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The Donner Party

“The Donner Party”

By T. Dietz

A popular get away for Brian and I, is the Lake Tahoe area in Northern California. For those who have never had the opportunity, you’re missing one of the top vistas and outdoor playgrounds in our country.

At the heart of the Sierra Nevadas, is Lake Tahoe itself, the largest alpine lake in North America.  Behind Crater Lake in Oregon, another planned GAC destination, its the second deepest lake in North American at a depth of over 1,600ft. The lake was formed by geologic uplifting and was the center of life for the Washoe Indians from which the lake derives its name.

Though the area is now a Mecca for outdoorsmen and adventure seekers alike, many are probably more familiar with a historic, yet gruesome aspect of the area, the disastrous story of the Donner party.

A few miles from Lake Tahoe is Donner Lake, named for the ill-fated expedition during the winter of 1846-47. The beauty of this lake is unmistakable, and the area’s abundant natural resources leave you wondering how it was, so many could have wintered, struggled and died here.

This winter, with snow in short supply, Brian and I grabbed our daypacks and took a drive to visit the Emigrant Trail Museum at the Eastern edge of Donner Lake. As long we were in the area, the GAC might as well dig a little deeper into the history of the region.

The Museum lies within the Donner Memorial State Park, roughly 230 miles east of San Francisco. The current museum is quiet, quaint and soon to be moved into new modern facility right next door. In addition to teaching visitors about the Donner Party itself, there’s plenty to learn of the adventurous and brave pioneering Americans and their journey Westward. Some spurred on by ideas of adventure and wealth, many just looking for a better life outside of the busy metropolises of early America. Their journey was long, perilous and deadly in many cases.  With stories from “Americanos” such as Jedediah Smith, Walker, and Freemont, and with help from Native Americans, early pioneers headed west to “a land rich as honey”, but in the case of the Donner party, they met with tragic results.

A highlight for us was a 19-minute film that runs every half-hour. An incredibly dated production, but non the less, very insightful as to what really went wrong to cause such an unfortunate end for this group. What you rarely learn from grade school is the series of events that set the Donner party on their course for destruction. Looking for a shortcut through the Sierras, which was to take hundreds of miles off their journey, what they found was a trail boss who had left without them, and a route that was anything but traversable. Delays, hardships and infighting all added to what finally stopped the expedition in its path, a serve paralyzing winter the likes of which had not been seen in over a hundred years. There are tree stumps in the museum that you don’t understand their significance, until you realize the tree was “cut down” at a height of about 20 feet up the truck. The significance being, the snow was so deep, the members of the party were actually 20+ feet above the surface of the ground when they were able to venture out.

The party was halted near Donner Lake, on and around the site where the museum now stands. What they found were three rustic cabins that would house a minimum of two families each. Even then it wasn’t enough to hold everyone. Those who didn’t find space in the cabins, found themselves in a nearby camp with only canvas tents to protect them.

Two of the cabin locations are clearly marked. One site, the Schallenberger cabin is easily identifiable as it sat where the statue to the early pioneers is located. The point to make here, is the stone base of the statue was built to the height of where the snow had reached while the Donner party camped and died here.

The second is nearby, marked by a solitary rock outcropping along the half-mile nature trail surrounding the park. A poignant reminder of the death toll imparted on this ill-planned expedition. A granite boulder that served as a wall to the cabin, bares a brass plaque naming every member of the party and whether they perished or survived, and yes some did survive. There were 87 members of the Donner Party – only 48 survived.  Diaries from the expedition document the harshness of the conditions encountered, but as the story goes, some resorted to cannibalism in order to subsist.

The museum boasts terrific, everyday items these early families carried during their journey west.  Beautiful examples such as a shaving kit, highlight every day life, while a set of horse snowshoes show the practicality of travel by covered wagon.

And of course relics from the old west such as the trusty Henry rifle, all bare witness to the trials of the early California settlers.

Just outside the Museum is the entrance to the half-mile Nature Trail that surrounds the museum. You’ll come in contact with the stone wall of the Murphy cabin and it’s brass plaque of survivors, and eventually wind around to Donner Creek.

The hiking trail crosses Donner Creek and in this modern age, it’s hard to imagine the hardships that were endured in this place. As you wander through the quiet forest, especially quiet today given the off-season, evidence of how nature still holds sway here, is everywhere. A crystal clear creek moves quietly through the forest leading to an immense beaver damn constructed just behind the museum. At first it might be unclear what exactly has happened, but with a slow pace and a keen eye, you can easily find the indicators that life is, and has been, in abundance in this area. Signs of Tahoe’s beavers are copious.

This is a great stop if you’re up to Tahoe and we’d highly recommend popping in if history is something you find of interest.

For us in the Gentleman Adventurer’s Club, its chance to learn, explore, and appreciate those who pioneered the paths before us. A way to be reminded of what we aspire;





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