Epic auto race to Tahoe Tavern of 1911

Arthur Foote’s crew pulled a Model T over Donner Pass, circa 1911. | Mark McLaughlin Collection

Motorists often take Interstate 80 for granted, the year-round, trans-Sierra highway that crosses the mountain range at Donner Pass, except of course when it’s shut down for hours or days by winter storms. It is a quick link between markedly different climates in California and a vital conduit for a large portion of the tourism dollars that flow into the Tahoe Sierra.

Before automobiles gained popularity after 1900, locals and tourists relied on stagecoaches, railroads, dog sleds and lake steamers to transport people and supplies in the region. Nevada ranchers who relied on trusty horses remained skeptical of the viability of the automobile until car dealers took to the Silver State’s primitive roadways during winter months to demonstrate their vehicles’ performance and dependability. Once people got used to the independence and convenience of traveling in a car, however, it bankrupted the narrow-gauge railroad that connected Tahoe City to Truckee and shut down the popular passenger steamers that had plied the deep waters of Big Blue for decades.

Before the Lincoln Highway improved summer travel over Donner Pass in 1913, intrepid drivers were fighting their way over this portion of the rugged Sierra utilizing block and tackle and tying ropes around their tires for snow traction.

When businessowners realized that future tourist dollars were going to arrive by car, not passenger train, they pressured state and county governments to upgrade mountain roads. A party of autoists, as they were then called, first crossed Donner Pass via the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road in May 1901. The first motorcyclist was George Wyman who managed to pick his way over in August 1902.

By 1906 the dawn of motorized transportation was embraced by the half dozen Truckee locals who could afford a car. Before the Lincoln Highway improved summer travel over Donner Pass in 1913, intrepid drivers were fighting their way over this portion of the rugged Sierra utilizing block and tackle and tying ropes around their tires for snow traction.

Despite rural America’s skepticism that the new gasoline buggies would ever replace a good saddle horse over rough terrain, the auto-based tourist economy ramped up and is more popular than ever.

Contest to reach Tahoe Tavern
Determined to ride this new craze of adventure motoring, in the spring of 1911 Tahoe Tavern Hotel & Casino near Tahoe City offered a silver trophy for the first party to drive a car from California over the Summit Road to the luxury accommodations. The operators of the hotel were hoping to fire up their early season tourist business and to generate free advertising headlines in San Francisco newspapers. Potential contestants had no idea of what they were up against as the winter of 1911 set records for its deep snowpack.

Spring 1911 offered a greater than usual challenge to anyone attempting to cross Donner Pass by automobile. It had been a long, hard winter with late season snow. On March 11, 1911, official snow depths reached extraordinary levels nearing 40 feet at 8,000 feet at the U.S. Weather Bureau station at Tamarack, southwest of Lake Tahoe. Despite the Tahoe Tavern’s well-promoted award, it wasn’t until June 1911 that anyone tried to drive over the mountains to collect the 3-foot-tall trophy and earn a daredevil reputation.

The marketing team at Tahoe Tavern were calculating that their coveted trophy cup would be won by a wealthy, socially prominent person from San Francisco, but the primary contender turned out to be a group of unknown men from the Grass Valley area led by Arthur B. Foote.

Challenge no easy feat
Foote had purchased his first car in January 1908 and it was shipped in parts by train. After reading the instruction manual, he spent two days assembling the machine. Once his new vehicle was put together and fueled with gasoline purchased at the drug store (there were no gas stations yet), Foote took a ride and immediately became an aficionado of the new horseless carriage. When he heard about the Tahoe Tavern contest a few years later, he decided to take on the challenge with his Model T Ford.

Foote, an assistant superintendent of the North Star Mines Company, needed help in this arduous endeavor. Pushing, pulling and dragging an automobile over the roadless Sierra would be a major physical and logistical hurtle so he convinced several of his friends to help.

Foote’s matter-of-fact diary entries detail the Herculean task before them: On June 2, the first day, he wrote: “Packed stuff, took off windshield, Mr. Starr and I left for Emigrant Gap at 4 p.m. with shovels, tackle, etc. Passed Emigrant Gap and got stuck in soft snow 2.5 miles further on. Walked to Cisco, got there 10:30 p.m.”

Snow drifts had blocked the trail, but the following morning Foote and Starr woke early and surveyed the road ahead until they came to a washed-out bridge on the Yuba River. They returned to Cisco and slept until dawn when they awoke and started driving on the still-frozen snowpack. Although parts of the surface were bare granite, the car would occasionally break through the snow. The men used their block and tackle system to pull it out. Five hours later they reached the Yuba River roaring with snowmelt. Both Foote and Starr were accomplished engineers and they rigged a metal cable over the raging torrent and slid the car to the other side.

Foote’s group wasn’t the only one competing for the prize, but when other drivers following them came to the washed out bridge, they were at a loss on how to cross. Foote and Starr had removed the cable and told no one of their technique. This gave them an insurmountable lead. Two days later they were stuck in snow again, but having gained a substantial lead they confidently left the car and returned to Grass Valley by train to gather more tools and equipment.

On June 7 they were back at it using wooden runners to push the car over the snowpack. By June 9 they reached Soda Springs where they spent the day repairing or replacing various broken parts. Finally, on June 10, they pulled their vehicle over rock and snow down to Donner Lake where they had breakfast. Taking advantage of the cleared road from Truckee to Tahoe City, they reached the Tahoe Tavern at noon and claimed their handsome trophy.

Promoters at Tahoe Tavern were completely surprised when they showed up.

The next day the Grass Valley Morning Union featured the story on Page 1: “The victors enjoyed the consternation which they caused by their unexpected arrival. The resort management had not expected these men from Grass Valley to achieve their success by shoving, tugging and hoisting their Model T over seemingly impassable mountainous terrain.”

The men’s wives were already at Tahoe Tavern waiting for them. Instead of using sweat and brawn, they had simply taken the train to Tahoe City.