It Wasn't Always Easy to Get to Donner Summit

Today we hop in our cars, set the temperature and cruise controls, and don’t even give a thought to driving long distances. We can reach Donner Summit in just an hour and a half from Sacramento and double that from San Francisco. Our vehicles are reliable and fast. The multi-lane Interstate allows us to zip past slower drivers.
It was not always so. It took six weeks in 1867 for a donkey engine to arrive at Donner Summit from Gold Run. It had been a locomotive and was so scary that oncoming mules had to be blindfolded so they would not bolt. That’s an aside though, for another menu.

Emigrant wagons coming up Donner Pass had to be disassembled to get them over the rock ledges. The trials those original emigrants went through must have made them wish they’d never heard of California. Then they discovered Roller Pass. Emigrants didn’t have to take their wagons apart but they did have to attach a dozen oxen to bring each wagon, one by one, up the very steep slope.

The crossing of Donner Summit was the hardest part of the emigrants’ trip across the country. As they approached the Sierra they looked with “terror at the awful site [sic].” (Wm. Tustin, 1846). The Sierra looked like an “apparently impassable barrier” (Edwin Bryant, 1846 whose mule went somersaulting down the mountain*), “as steep as the roof of a house” (Joseph Hackney 1849). The Sierra “looked terrible” ( David Hudson 1845). The mountains were “some immense wall built directly across our path” (Elisha Perkins 1849).
The railroad made it easier but traveling by train over Donner Summit meant going through 40 miles of snowsheds which kept heavy snowfall and avalanches from wiping the track and trains off the mountainsides. Going through sheds, though, meant that some of the most beautiful scenery in the world was hidden from view. In addition to the dark, train cars filled with smoke making the trip over the Summit less than pleasant.

Once there were roads one would think things got easier but as the pictures on following pages show, that was not always the case. At least drivers did not have to take apart their cars.

*the mule survived none the worse for wear.

Getting Over Donner Summit - Tough Work

“You can form no idea, nor can I give you any description of the evils which best us. From the time we left the [Donner] lake ….until we reached the top [Lake Mary] it was one continued jumping from one rocky cliff to another. We would have to roll over this big rock, then over that; then there was bridging a branch; then we had to lift our wagons by main force up to the top of a ledge of rocks…Three days…found ourselves six miles from the lake…you never saw a set of fellows more happy than when we reached the summit.

William Todd 1845

Snow Makes Crossing Donner Summit Difficult

Before the highway was plowed in 1932 merchants in Truckee and Lake Tahoe had one wish each Spring - let the snow melt QUICKLY!

Sometimes the snow did and sometimes it did not and when it did not the merchants did their best to hurry things along. Placer County used to send up snow shovelers annually to help out.. They could clear 1500 feet of snowdrifts in two days (1921) and the road could be open by early June. The newspapers faithfully reported on snow clearing presumably to encourage travelers.

For awhile there was a carnival of cars coming annually from Reno clearing the remaining snow as they went and there was a celebration when the first car got over the Summit.

Salt and ashes were spread on the road at times to hurry things along. Sometimes residents dug trenches in the snow to speed melting by lettingthe warm air get to more snow than just the top surface.

The Summit Hotel (burned in 1925) helped by spreading ash on the snow and putting up the County snow shovelers.

There were newspaper articles each Spring about hoped for opening dates, opening plans, and the yearly prominent citizens’ committees set up to oversee clearing operations and openings. Above, Alexander Winton attempting the first transcontinental road trip in 1901. He and his partner had started from S.F. before snow melt on the Summit. They got over the summit but got stuck in the Nevada desert.

Source: Sierra Sun archives

Snow Shoveling Bee

from the Truckee Republican, May 19, 1921

“The Auburn Chamber of Commerce, working with the Placer County Auto Trades Association, is planning to conduct a snow shoveling bee, which will take place on Sunday and Monday, May 22 and 23, and they hope to secure a large delegation of snow shovelers.

“Leaving Auburn on train 22 at 6:30 Saturday night, the party would arrive at the summit about four hours later. Accommodation would be provided at Summit Hotel, which has recently changed hands...The owners plan to make an all season resort of Summit Hotel... the region of the Summit is particularly well suited for sport the year around. An eminent Swedish traveler recently remarked that no place in Sweden equalled the Summit as a winter pleasure spot...”

The four picture collage here shows episodes of Mr. Foote's trip from Grass Valley to Tahoe Tavern over Donner Summit.

Tahoe Tavern Silver Cup, 1911

One of the ideas local commercial interests had to encourage travelers to come to cross Donner Summit early in the season was the Tahoe Tavern’s Silver Cup. The Tahoe Tavern was a resort in Tahoe City where Granlibakken Rd. intersects with Highway 89. The silver cup was awarded to the first automobile to cross the Summit.

In 1911 Arthur Foote, of Grass Valley, entered the race along with several friends. It would take nine days to go from Grass Valley to Tahoe City over Donner Summit which was still covered in snow. Hard snow can be driven on apparently fairly well. Foote won probably because he was better prepared than other drivers. Storms had washed out the bridge at Cisco Grove but Foote’s block and tackle got him across.

The block and tackle was also useful for pulling the automobile out of soft snow or crevices.

It took seven days to get from Emigrant Gap to Soda Springs, 23 miles. It was downhill from there to breakfast at Donner Lake and on to Lake Tahoe for the prize and champagne.

Salt Sprinkled on Summit Road

“...the Truckee Chamber of Commerce sent twelve men to Summit on April 1, together with 3000 pounds of black cinders and 1500 pounds of rock salt. The men spread the cinders and salt over the road from Summit Hotel to the head of Donner Lake, and also shoveled out a deep drift on the sharp bend just this side of the subway.

“…There is 12 to 15 feet of snow on the road from the Summit Hotel to the subway and from the latter point to the head of Donner lake the snow will average from 2 to 4 feet in depth.

“A stretch of new road on the Truckee side of the subway under the sheds, and over 1000 feet in length is coovered with from 30 to 50 feet of snow. It is probable that little work will be done on the new stretch at this time but instead all efforts will be concentrated on the old road.”

Truckee Republican April 7, 1921 Right, is Mr. Foote's car in Summit Valley.

Below a couple of cars on the Lincoln Highway below Donner Summit.