As a vital gateway for America’s 19th Century westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean, Donner Pass is arguably one of the most storied locations in the United States. One of the lowest passes in the Sierra Nevada at about 7,000 feet, the gap in the granite has always been a highway of sorts.
Long before California-bound pioneers riding loaded farm wagons first breached the pass in 1844, Great Basin Indians used mountain trails to trade with tribes from the Sacramento Valley and Pacific Coast. The Truckee River route over Donner Pass was popular with Euro-American emigrants until the California Gold Rush when the Carson Pass trail south of Lake Tahoe became the go-to route.
Beginning in the early 1860s, however, Donner Pass came alive again. The Dutch Flat-Donner Lake toll road was built to accommodate freight wagons — quickly followed by the nation’s first transcontinental railroad that roared through Truckee in 1868, 150 years ago. By 1913 this transportation revolution over Donner Pass continued with the Lincoln Highway (Route 40), the country’s first transcontinental interstate roadway. By 1920 aircraft were flying over the pass delivering U.S. mail. Today, motorists cruise in comfort over modern, all-weather Interstate 80 faster than a mile per minute.
In recognition of the extraordinary place Donner Pass holds in the annals of native peoples and Euro-Americans, the Donner Summit Historical Society developed its 20 Mile Museum concept as one of the most rewarding outdoor experiences in the Truckee-Donner region. Blessed with accessible terrain and unique geologic and transportation features, visitors of all ages can interact firsthand with the kind of American history most have only read about.
The nonprofit Society has an active board that includes long-time Donner Summit local Norm Sayler as president, along with fellow members Starr Hurley, Bill Oudequeest, Pat Malberg and Cheryl Paduano. The organization publishes an informative monthly e-newsletter that profiles local history, events and people from the Donner Pass area. It also freely distributes brochures that guide visiting hikers, cyclists and motorists to an array of historic locations along Old Highway 40. For those who prefer the digital world, the brochures have been formatted for a computer or mobile phone.
Every day thousands of people drive over Donner Pass, but relatively few visitors exit the interstate between Nyack and Soda Springs for a leisurely jaunt through the Society’s scenic and historically informative 20 Mile Museum. The society’s board of directors thought that a system of interpretive signs could help teach about the region’s colorful history, while improving the local economy as more visitors would patronize community merchants. The name 20 Mile Museum is a bit of a misnomer because these exhibits are not housed in any building. Rather, they dot the rugged landscape along a long stretch of the original Lincoln Highway (Highway 40, Donner Pass Road) that parallels Interstate 80 and the South Fork of the Yuba River. The pace of life is unhurried here and the 35-mph speed limit allows time to savor the spectacular views of the Sierra crest and instill wonder about the region’s legendary past.
In 2010, Oudegeest was inspired by interpretive plaques that he read in the San Francisco area and again in Switzerland while hiking near the Matterhorn. Oudegeest realized that similar signs would help share the unique and intriguing history of Donner Pass. The following summer the society began installing its own interpretive signs in the Donner Summit area. Each sign is sponsored by an individual or business and offers a reference map, brief profile of the area and suggestions for fun things to do.
There are now 48 signs (two were stolen, one twice) interspersed along Highway 40 for about 30 miles, from near Truckee to Nyack, with the heaviest concentration near Donner Pass. The society offers a comprehensive selection of free guides for all locations. Don’t forget to sign up for the Donner Summit Historical Society newsletter and let the adventures begin.
To get a free guide brochure, visit Sayler at the Donner Summit Historical Society research cabin at the blinking light in downtown Soda Springs or download a printable version or mobile app from the Web site. | donnersummithistoricalsociety.org