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Historic Donner Trail Committee


"The wagon road from Donner Lake to the Summit was a source of frequent surprises."  W.W. Stone, July 30, 1903.


Welcome to

 "The Donner Trail"





Our Big Success!


On Dec 22, 2010, the Truckee Donner Land Trust bought the 260 acres surrounding a mile-long section of the old road for $3.475 Million. As before, the road itself is still county property, and if the county supervisors and law enforcement had worked for the public and not the private owner who illegally prevented the public from using the historic road, the public could have been using their road since 1989 as they had for the previous 100+ years.


Thanks to everyone who supported our fight over the years to assure the public's right to freely use this public road and to stop the attempted transfer of the public's property to the former owners of the surrounding land by scheming local politicians, especially Nevada County Supervisor Ted Owens. If Ted Owens and the phony group "Truckee Trails" had been allowed to carry out Owens' ridiculous 2006-2010 plans, Nevada County would have officially given this road to the owners of the surrounding land while nearby undisturbed land would have been bulldozed for a new trail!

For years, Owens had pushed for an entirely new "alternate trail" to be built through very rough terrain as "compensation" to the public! We stopped Owens. The Nevada County Board of Supervisors website 2006 archives and the Sierra Sun and Grass Valley Union newspapers have details--search "stock trail." Owens even wrote an op-ed piece about his close friendship with the previous owners.

Soon after our lawsuits against Ted Owens, Nevada County, and the previous owners, the previous owners sold the land and Ted Owens resigned.


A Quick History Guide...


Historians agree that most of this trail was first an Indian route (petroglyphs can be seen alongside the road near the summit), then used by the early pioneers including the Donner Party (snow forced them to turn around "two miles east of the summit" although the survivors left for Sacramento using this route; that point two miles east of the summit is near the point where the road crosses Summit Creek).

Then in 1863, the same route became the much improved and costly "Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road" built by four Sacramento Republicans, grocer Leland Stanford, hardware merchants Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis Huntington as a supply road for the construction of their transcontinental railroad (view article). After just 10 months of construction with 350 men, under the supervision of Robert Henry Pratt, this 60-mile long toll road opened June 15, 1864. From July 1 through December 1865, each day averaged 46 horse or animal drawn wagons, 7 horsemen, and 47 head of loose livestock. During 1866, four locomotives were hauled into Truckee over the wagon road. They were used for the construction of the rails eastward from Truckee, while the summit tunnel was still under construction. In 1871, when the Central Pacific Railroad no longer needed the DFDLWR, the railroad “deeded back” the road to Nevada & Placer counties.

In May 1901, the first automobile over Donner Summit used the DFDLWR, as did George Wyman with the first motorcycle in August 1902. On March 13, 1909, the California State Legislature passed "An act to make an appropriation for the location, survey, and construction of a state highway from Emigrant Gap, Placer County in an easterly direction through what is known as the Truckee Pass to the west end of Donner Lake in Nevada County... and it shall be the duty of the department to locate, survey, and construct said road along the line of the wagon road known as the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road..." (view)

So beginning in 1909, the road was a California state highway, first called the Emigrant Gap State Highway, then the Auburn-McKinney's State Highway, and after 1918, State Highway 37. (McKinney's was just south of Homewood at Lake Tahoe). The road was never paved, always a gravel road, as were most highways until the 1930s. Beginning in 1913, the road became part of the first transcontinental highway known as the Lincoln Highway, and it was also part of the Victory Highway.

After the new and parallel Highway 40 opened in 1926, Caltrans decided that this old public highway could be used as a "stock trail" to keep livestock off of the new highway. In those days and up into the 1950s, livestock was herded along highways to greener pastures, but often caused car accidents. Throughout the state, as new highways were being built, any old parallel highways were designated as "stock trails." This designation did not restrict the road's use to only livestock, but simply added a new public use. USGS maps continued to label (and still do) the old road to the summit as “Jeep Trail” or “Emigrant Trail.”

In 1956, the right-of-way of this old California highway from Donner Lake to beyond the summit was "relinquished" by the State of California to Nevada County. However, due to its stock trail status, the right-of-way is still, to this day, under the ultimate control of Caltrans. It was Caltrans who prevented County Supervisor Ted Owens from giving this county road to his friends in 2006.

Here, you'll find hiking tips, maps, historical photos, and information for this road and the Donner Lake area

(to see all information, click on the buttons above)



Above, this current photo shows a portion of the old State Highway and Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road between Donner Lake and Donner Summit



An original metal sign from 74 years ago, recently sold on ebay




Above, the 1844-1926 Donner Summit Road, part of America's "interstate highway" for over 80 years. This is not the Old Highway 40 road or summit, which was in use from 1926-1964. The Old 40 summit is 800 feet north of the first summit. Location details in Hiking Guide.

The Old Highway 40 summit now has its own sign, shown below.




Above, June 1912 -- 101 years ago

Cars began driving over Donner Summit in 1901. Notice the light showing through the backside opening of the snowshed.

(this repaired-from-original photo copyrighted)


Check this out:

An amazing 1990 video of train on old tracks at summit, with the old 1914 state highway "subway" bridge in the middle of the scene. Click here. Click back button to return here. Tip: After first minute, nothing new to see.


Old Photo fans:

Click here to see very rare 1870 photo of backside of wood showshed where the 1864 DFDL Wagon Road and 1909 State Highway passed through. The photographer was about 130 feet southwest of the spot where the photographer in the above video stood overlooking the tracks,120 years later--the 1864 photographer was facing west and the 1990 guy was facing east.

Here's a recent 360-degree panorama also taken from this spot--put your mouse in the view and drag left or right to view panorama:



Rare 1865 photo of Pollard's Hotel at Donner Lake, and ...

1925 Highway 40 construction photos near Summit Bridge (both at Historical Photos button).


Recently discovered and "never before seen" official State of California 1915 map of this old road based on 1915 state survey, and ...

1916 AAA map of the this old road (both at Maps/Surveys button above)






web statistics



Below, the recently found 1915 State survey map overlaid onto the Google Earth 3D view of the 1-mile road section west of Donner Lake (looking south--Donner Lake on left; I-80 at left corner). The green survey line matches up exactly with the visible old road.


Roll mouse back and forth over the photo to see the same view without the overlaid map and green line--you'll see the old road is still visible.  (If it doesn't swap, wait a bit for the other photo to load. Also, allow ActiveX controls if asked--yellow bar at top of page)


See the Hiking Guide for more views and Maps and Survey for the 1915 map by itself.







From the Sangamon Illinois Journal





Below, Westward The Course Of Empire, 1862 painting by Emanuel Leutze.

The second wagon says "California" on the side.


This actual painting is large--to download a high resolution of it to view the great details, go to

For the artist's interesting notes about this painting, click here.


The spot where the pioneers would be this excited to finally reach a summit and (artistically) view "the Pacific slope" would likely be the first Donner Summit. Only the right 3/4 of the painting is geography accurate. The valley to the left is supposed to represent the Sacramento Valley, but in reality, the only valley visible from Donner Summit (after climbing granite 50 feet higher than the road itself) is the nearby Van Norden (Summit) Valley--with many hills to descend before seeing a view of the Sacramento Valley with the Pacific Ocean as shown in the painting. Actually, in 1862, the date of this painting, most pioneers traveling north of Lake Tahoe came over Roller Pass near the original summit of Donner Pass, but that route doesn't have a view resembling the painting. In fact, no summit of any route into California provides a view of the Sacramento Valley due to trees and geography.


In 1862, the majority of pioneers came to California via South Lake Tahoe and the (Kit) Carson Pass, slightly easier than the route north of Lake Tahoe. However, the summit at the Carson Pass does not resembles anything like the painting.


In 1862, the transcontinental railroad builders were in the planning stage of turning the 1844 Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party and Donner Party's "Truckee Route" into the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road. Once that well-engineered road was completed in 1864, it became the main pioneer route, and any travelers would go over the original Donner Summit which resembles the right 3/4 of the painting.


The Donner Party survivors used the trail of the Stevens-Murphy-Townsend Party after rescued in 1847, and the summit on that route became known as Donner Summit for 80 years until 1926, shown here (lat 39.314450, long  -120.326920). It is 800 feet south of the second "Donner Summit" on old Highway 40, used from 1926 to 1964; the current "Donner Summit" is on I-80.




Visit these excellent sites about the Donner Party, Road, and Railroad history:


Dan Rosen's Donner Party Diary

Norm Sayler's Donner Summit Historical Society

Kristin Johnson's New Light on the Donner Party

The California Pioneer website

Daniel Faigin's amazing California Highways

Thanks to Daniel for helping us

Preservation of historical roadside commerce with great photos at Roadside Peek

The website, with over 3 million visitors, has thousands of historical railroad photos and documents.

(see old photos by clicking on Enter Photograph Museum button on their home page) Here's a tip: At the right top of the first page of the Photograph Museum is an option to change the background color from the migraine-inducing bright red.


Theodore Judah

Just one example of the thousands of documents on the CPRR website is the 17,000-word report by Theodore Judah in 1861 detailing his reasons for choosing the Truckee Route over the South Tahoe route for the transcontinental railroad--an amazing amount of work by Judah (right). According to a newspaper article, he was only 5'6" and 135 lbs. He died at age 37. A short life of a small guy, yet he was one of the great builders of America--Judah's monument in Old Sacramento is well deserved. Take a look at his report at


Lewis Clement

Clement was the Central Pacific Railroad engineer in direct charge of the final location, design and construction of the section between Colfax and Truckee, including the Sierra tunnels and snowsheds. Many who look at the old tunnels today wonder how the builders figured out where to carve into the rock so that both ends met up in the same spot--and it wasn't just two ends, but 4, with workers working outward from the center shaft. Well, it was Clement's engineering:


"The...crews worked round the clock... Then, at 1am on May 3, 1867, a great, noisy crumbling took place at the east facing, and light from torches in the west could be seen flickering through the dust. ... The Summit had been pierced. The Sierras had been bested. ...a week after the breakthrough, young Lewis Clement, the engineer in charge of Summit Tunnel, strode into the now widened bore, surveyor's instruments in hand. With torchbearers stationed every few yards in the 1,659-foot bore, Clement began his first series of observations in the damp and eerie tunnel. During the preceding two years' work he and his assistants, including Samuel Montague and Russell Guppy, had been measuring under conditions never taught about in engineering schools. They had made their calculations under poor visibility on a wildly uneven tunnel floor, plotting a bore not only divided into four distinct parts, but one that had to gradually rise, descend, and curve as it penetrated from west to east. ... the expected margin of error was large, and if the various bores were seriously misaligned, many months of expensive remedial work would have to be done, delaying the Central Pacific Railroad's progress east. ... As Clement finished his measurements and worked out the geometric statistics at a rude desk near the tunnel mouth, he found his prayers answered. Summit Tunnel's four bores fitted together almost perfectly, with a total error in true line of less than two inches. The seemingly impossible had been achieved. The longest tunnel anyone had cut through natural granite, cut at a daunting altitude in an abominable climate, had been bored by a small army of Chinese thousands of miles from their ancestral home. The Sierras were truly breached and ... the great race across the continent was on. ... " —John Hoyt Williams, A Great And Shining Road


Woman Walks 2000 Mile Donner Route

I received an email recently from the nephew of a woman who walked the Donner route in 1978. The woman was Barbara Maat, who last week also emailed me and kindly sent me a copy of her book. Her email to me:

I finally got to your website. It is simply amazing. Having renewed an old interest in archaeology here in Colorado, I appreciate the hunt for facts in a historical context. I've also learned of the fallibility of human memory and even of documents, so I salute the efforts of your committee. Congratulations.


Yes, hard to believe, but Barbara walked 2000 miles to Sutter's Fort in Sacramento! Her excellent book can be found on Amazon:




Donner Pass Song by Frank Fara

I also recently heard from Frank Fara, who recorded a song in the early 70s called "Donner Pass." He told me he performed this and his other songs in the 70s and 80s in the Tahoe area.  Available on Amazon, ITunes, etc. Check it out at







Exclusive: Building the Donner Summit Bridge


Here are some interesting facts about the construction of the famous "rainbow" bridge, thanks to rare original state documents provided to me by Jack Duncan, author of "To Donner Pass From the Pacific."


This bridge was the final segment of the new and re-aligned State Highway 37. It replaced the old Highway 37, which was also the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, built in 1864 and taken over by the state in 1909. The state's plans for the new highway were completed in 1922--all those plans are labeled "Highway 37." No one knew of any "Highway 40" until a year after the bridge was completed, when the name of this new highway was changed to Highway 40, as part of the new interstate highway numbering system.


The bridge was designed by the California Department of Engineering's Bridge Department group in Sacramento, led by Harlan D. Miller. He came from New York State's Bridge Department. His design included the descending curve, which was a first in bridges, and the view bench. He died the year this bridge was completed. Continues below the next five photos.

Above, two men working on the view bench in 1926.

Above, forms still in place. Notice all flat surfaces were formed with boards, not plywood. Also, the method of creating the rail openings can be seen--there was a small curved piece at the top of each opening, and a simple square box below. Some of the openings shown have the curve section popped out, but most openings still have them and the cross-bar holding the form boards.


Above, opening day ceremony on Sunday, August 22, 1926. Notice the forms still supporting the concrete.


Above, a close-up of another photo taken right before the ceremony. Notice the rail forms still attached to the left side entrance, and also the same forms laying down to the right of the storage container. Those rails on the left entrance are still there--they weren't replaced in 1995 like the rest of the bridge rails. The other rails were changed to have smaller openings--supposedly so very small kids couldn't fall through--and exactly how many very small kids walking alone on this bridge fell through the openings from 1926 to 1995?


Above, a close-up from the same photo. Notice the California flag and another flag on the other side. Notice the view bench is not completed and the approach fill is not quite full. And of course, no vista site, which was built 10 years later.



The cost of building the bridge in 1925-26: Hard to believe but it was only $37,500 (this included $8500 unplanned cost for the extra span and widening the approaches)

Job was opened for bids on May 26, 1925

Ten bids were received from $26,350 to $38,650.

Job was awarded to C.C. Gildersleeve of Fresno on June 9, 1925.

Contract executed on June 18, 1925.

Excavation for the footings began on June 15, 1925 (didn't wait for the contract to be signed)

Hand drills were first used, then a compressor and jackhammer.

The first concrete was poured in the footings for the arch on July 11, 1925

Work stopped on October 14, 1925 due to weather--66% complete.

Work resumed on May 12, 1926.

Dedicated and opened for traffic on August 22, 1926

Final concrete was poured on September 7, 1926

All contract items were completed on October 25, 1926


An average of 12 men were employed--5 carpenters ($6-8 a day), 7 laborers ($4 a day).

One resident engineer for both years.

One resident inspector for 1926 only.

Gildersleeve's profit was less than $1500.



Harvey M. Toy, San Francisco Highway Commission

Lewis Byington, San Francisco, Native Sons of the Golden West

Hilliard E. Welch, Lodi, Native Sons of the Golden West








The equipment used:


5-ton truck

1˝-ton Reo truck

1˝-sack Jaeger concrete mixer

Power circular saw

Power band saw

Compressor and jackhammer

Berg concrete finishing machine

Wheel barrows


Photo is a 1925 Jaeger concrete mixer.


According to the old documents, the concrete mixer was set up on the westerly end of the bridge. Concrete was wheel-barrowed by hand down the slope.


Below, a portion of a newly found photo showing the storage shed and the mixer (just as described, set up on the westerly end) and a water tank. After the tank was somehow filled, water could flow by gravity to the mixer when needed.

Approaches to the bridge were filled with rock material from the "railroad waste dump 1/2 mile distant" (between the 1914 incline and the older incline). That "railroad waste" was actually the blasted chunks of rocks from the summit tunnel and carted out of the tunnel and tossed over the cliff in 1865-67. After laying there for 60 years, the rock material was loaded into a hopper at the dump and hauled to the new bridge in the 5-ton truck, using the old state highway/DFDLWR. So every time we drive over the bridge approaches, we're driving on rocks carted out of the summit tunnel 145 years ago.


Other materials used were:

Sand and gravel from American River Sand & Gravel, Mayhew, Sacramento (not from Donner Lake as rumor had it)

Cement from Santa Cruz (supplier not listed)

Steel from E. L. Soule, San Francisco

Lumber from Hobart Mills, California

Shipments of materials were made to a railroad siding one mile from the bridge site and were hauled over the newly constructed road (the railroad siding is currently the Donner Ski Ranch overflow parking lot).


Water was obtained from several small lakes in the vicinity of the site (ponds still there, but no mention of how the water got to the bridge site).


The bridge doesn't go over any river or even creek--only a granite ravine.


"Difficult form work, due to unusual alignment, was responsible for some delay in the completion of the contract."



And now for a little historical perspective on government spending

Taxpayers paid $37,500 for an attractive and functional concrete bridge 85 years ago--now our government is forcing taxpayers to spend 26000 times that amount (nearly One Billion Dollars) to build a slightly longer bridge--a new Mulholland Drive bridge over the 405 freeway in LA to make room for a new "carpool" lane--yes, that failed 1970s control-freak idea hatched by Democrat Jerry "More Taxes-More Illegals" Brown, probably while he was unable to sleep on his floor mattress. The Carpooling bad joke: still only 1% of all freeway driving, just like before carpool lanes.

One Billion Dollars for one bridge! Picture one thousand seats in an auditorium, each holding one million dollars. At this rate, in another 85 years, a similar bridge will cost taxpayers 26 Trillion Dollars!

The perfectly good 1960 Mulholland bridge being demolished. The 1960 Mulholland bridge cost less than 2 million dollars. The new one costs 1000 million dollars!


Another way to look at the cost of the new bridge is to picture a pile of ONE MILLION DOLLARS every 6 inches the entire length of the bridge!







Website, including enhanced and altered old public domain photos, copyright 2005-2015 Rick Martel.


Original 1864 Logo

 Preserving the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road/Lincoln and Victory Highway west of Donner Lake