneers heading west who were led by George Donner.
A delayed start to their travel, a misguided attempt through a shortcut, and a particularly snowy winter led to the deaths of 41 members of the party.
Decades later, vehicles pulled by animals would give way to the mechanical power of trains along the first transcontinental railroad.
Brave adventurers would then traverse the steep grade of the pass with the new automobile along the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first transcontinental highway.
A nearby summit also played a crucial part in the first transcontinental air route, as a manned air station with lighted beacons guided pilots in the early days of flight.
All carrying the name of the fateful Donner Party.
What is known today as Donner Pass has been used by humans for thousands of years to cross the rugged Sierra Nevada, evidenced by the existence of Native American petroglyphs and mortars in the area.
Located at an elevation of 7,057 feet, Donner Pass is situated between Mount Judah at 8,243 feet and Andesite Peak at 8,219 feet.
The pass was first surveyed as a possible railroad grade in 1845 by John Charles Fremont of the U.S. Topographical Corps, and in 1860 the possibility of the route was reconsidered by surveyor Theodore Judah.
This would become the first route of the first transcontinental railroad through the Sierra. One of the most impressive construction projects of this first route is the Donner Pass Summit Tunnels.
Donner Pass Summit Train Tunnels
These tunnels were constructed by Chinese laborers hand drilling and blowing apart hard granite over 15 months until their completion in 1867, giving way to the first trains passing through in 1868.
The tunnels would be used until 1933 when Union Pacific choose to abandon the route in favor of another tunnel that goes directly through Mt. Judah.
Today, the tunnels are open to the public to walk through and serve as a reminder to the dangerous work carried out by Chinese laborers.
Lincoln Highway winds along the Donner Pass Route
The Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first coast-to-coast highway, would have its first route travel along nearly the same route as the railroad until it was rerouted.
Remnants of the original roadway are known today as Old Donner Summit Road and a short span is part of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The final alignment of the northern leg of the Lincoln Highway would be renamed U.S. Route 40, which included the newly built Donner Summit Bridge.
At an elevation of 7,239 feet, Donner Summit is not the highest point in the area, but is nearly 200 feet higher than Donner Pass. Donner Summit is also the highest point of Interstate 80 through California.
Donner Summit was established in the 1960s as the newly created Interstate 80 cut through the once-wild lands only a few miles from the historic Donner Pass and a nearby lake that today also is renamed Donner Lake.
Besides an interstate, the area around the summit is a major recreational area for hikers, mountain bikers, rock climbers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
People traveling on Interstate 80 can exit and explore the area of Donner Pass by taking Exit 174 for Soda Springs/Norden onto Donner Pass Road and along the historic Lincoln Highway.
Those looking to get off the busy interstate right at Donner Lake can take Exit 180 for Donner Lake Road.
Other nearby places that use the name Donner
At the eastern base of Donner Pass is the nearly 3-mile-long Donner Lake, which is a good spot for hiking, camping, boating, fishing, wind surfing and other outdoor activities.
Donner Memorial State Museum
For those wanting to know all there is about the Donner area, a visit to the Donner Memorial State Museum tells the history of the migrants that traveled through the area.
The museum is located at the eastern end of Donner Lake and covers the history of the Donner area, from early Native Americans to the modern day.
Just outside the museum is the Pioneer Monument, unveiled to the public on June 6, 1918, as a memorial to the Donner Party. It was registered with the California Office of Historic Preservation on Jan. 31, 1934.
The peak is located 1.5 miles above Donner Lake and rises to 8,019 feet. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail cuts in along the slope of the peak.