Auto Travel to Donner Lake on the Lincoln Highway

Lincoln Highway on Donner Summit. | Greg Zirbel

Before there were cars and big-rig tractor-trailers speeding more than 65 mph on Interstate 80, the first transcontinental highway was the Lincoln Highway, commemorating President Abraham Lincoln. Today, much of this historic 100year-old road is accessible, however, it was replaced in 1926 by U.S. Highway 40. If a traveler gets off the interstate’s beaten path, segments can be visited.  

Truckee-Donner Historical Society presents Bill Van Tagen of the California Lincoln Highway Association, on July 20 at Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center. He will give a historical talk on the progression of transportation from the railroad to the Lincoln Highway. Doors will open at 5 and the talk will begin at 5:30 p.m. Parking fees will be waived, however a $5 donation would be appreciated. | truckeehistory.org 

Established in 1913 by the Lincoln Highway Association, automobile-invested companies, such as Packard, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and General Motors, supported and endorsed the roadway, as did the California State Automobile Association. The highway crossed through 14 states, 128 counties and approximately 500 cities between San Francisco and New York. The original length between these two cities was 3,388.6 miles and much of present-day Interstate 80 parallels or is laid atop this historic route in California. With the wonders of technology, a Google Map search shows that the current road distance between these two cities is 480 miles less than the original Lincoln Highway. 

Dozens of special events are planned as part of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad; details in the Event Calendar  

Along the Lincoln Highway, concrete underpasses were built beneath the 1869 Transcontinental Railroad tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad. Prior to this underpass, travelers would have to stop on one side, place their ear on the rails and listen for trains before driving across 

Dutch Flat road. Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

Traveling on the Lincoln Highway in the Donner Summit area was surrendering to driving less than 45 mph, taking your time and even packing survival gear. Almost 100 years ago, automobiles moved slowly, for example Ford’s Motel T, manufactured from 1908 to 1927, went around 25 mph, whereas the Model A, manufactured from 1927 to 31, did a whopping 45 mph. In 1924, only 826 miles of the highway were paved, undoubtedly in cities, and 1,650 miles were graded with gravel. The majority of the Lincoln Highway’s roads were neither graded nor graveled. Because the highway’s conditions varied, the speed limit on the road was 35 mph in most sections; however, the average speed was 10 mph. Overall, to drive across America, it took 19 days, averaging 18 mph. 

Before making the trip, there were extensivedon’ts” to heed in order to make a safe and comfortable trip: 

  • Don’t wear wool next to the skin. Wear linen or cotton underneath.  
  • Don’t wait until the gasoline is almost gone before looking for more. 
  • Don’t allow the water can to be anything but full.  
  • Don’t allow the car to be without food at any time.  
  • Don’t fail to put out your campfire.  
  • Don’t forget the yellow goggles. 
  • Don’t forget camphor ice. 
  • Don’t ford water without first wading through it.  
  • Don’t drive more than 25 miles per hour.  
  • Don’t carry your good clothes. Ship them ahead. 
  • Don’t drink alkali water. 
  • Don’t wear new shoes.  

Thankfully, yellow goggles are no longer needed, fording through water is not required and visitor centers are available for snacks and bathroom breaks. The gasoline needed to drive the 3,400 miles in 1914 cost $240, the equivalent today of $6,041. Therefore, only the affluent could afford to drive the Lincoln Highway. Since it was expensive and not everyone owned an auto, there were a mere 150 transcontinental trips by automobile in 1913, but 10 years later the number of trips jumped to 25,000, approximately 2,080 vehicles a month. What once took 60 days to travel now can be completed in 20 days. 

Lodges and restaurants were slowly added to the Lincoln Highway for weary travelers. San Franciscan T.C. Wohlbruck opened canteen service stations for drivers in need of refreshments and souvenirs. In 1913, he built three on the Lincoln Highway at Emigrant Gap’s Lookout Point, Echo Summit and Truckee’s Pioneer Monument. Wohlbruck’s lodges had tea rooms, soda fountains and lunchrooms where visitors could get $.15 lunches. Built on the westbound side, overlooking Lake Spaulding, Nyack Lodge was the first hotel establishment on the route. Currently, the lodge site is a Caltrans’ vista lookout.  

Stone garage. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

A 1915 Lincoln Highway guide of Donner listed: “Two hotels, accommodations for 90. Summit House, $2.00 Amer.; Soda Springs Hotel, $2.00 Amer. Gas, 30 cents; Oil, $1.00. Route marked through village and county. Extensive road improvement planned for 1915. One R.R., 1 general business place, 1 Exp. Co., telegraph. Donner Party monument on north shore of Donner Lake.”  

At the Pioneer Monument, 5,000 vials of wood from the Murphy cabin, candies, curios and other photographs were the souvenirs sold. By 1920, the lodge’s guest register recorded 3,500 visitors in seven years or approximately 40 visitors a month. The lodge currently stands across from the Donner Memorial Park museum and visitors’ center.  

Portions of the Lincoln Highway were designated as the Victory Highway, a memorial to World War I. In 1919, Colonel McClure lead the first transcontinental army convoy, which left Washington, D.C., on July 7 and arrived in San Francisco on Sept. 1. The convoy was 2 miles long, had 81 vehicles, 295 enlisted men and officers and took 62 days, at an average of 53 miles per day. The event by the military was considered a “good trial” in moving equipment and the “government’s contribution to the road movement.”  

In 1926, U.S. Highway 40 replaced the Lincoln Highway, connecting San Francisco to Atlantic City, N.J, and was much shorter at 2,286 miles than its predecessor; few resources exist that date to the Lincoln Highway. For those looking for an adventure, drive on the roadbeds accessible off Interstate 80 that weave through the towns of Soda Springs, Kingsvale and Cisco Grove. 

For a list of summer activities that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration on Facebook. 

By Corri Jimenez 

 Corri Jimenez is an architectural historian and historic preservation professional working in the Tahoe area