At Donner Pass, history and scenery combine to provide some of the most inspiring walks and hikes in the United States. Several years ago, the Donner Summit Historical Society began installing informative plaques as the group established the fascinating 20 Mile Museum along Donner Pass Road from Donner Lake west to Cisco. The recent purchases of Summit Canyon east of Donner Pass and the Royal Gorge tract west of the Pacific Divide, and the conversion to public trust land, has added even more jewels to this region. I’ll visit those new acquisitions and its compelling history in future columns.
One relatively easy hike in the Donner Pass area is the 6- to 7-mile roundtrip excursion to Lower Lola Montez Lake. It is one of those classic small High Sierra lakes, nestled in a forested, shallow granite basin, adorned with boulders perfect for diving or sunbathing, and populated with rainbow trout. In the summer, the area is a popular destination for mountain bikers, fishermen and families looking for a High Country adventure away from the crowds.
To get there, take the Soda Springs exit off of westbound Interstate 80 and make an immediate right onto Sherritt Road on the north side of the freeway. Head east and about one-half mile past the fire station is a well-marked trailhead on the left. The route alternates between dirt trail and gravel road as it roams through alpine forest, past streams and ferns, as well as seasonal wildflowers. Hikers ultimately climb more than 700 feet in elevation to the lake, but there is only one steep section at the final approach. It takes about 90 minutes to reach this picturesque pond, named for one of the most provocative women to ever visit the area — a sex siren who called herself Lola Montez.
Lola Montez was without a doubt one of the most famous woman to try her luck in the California gold rush. An internationally known, Irish-born dancer and stage actress who had previously shocked critics and audiences in Europe with risqué personal behavior and seductive performances, Lola broke all the rules. She was beautiful, sexy and liberated, and therefore controversial amid the highly conservative social mores of the Victorian Age. One admiring French critic wrote, “The dance of Lola Montez is poetry in motion, sometimes fantastic, often lascivious, but always attractive.”
Before the erotic dancer even reached San Francisco in May 1853, her promiscuous reputation had preceded her. Among her many well-publicized romantic conquests in Europe were a dashing Parisian journalist, the famous Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, as well as her stint as the mistress of an aging king.
Born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland on Feb. 17, 1821, her father Edward Gilbert was an officer in the British army and her mother the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Irish politician. When “Eliza” turned 3-years-old, the family moved to India where her father died of cholera shortly after their arrival. Within a year, her mother remarried and Eliza was sent to live with relatives in Scotland. When she turned 11, she was enrolled in an English boarding school where she received an education in liberal arts.
Eliza was a precocious teenager and by the time she was 16 had blossomed into an attractive young woman. At that time, her mother arrived from India and proposed that it was time for Eliza to marry. Mrs. Gilbert suggested that they return together to India where she knew a few eligible bachelors, all of them much older than Eliza. Her mother’s matrimonial plans left Eliza cold, so she rebelled and eloped with a handsome, 30-year-old army lieutenant named Thomas James, an admirer of Mrs. Gilbert who had traveled from India with her. The following year Lt. James returned to India with Eliza, but after a few years together she grew unhappy and returned to Scotland alone.
Mrs. Eliza James was only 19-years-old, but her reputation was already soiled by her elopement with an older man and she had no chance at an honest relationship as long as she was still married to Lt. James, who remained stationed in India. These became minor details to the spirited Eliza and within 10 days of boarding a London-bound ship she was flirting with a 20-year-old officer named George Lennox.
Before long, the couple was spending time together alone in their cabins and, once again, Eliza’s inappropriate behavior shocked those around her. The relationship between Lennox and Eliza continued for a while in London until concerned family members pressured Lennox to end it. When news of the adulterous affair reached Lt. James, he charged Eliza with adultery and sued for divorce. It was the end of Eliza’s childhood dreams of a conventional life and the beginning of a wild career as an internationally known entertainer and seductress extraordinaire.
Eliza escaped the shame of appearing in an English divorce court by traveling to Spain to create a new persona. While in Spain, Eliza took acting classes, learned traditional Spanish dances, and began smoking cigarettes and cigars. She also added Marie Delores to her name to support her new stage billing as the beautiful daughter of a noble Spanish family who had been exiled by civil war. Upon her return to England in 1842, she hit the stage as “Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer.” Over the next two decades, she would become the most notorious of 19th-century courtesans and her affairs were the subject of worldwide gossip.
Wherever Lola went, heads turned and tales of scandal flourished. Her striking beauty garnered immediate attention from everyone she met, with her fair skin, jet-black hair and large, deep-blue eyes. Everyone knew that she had captivated the hearts and minds of powerful men as she danced seductively on stages throughout Europe. During Lola’s sensational tour de force in Germany, elderly King Ludwig of Bavaria was so enamored that he showered her with gifts and jewels. But the real trouble started when he awarded Lola the title of Countess and asked her to live with him and rule the country. The people of Bavaria revolted and angry mobs rioted in the streets, chanting slogans condemning “Countess Montez.” Lola fled with a strongbox filled with treasure while the disgraced king abdicated his throne.
Stay tuned for Lola’s adventure in California next issue.
Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. Mark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com.