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History underfoot at Donner Pass trails

RENO — It’s ironic so many American success stories happened at a spot named for one of history’s iconic failures.

But that’s how it is with the Donner Pass near Truckee, Calif.

The first wagon train to successfully cross the Sierra Nevada squeezed through the tiny granite gap in 1844.

In the 1860s, laborers built massive walls and 15 tunnels through the pass to bridge the most difficult section of the Transcontinental Railroad route.

And in the early 1900s, the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental automobile highway, was developed and included a route through the pass on the former Dutch Flat Wagon Road.

It’s the name of the ill-fated Donner Party whose disastrous 1846 journey left them stranded in the area, resulted in dozens of death and prompted some members to resort to cannibalism, however, that defines the region. In addition to Donner Pass, there’s Donner Lake, Donner Peak and Donner Pass Road.

“Maybe this is the most historic square mile or two in California,” said Greg Palmer, who leads hikes through the area. “But on all the maps this is known as the Donner Pass mainly because of the sensationalism of the Donner Party.”

Palmer is one of about two dozen guides who lead hikers through the region via several routes designed to highlight the natural and cultural history of the area that’s known mainly, and begrudgingly by some, for a historic tragedy.

This year’s hikes, which were scheduled for Oct. 4 and Oct. 5, mark the 22nd consecutive year organizers have coordinated guided treks in the area. The first day featureed hikes on five routes that highlight the diverse history and sights, including American Indian rock art. The second day was a walking tour that focused mainly on the disastrous Donner trip.

“That’s the beauty of this event,” said organizer Kathy Hess. “We take you to places you would never see on your own.”

Hess and Palmer previewed a portion of the Summit Canyon/Dutch Flat Wagon Road hike. They started from Donner Pass Road west of Donner Lake and hiked out onto some granite flats overlooking the lake.

The flats are covered with an estimated 200 pieces of rock art. The Donner Summit Historical Society says archaeologists estimate the art is 1,500 to 4,000 years old and provides a record of the first human inhabitants of the area, ancestors of the Washoe people who lived in the region.

They continued toward the pass that’s partly filled in by the bed for the Transcontinental Railroad. The bed, from which the tracks have been removed, is supported where it crosses the pass by a “Chinese Wall,” named for the Chinese laborers who assembled the large stones in place by hand.

The former rail line also has a series of tunnels and snow sheds that are frequented by hikers, cyclists and others despite the fact it is private property and the public isn’t authorized to access it.

Crossing underneath the former rail line immediately to the east of the pass is an underpass for the Lincoln Highway. The highway, first conceived in 1913, was the first transcontinental automobile route in America and the Donner Pass crossing, Palmer said, is the first railroad underpass for automobiles constructed in California.

The remnant of highway passes what’s left of some historic advertisements that were painted onto the rocks to entice early automobile travelers.

For Palmer, the highlight is reveling in all the stories. During a preview hike, he shuffled through a stack of postcards that guides use to help describe what hikers will see.

He’s particularly enthusiastic about the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party. Remember them? Hardly anyone does, which is the problem. They’re the ones who successfully brought wagons through the pass two years before the Donner group showed up.

To squeeze through the narrow pass they had to send the oxen through single-file, disassemble the wagons and push, pull and drag the provisions and parts across steep, granite overhangs.

Some members were even stuck, snowbound in the area for months, until rescue parties returned for them. Unlike the Donner Party, though, the Stephens group completed their journey, which began in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to California with more members than they started with thanks to some births along the way.

“This should be called the Stephens Pass,” Palmer said. “It is kind of a thorn in the side of a lot of historians, but it is part of the legend.”

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