The Lincoln Highway on Donner Summit

Donner Summit is the richest historical area in California and maybe the entire Western United States. Native Americans summered on Donner Summit for thousands of years leaving behind the evidence of their presence in the many mortars, metates, cupules, and petroglyphs.

The first wagon trains to reach California with wagons came over Donner Pass as did the first transcontinental railroad, first transcontinental highway, first transcontinental telephone line, and the first transcontinental air route. Except for the highway, those are all stories for future menus.

The first transcontinental highway was the Lincoln Highway and it was the first national commemoration of Abraham Lincoln. That route went right past the windows here and then up the dirt road just across the street.

Today highways are built from scratch but that first national highway was put together in 1913 from already existing stretches of roadway to create a route from coast to coast. It produced the first national standards for highways. It was a completely private endeavor using no public money. The money for the project was raised through subscription with the campaign aimed at the public’s patriotism.

The new highway standards enabled automobiles to travel on the best spots, which were graded gravel, at the continuous speed of 35 MPH. Trucks could travel at 10 MPH. Only half of the cross-country route was graded gravel. The 1914 official guide to the Lincoln Highway said it would take 19 days to cross the country traveling 10 hours a day at an average of 18 MPH. Imagine seeing the country with the wind whistling in your ears and your hair flying at the incredible speed of 18 MPH!

The highway was a success and met the growing needs of the public, which having newly acquired automobiles, wanted to use them. The most adventurous “autoists” wanted to travel all the way across the country in their automobiles. In 1913 there were about 150 transcontinental travelers per year. By 1923 there were between 20 and 25,000 cross-country travelers.

Crossing the Sierra “turned out to be the toughest one-hundred miles I have ever driven...the road was narrow... we had to resort to constant carburetor adjustments...There were dangerous unfenced gaps..and no warning signs...

Driving Was Fun in Those Days

Pull out block and tackle, wade around in the mud, get soaked to the skin and chilled from the effects of the deluge, make fastenings to the fence or telephone post and pull. Pull hard, dig your heels into the mud and exert every effort at command. The machine moves, your feet slip and down in the mud you go full length. Repeat the dose and continue the operation until the machine is free from the ditch and again upon the road. (From Coast to Coast by Automobile).

Advice for travelers from the Official Guide to the Lincoln Highway
Don’t wait until your gasoline is almost gone before filling up. There might be a delay, or it might not be obtainable at the next point your figured on.
Don’t wear wool next to your skin
Don’t allow your water can to be anything but full
Don’t carry a loaded firearm
Don’t ford water without first wading through it.
Don’t allow the car to be without food
Don’t forget the colored goggles [sunglasses].
Don’t drive more than 15 mph – springs break
Don’t carry good clothes – ship them
Don’t forget the camphor ice. The dry air of the west will crack your lips and fingers without it.
Don’t drink alkali water
Don’t wear new shoes

By Motor Bicycle over Donner Summit
George Wyman went to the Reno motorcycle races in 1902 and thought about crossing the Sierra by motor bicycle. The next year he embarked on his cross country journey in May. An average of 34 feet of snow falls on Donner Summit each winter and it does not melt by May.

George floundered in the snow and resorted to traveling 18 miles through the snowsheds for seven hours. At the top he visualized that it would be downhill to Truckee all the way so after he left the more than 1600’ long Tunnel 6 which was “dark, damp, and dismal,” he went out on to the snow. “I tried to walk,. Where the road should have been was a wide expanse of snow - deep snow. As there was nothing else to do, I plunged into it and floundered, waded, walked, slipped, and slid to the head of Donner Lake.”
George, left, did make it to New York in 50 days.

First Auto Crossing of Donner Summit

Motorized vehicles did not have to wait for the Lincoln Highway to cross Donner Summit.
The first crossing by motorized vehicle was in 1901 when Alexander Winton made the first transcontinental attempt in one of his Winton motor cars. It was an ambitious goal which did not take into account that in May, when he made his attempt, there is still a bit of snow on Donner Summit.

He experienced breakdowns, rescues, driving on snow, and sliding off snowbanks. It took the entire day to get from Cascade to Donner Summit, seventeen miles. Just below the summit the car sank into the soft snow and he gave up for the day. The next day men from the Summit Hotel helped dig him out and they were off to Truckee.

It was not until 1903 that a successful cross country trip was made by automobile.

Before the underpass.

When the Lincoln Highway was first put together from existing road segments it included the old road up Donner Pass. That route crossed the railroad tracks and it was tricky going through the snowsheds (below).

Drivers approached the snowsheds and stopped, turning off the auto engine so they could hear better. They got out of their vehicles and opened one of the sliding doors on the side of the shed. They listened for approaching trains. Hearing none they went back to their cars and restarted the engines and drove across the tracks and then alongside the tracks to the sliding door on the other side.

There were a number of accidents and so the underpass (above), perhaps the first in the nation for autos under a railroad track, was built (below with the snowsheds on top). You can visit the 1914 underpass. Go up Old Highway 40 to Sugar Bowl Rd. which is opposite Donner Ski Ranch. Go past Tunnel 6 and turn left at Old Donner Pass Rd. Follow that up to the parking area and then walk to a sharp bend in the road. That’s the trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail. Instead of taking that trail which goes right, go straight and follow the trail for a quarter of a mile or so until you get to the underpass and great views. You will pass a monument for the Stephens Party, the first wagon train to reach California with wagons. A fun hike is to follow the old Lincoln Highway to Donner Lake.

Inspiration for the Interstate Highway System

It was a trip by Dwight Eisenhower in 1919 that is at least partly responsible for I-80 which also goes over Donner Summit. He was a young lieutenant in 1919 and part of the first transcontinental U.S. Army convoy. The convoy was only able to average 54 miles a day and the experience was so miserable that in his memoirs Eisenhower said that was a motivating factor for his Interstate Highway initiative.