Donner Pass and Those Who Crossed It
George R. Stewart
1960 96 pages

George R. Stewart* was a famous author of many books, a number of which had to do with Donner Summit.  This one has to do with Donner Summit and is maybe his shortest.  If you want a good brief introduction to the history of the summit and don’t know a lot about the topic then you will like this book. If, however, you know a lot about the summit, then this book will be too basic.  That said, Stewart includes pages and pages of old photographs which may be of interest.  The book is available in libraries and on the internet.

Stewart starts his introduction by saying that you can see Donner Pass but the book is going to give you what you can’t see – the history – “the men, women, and children of the Stevens [sic] Party, who first struggled through, of those of the Donner Party who starved and died by the lake, of the Forty-niners who came for gold, of hard-driving Charlie Crocker and his swarming Chinese who built the railroad, and of some things that have happened in the more recent years.”  Stewart meets his goal.

There is the story of the Stephens Party: the background, Chief Truckee, the split with six going to Lake Tahoe and then over the Sierra, the ten foot rock to get over and taking apart the wagons, three staying at Donner Lake, Elizabeth Yuba Murphy, the women and kids at Big Bend while the men went off to California, and Moses Schallenberger’s story. 

Then Stewart goes on to the other emigrants, Coldstream, the Donner Party of 1846 and the Forlorn Hope.

With the coming of the 49’ers the Placerville route took precedence and there is a digression to the foothills, Gold Rush towns, and hydraulic mining.

Then it’s back to Donner Pass. Various promoters wanted different routes over the Sierra to benefit their towns.  For example, there was the Placer Co. Emigrant Rd. that was to go over Squaw Valley, making use of a route in existence.  Donner Pass later became the preferred route, though, because of the railroad.  It was a direct route with a constant grade as the road followed the ridge tops.  Stewart talks a bit about Theodore Judah, railroad construction, the Chinese, and Charlie Crocker  (one of the Big Four).  With the railroad came development and the railroad held “undisputed sway” for travel for fifty years. Then came the highways.

“Donner Summit has its beauty, of high crags and gleaming granite; the view eastward  across the lake [Donner Lake] is justly famous” and the beauty should be preserved from billboards and other things but  it does not rival Yosemite.  What makes Donner Summit special is that “It has kept a rendezvous with history, and its interest to the person who passes here should be historical as much as scenic.  At the summit, for instance, one can enjoy the beauty of the view, but can also see the remains of two primitive roads in addition to the present highway, can look across at the railroad, and can also know that the emigrant wagons were dragged up somewhere to reach the same gap.” (Here you might like to look at the Donner Summit tour in our April, ’16 Heirloom which experiences exactly what Stewart describes).

At page 62 the text breaks off in favor of 26 pages of old pictures which are in addition to the many old pictures that accompany the text.   Then there are some miscellaneous topics: Place Names, Shaping of the Landscape, and Animals and Plants.

*For more on George R. Stewart, see “Author of Many Genres” in the March, ’11 Heirloom and “Creating Something Where Nothing Was” and “Life & Times of George R. Stewart” in the October, ’15 Heirloom.  See also our 20 Mile Museum sign (to be installed after snow melt, spring, ’16) for Stewart Pk on our website.