By DOUGLAS LOVE, Chairman, California History Board
One of the great advantages of being a Native Son is the ability to travel throughout our beloved Golden State with a new appreciation for the history of various locations and the role of our beloved order in preserving them. One of the most scenic and historic of those locations is Donner Memorial State Park, located in the city of Truckee. Donner Lake is, of course, the location where the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party was trapped and over wintered in 1846-47, one of the worst winters on record.
To get to Donner Memorial State Park from San Francisco, travel east on Interstate 80 and take the Donner Pass Road exit and turn right. The trip takes about three to three and one half hours. Once at the park, pay a visit to the brand new Visitor’s Center and Emigrant Trail Museum. This facility was dedicated by Grand Parlor on June 6, 2015 and is a state of the art facility. Spend some time in the museum, which is gorgeous, and take in the exhibits. The exhibits tell the story of the Donner Pass area, Donner Lake and the Emigrant trail from its inhabitance by the native Washoe people through the modern era.
Just outside the museum is the site of the Breen cabin and the Pioneer Monument. The Pioneer Monument depicts an emigrant family looking resolutely west toward Sacramento and the Central Valley and sits atop a twenty two foot pedestal, which represents the depth of the snow at Donner (Truckee) Pass during the winter of 1846-1847. The owner of the property gave one acre to Charles McGlashan on July 21, 1894 for the purpose of erecting the monument. The ground breaking took place in 1909. The Monument was dedicated on June 6, 1918 by the Native Sons and the Native Daughters and completely covers the site of the Breen Cabin. Upon McGlashan’s death, the Native Sons took possession of the Monument and the land upon which it stands.
The owners of the surrounding property, the Donner Fruit and Express Company, gave the ten acres surrounding the monument to the Native Sons in 1924 “for state park purposes.” Our Order acquired a concession next to the monument in 1920 and operated a lunch room and souvenir counter until 1949. On May 23, 1928, the Grand Parlor gave the eleven acres to the state and Donner Memorial State Park was born.
If you follow the Nature Trail for a short distance you will come to the site of the Murphy Cabin. There is a large boulder which served as the back wall of the cabin and fixed upon it is a plaque listing the victims and survivors of the Donner-Reed Party’s ordeal at the lake. A little over a mile from the park just off Highway 89 North is the site of George and Tamsen Donner’s campsite on Alder Creek where they both perished. Tamsen Donner, Margaret Reed and Margaret Reed are archetypes of the pioneer mothers who were willing to give their all.
Donner Memorial State Park has more to offer than just a museum, a memorial and some historic sites. There are 152 camp sites with no hook ups but hot showers and restrooms split among three campgrounds; fishing and swimming are available. Campsite reservations can be made by visiting www.parks.ca.gov. There is also a boat launch at the opposite end of the lake from the Park and restaurants and shops in Truckee. Lake Tahoe is just a few miles away down Highway 89.
Speaking of restaurants and shops, here are a few suggestions. The Squeeze Inn in Truckee is a great place for breakfast and burgers. (10060 Donner Pass Road, 530-587-9814) If you are looking for a nice dinner I suggest the Cottonwood. (10142 Rue Hilltop Road, 530-587-5711) www.cottonwoodrestaurant.com. If you have a sweet tooth, I suggest Sweets Handmade Candies. (10118 Donner Pass Road, 530-587-6556) You have to try the homemade fudge. Of course, my favorite restaurant in the area is Gar Woods Grill and Pier in Carnelian Bay, (5000 N. Lake Blvd. Carnelian Bay, CA. 530- 546- 3366) www.garwoods.com. Have a Wet Woody for me!
We as Native Sons revere the spirit and the drive of the pioneers and the 49ers who braved many hardships to come to our Golden Land by the Pacific. Donner Memorial State Park is one of the few places in which to visit some of the locations where those hardships occurred and it is one of the State Parks which is intimately part of our Order’s history. It preserves the scene of tragedy, sacrifices and heroism which is part of California’s history and that of the United States.