Native Americans seasonally crossed the Sierra over what we today refer to as Donner Pass. Petroglyphs from the Martis people, estimated to be up to 2,500 years old, can be viewed on the granite slabs just west of the Donner Summit (Rainbow) Bridge on Old Highway 40. The Northern Paiute, Western Shoshoni, and Washoe people of the western Great Basin, as well as the Maidu of the western foothills of the Sierra, are believed to have traversed this pass as a trade route.
Euro-American Westward Expansion
In 1844, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party was the first group of Euro-American emigrants to successfully cross this summit into California. Due to early snowfall, they left their wagons at the east end of “Truckee Lake” under the watchful eye of young Moses Schallenberger, who safely over-wintered in a hastily-constructed cabin in 1844-45. The high ridge rising from the south shore of today’s Donner Lake is named Schallenberger Ridge in his honor.
The tragedy of the Donner Party is well-known. The party was late moving into the Sierra in October of 1846. They became trapped in early, heavy snows both at the Donner Family's camp six miles Northeast of “Truckee Lake” in Alder Creek Valley, and the other camp on the lake’s east shore. The party quickly exhausted their food supply, hunting was challenging, and their oxen were lost to the snowdrifts. A small group did make it over the summit, bringing back supplies and assisting in rescuing the survivors the following springs.
In 1862, the federal government, fully engaged in the Civil War, did not have the ability to finance the transcontinental railroad it dearly wanted, and instead supported it with U.S. Government bonds and land grants to Central Pacific Railroad. Above the property you can view the famous China Wall, a dry-laid rock wall constructed by Chinese railroad laborers, hand-cut train tunnels, and snowsheds to protect the trains from avalanches.
As the Central Pacific built the railroad across the Sierra, they needed a way to move construction materials and laborers to the summit. Thus, they built the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road and operated it as a toll road from 1864 to 1867. Upon completion of the railroad, the old wagon road fell into disrepair. After the turn of the century, the old road was modified for automobile use and served as the Lincoln Highway, and then the Victory Highway, until Highway 40 was built in the 1920s. Highway 40 was instrumental in Truckee and Lake Tahoe’s emergence as resort and recreation destinations, and “Old 40” remains heavily used as the area’s gateway, despite the construction of Interstate 80.
Lands surrounding Donner Lake including Donner Summit Canyon, Schallenberger Ridge, and Lakeview, Coldstream, and Emigrant Canyons, are now permanently protected and open to the public as additions to Donner Memorial State Park.