Tuesday, June 13, 2017

(20) Donner Lake

(20) Donner Lake
Pioneer Monument at Donner Memorial State Park

We arrived at our cabin at Donner Lake in the late afternoon of June 9, 2017. We also stayed here before going to San Francisco.

The Tragedy by which Truckee Lake became Donner Lake

Bronze of Donner survivors Spotting Relief Party
at entrance to Museum
 Donner Lake, originally known as Truckee Lake, takes its name from the tragic events of the winter of 1846-47. This beautiful Lake entered the national psyche as a place of unspeakable horrors. It was a starvation camp for members of the Donner Party who wintered there. Despite this, by the first decade of the 20th century it was already showing signs of becoming a tourist destination.

The Donner ordeal began in October 1846, it didn't finally end until April 1847. The winter was long and the successive snows were persistent. One can imagine that the trash of the camp was simply thrown outside of the cabins only to be buried by the next snowfall. More trash was added and buried by successive snowfalls. When the snow finally melted in the late spring of 1847 all of the accumulated garbage and the horrors of the winter were on gruesome display.

In June, 1847 Gen. Kearny, on his way from California to Fort Leavenworth Kansas, directed his troops to clean up the Mess. The troops gathered together the garbage, animal remains and human remains and buried them in one of the cabins. The cabin was then set alight. Despite their efforts, emigrants in the succeeding few years still reported finding remains of the horrific winter. As word of the gruesome scene spread, emigrant traffic over Donner Pass fell. It was only in 1849, with the beginning of the gold rush that emigrant traffic over Donner Pass once again begin to increase.
California State Park Interpreter Nikki Combs addressing 
Truckee Rotary Lunch,  June 1,  2017
It was originally reported that the cabin chosen as the site to collect the trash of the camp and the remains was the Murphy cabin site. However, more recent analysis points towards the Breen cabin site, which is located beneath the present day Pioneer Monument. In 2014 Forensic dogs alerted at the base of the monument which lends further evidence to the fact that this is where the remains and the garbage were collected, burned and buried.

Lincoln Highway Display in Museum at Donner Memorial State Park
Recreation Mecca

Sixty or seventy years after the tragedy people began to see Donner Lake as a camping and recreation destination.

Early stereoscope card of boaters at west end of Donner Lake

Early stereoscope pictures show tourists and visitors in rowboats on the west end beach. Later pictures even show steam launches operating on the lake. Still other photos show the beginning of Donner Lake Camp at the northwest corner of the lake. There were hotels and tourist facilities at both the East and West ends of the lake.
Donner Lake Camp at northwest shore of Donner Lake

Many of these tourist structures from the early days survived into the 1950s, the 1960s and a few into the 70s. To them were added other structures. The Donner Lake Lodge sat on the North Shore of Donner Lake. Across Donner Pass Road from the Lodge was the Donner Lake Trading Post. Just west of the trading Post was Richard's garage. Of course there were utilitarian structures too. Among these were chain sheds where motorist preparing to climb Donner Summit could have chains put on their car.


Richard's Garage Chain Shed
Old Chain Shed, Donner Lake


Chain Shed Re-Purposed into Real Estate Office

In many cases, the chains would be rented and taken off on the other side of the summit. Eastbound cars had their chains removed in the sheds. Many sheds had large drive-through doors at either end so that the cars could drive in on one side, stop, have the chain supplied and drive out the other side. A few of these chain sheds still survive.

Ghost Sign advertisement on Donner Pass Road, across the
Highway from Donner Lake
Also surviving from Donner Lake's early days as a tourist destination are a few ghost signs. Perhaps the best known ghost sign is an ad for the Whitney Hotel which can be seen just downhill from the railroad underpass on the nineteen thirteen alignment of the Lincoln Highway. Downhill from this there is another ghost sign for a camp along Donner Lake. My favorite though is a sign on the valley floor on the north side of Highway 40. This sign is best viewed from the lake. I have never been able to make out the words, but it clearly is an advertisement for a business east of Donner Lake.
Donner Lake Lodge circa 1960

Recreational Paradise,
The Best of all possible Worlds

These early structures had  a certain charm to them which the newer condominiums lack. Between the West End public beach and the Lodge were small cabins which were rented to tourists by the week. I remember walking by those cabins and it seemed that some of the same families would rent the same cabin during the same week each summer. While I never learned any names, I would exchange greetings on my way to go fishing.

Donner Lake Lodge and Wilshire Dock
Water sports abounded at Donner during the summer. My family had a small fishing boat with a 1.7 horsepower outboard motor on it. This was pretty much my boat during the summers. It was from this boat that I launched my many adventures. Others had larger powerboats and if I was lucky, I would be offered a ride, or better yet, taken skiing.

Norm Saylor was an expert water skier. Many years ago I purchased a Donner Lake postcard showing two skiers being pulled up from the West End beach. Later I showed the card to Norm and he indicated that he was one of the skiers.

Norm Saylor (r) water skiing while his wife and daughter watch
Cabins to right could be rented by the week. (note Ski Jump in
Distance) Norm was both an expert snow and water skier.
The Wilshire dock extended out into the lake from the grounds of the Donner Lake Lodge. People used to fish from that dock and many of them would let their pop bottles sink into the lake. On Monday mornings I would take my small fishing boat to the Wilshire dock and other popular fishing spots, don a mask and fins and dive for the pop bottles. These I would turn in to the Trading Post for the deposit which was three cents on the small bottles and five cents for the quart size. This was how I earned spending money. The owner of the Trading Post would not give me the full deposit on the bottles. He said that wouldn't be fair since I didn't pay for them. I thought that was pretty cheap and I still do.

Donner Lake Trading Post
The West and beach is now owned and operated by the Truckee Recreation District. We used to call it the "Pay Beach", to distinguish it from the Property Owners Beach, which we referred to simply as "The Beach". When I grew up the Jamison family from Reno ran the Pay Beach. You could go there and rent a boat, a canoe or a paddleboat. The Jamison's were a very kind and public spirited family. When Interstate 80 was being constructed a forest fire broke out and threatened the entire valley. Property owners like my family were constructing cabins and many feared losing everything. The Jamison's opened their beach as a place where property owners could bring their trailers and other valuables in case cabin sites and the cabins were destroyed. I can remember Dad taking our little house trailer that we camped in while constructing the cabin to the Pay Beach and leaving it there. We then had to evacuate and I remember looking back at Donner Lake from the Summit Bridge and wondering if I would ever see our cabin again.

Children were given a degree of freedom at the lake that would be unheard of today. They were allowed to swim, hike and explore with little adult interference. I had many great adventures at Donner. To me, it was the best of all possible worlds. The freedom I enjoyed and the adventures I hatched were good for me, and an essential part of who I am.

West End Beach before it was taken over by the Recreation District



Looking west from Donner Lake, June 11, 2017

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