Truckee History



Tahoe’s summer weather is so beautiful why would anyone want to spend one of their precious days at a museum? Well, the Donner Summit Historical Society wants to show people that the Society’s “20 Mile Museum” concept is one of the most rewarding outdoor experiences in the region.

Blessed with accessible terrain and unique geologic and transportation features, visitors of all ages can interact firsthand with the kind of American history most have only read about. Concentrated along the historic Route 40 corridor (Donner Pass Road west of Truckee), volunteers with the DSHS have installed interpretive signs at many locations that offer a reference map, a brief history of the area, and suggestions for things to do there.

Members and volunteers with the Donner Summit Historical Society have installed a bunch of these interpretive signs along the historic Highway 40 corridor for those unfamiliar with the region’s history.

The Donner Pass region is at the crossroads of a nation, where Native Americans traveled for thousands of years; early immigrant wagon trains made their way to California: and where the country built its first transcontinental railroad and highway. The train and auto traffic encouraged the development of an early ice harvest industry, the construction of tourist hotels, and gave birth to our region’s first alpine skiing.

Among its many “exhibits” the 20 Mile Museum boasts an impressive array of visible physical evidence showcasing two of the most dramatic construction projects in the West. The transcontinental railroad, built by Chinese laborers in the 1860s, was considered an engineering marvel in its day. Also on display is the original layout of the Lincoln Highway, the United States’ first coast-to-coast interstate highway, completed in 1923.

Road crews built the Lincoln Highway about 55 years after the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. Note length of wooden snow shed erected to protect trains and track from deep snow and avalanches.

This low point along the Sierra crest is where the 1844 Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party became the first California-bound wagon train to successfully cross the Sierra. In addition, members of the Donner Party were snowbound near here during the winter of 1847. Donner Memorial State Park and Emigrant Trail Museum at the east end of Donner Lake are still open while the new $6.8 million High Sierra Crossing Museum is being constructed, slated to open next year.


Diorama showing how the 1844 Stephens Party took their wagons apart to get over the cliffs and boulders below Donner Pass. All 50 emigrants survived the trip to California and two babies were born along the way, including Elizabeth Yuba Murphy who was born at Big Bend (Yuba River) shortly after this Herculean effort. Mary was the first American born in the Sierra Nevada and her mother was in her final term of pregnancy during this final push.

The best approach for exploring the 20 Mile Museum by car is to drive west on Donner Pass Road past Donner Lake and up towards the parking lot at Rainbow Bridge, built in 1924. The bridge’s name comes from its architectural arch, designed to accommodate an elevation change. This is a good location to get your bearings for visiting nearby Indian petroglyphs and the impressive “China Wall.”


Donner Pass Road Bridge (Rainbow Bridge) with Donner Lake in background.

After enjoying the parking lot views of Donner Lake and the snake-like concrete railroad sheds hugging the steep slope below Donner Peak, backtrack down Donner Pass Road (drive or walk) about 150 yards to access the glacially polished granite apron west of the road. Walk past the DSHS information sign and head for the cryptic petroglyphs scrawled into the rock by Native Americans who used this mountain pass for trade between California and Great Basin tribes. Click here for short video of petroglyph site.

The Indian petroglyphs are faint, but easily discernible. Note that in addition to the original carvings there may be some newer drawings made by indigenous high school students.

Farther up the rock slope you will see the China Wall, a 75-foot-high road-support, constructed of stone blocks without mortar or cement. Like most of the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad, the wall was built by Chinese workers. In aggregate, the diminutive Chinese performed the work of giants to force a railroad through the Sierra Nevada.

As you approach the China Wall and pick an easy route up the granite slope bearing west (right), a small underpass can be observed. Head for this historic underpass, completed in 1913 to allow automobiles and trucks to safely pass under the train tracks. The older system forced early motorists to drive through a wooden snow shed which caused collisions between vehicles and moving locomotives. The underpass location also indicates the trail near where the Stephens Party pushed and pulled their covered wagons through the rocky defile.

This portion of the 20 Mile Museum is the most exciting, but also the most challenging. With a little patience and occasional helping hand, most people can reach the abandoned track bed and tunnel system. It’s possible to drive your private vehicle here via Tunnel #6 accessed near Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, but you’re also more likely to get a warning from Union Pacific that the track bed is private property.

Once through the underpass, bear right and it’s an easy walk up onto the track bed built for the original transcontinental project. No worries about train traffic here as this stretch of the line was abandoned in 1993, and the rails and ties removed. This portion of the railroad is quiet, but Union Pacific maintains an active line through a tunnel system to the south that was completed after World War I. (Note: You may encounter mountain bikers, motorcyclists, and even private vehicles at times.)

The level grade makes for easy walking or mountain biking. Loose rock ballast can make for some squirrely steering at times and a helmet light is needed for any of the longer tunnels, especially #6. These concrete snow sheds were installed by Southern Pacific in the mid-1980s as a replacement for the original fire-prone wooden sheds.

Once on the graded, level roadbed, on your left (west) there is the brief Tunnel #7 followed by Tunnel #6. Tunnel #6 (Summit Tunnel) is the highest along the railroad line, and at 1,659 feet long, also the longest of the 15 Sierra tunnels. The progress of blasting and chipping away the obdurate granite here was so slow that in August 1866 a vertical shaft was dug at the midway point between the east and west tunnel leads, which enabled Central Pacific Railroad to run four headers instead of two.

The cap of this vertical shaft is located just west of the Sugar Bowl Academy parking area further up the road at the top of Donner Pass. A commemorative plaque at the site describes the challenge of boring out the Summit Tunnel. 

Thousands of Chinese workers painstakingly hand drilled, then blasted the granite rock with black powder and newly invented nitroglycerine. The 1,659-foot-long Summit Tunnel took 15 months to drill. Their effort has been called “The Work of Giants.”

Summit Tunnel has a lot of history, but it is also very dark and often riddled with puddles inside. Better to head east (towards Donner Lake) into Tunnel #8, which is also a bit dark but your eyes will adjust and a flashlight is really not needed once you take off your sunglasses. Continue into the tunnel for 5 to 10 minutes and there will be an open door in the concrete shed on your left.


The tunnels themselves are dark, but the concrete snow sheds were designed with open slits to allow in light and to help locomotive emissions dissipate.

Step out into the sunshine and enjoy unique views of Donner Lake, and the transportation history of the Summit, including evidence of the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, a toll road constructed in 1864. Old Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road) follows much of that alignment. Note the large timbers which were used for the original wooden snow sheds before the railroad replaced them with pre-formed concrete in the 1980s. Wooden sheds were prone to fire and maintenance expensive. In the distance is Interstate 80, the award-winning, modern superhighway completed in 1964.

Note the various roads built over time, starting with the early Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 40), and finally Interstate 80 in the far distance. I-80 is located several miles north of the original Donner Pass.

There are other “exhibits” to enjoy along the 20 Mile Museum, including the Summit Valley overlook and the Rainbow Tavern/Lodge located along the Yuba River. The 20 Mile Museum is now included on the National Geographic’s GeoTourism map, but it doesn’t have the historic details and suggested activities. To get your own free guide brochure visit the Donner Summit Historical Society research cabin on Donner Pass Road at the blinking light in “downtown” Soda Springs. They are also available at the Soda Springs General Store.

A mountain load of thanks to Bill Oudeqeest, a member of the DSHS Board of Directors, for his yeoman’s job of producing the interpretive stands, writing the historical text, securing necessary permits, and soliciting financial contributions. Without Bill’s efforts, the 20 Mile Museum would still be a figment of someone’s imagination.  

You can download a printable version here: Donner Summit Historical Society

If you enjoy Donner Pass history, sign up for the DSHS Newsletter with Subscribe in the subject line.

Read more about railroad construction over Donner Pass in Tahoe Nugget #147




























Nevada Scenery


It’s official. Lake Tahoe’s spectacular flume trail is open for mountain bike enthusiasts. This 14-mile ride is one of the most popular back-country cycling excursions in the basin, one that offers stunning views and requires a nominal amount of technical ability (you can always walk the bike past the scary parts).

Portions of the flume trail have steep drop-away margins, but for me the exposure was more exhilarating than threatening. No texting or distracted cycling on this ride!

The main trail itself is nearly level, but the final approach past Snow Valley up a sand and gravel mountain slope does require a level of physical fitness. I walked my bike up the final portion of the climb, but ardent cyclists in better shape than me engaged their “granny gear” and pedaled the whole way. The pitch is steep (1,100 foot vertical gain in a half mile), but once you get that grunt out of the way, the rest of the trip is level or downhill and it’s smooth sailing on one of America’s most scenic rides. (Google for maps and info before you go.)

Birds-eye view of Nevada’s Sand Harbor State Park from the flume trail. Sand Harbor boasts some of the best beaches at Lake Tahoe. Swimming, kayaking, and boulder diving are favorite activities for all ages.

Every summer and fall, mountain bikers flock to this 19th century logging flume trail 1,600 feet above Tahoe’s idyllic east shore beaches. The narrow pathway hugs the steep face of the Carson Range’s west slope overlooking the lake. The first water flume in the eastern Sierra was built in 1869 to move wood efficiently from the mountains down to the Nevada valley floor where it could be hauled to the bustling Comstock mines.

For more than a century, the Truckee Tahoe region supported a commercial logging industry. When I moved to Truckee in 1978, the town’s lumber yard was still in action as shown here. 

The long, winding flumes were built in sections tight enough to hold water, and strong enough to carry cord wood for Comstock boilers as well as cut lumber up to 40 feet long. In some of the steeper areas, loggers used dry chutes to move the timber. These were made of cut-out logs that were firmly staked to the ground and greased daily. The dry chutes were shorter than the water flumes, but the big logs flashed down so quickly that the friction often produced a bright trail of sparks, flames and smoke.

Sunday outing for local family near a dry flume. The flumes and lumberjacks were quiet on Sundays and the only safe time to explore the loggging operations. Note the tree trunks stripped of bark, ready for the saw mill.  

By 1879 there were 10 flumes operating in the region totaling more than 80 miles in length. One of the most spectacular flumes was owned by the Pacific Wood, Lumber and Flume Company. It wound its way for 15 miles before ending near the Virginia & Truckee Railroad tracks. Called the Bonanza V Flume it was an engineering marvel in its day. Construction required two million feet of timber and 56,000 pounds of nails, but it was built in only 10 weeks.

Timber baron Duane Leroy Bliss and his wife Elizabeth. Bliss made a lot of money investing in the timber and flume industries, wealth that he used to adavnce Lake Tahoe’s tourism industry. He launched the luxury steamer Tahoe, built the famous Tahoe Tavern Hotel, and constructed the narrow gauge Tahoe Truckee Railway that connected Tahoe City with the main transcontental line at Truckee.

In 1875, H.J. Ramsdell, a New York Tribune reporter, was out on assignment, touring the various Comstock mining operations. One day Ramsdell asked silver baron John Mackay, part owner of the Bonanza flume, how the timber for underground tunnel support was transported out of the mountains. Mackay suggested a visit to his company’s operation.

Once there, Mackay and his associates challenged Ramsdell to join them in a trip down the flume by hog trough, a crude narrow boat 16 feet long with a V-shaped keel. The 200-pound reporter could not believe what he was hearing, but he thought, “If men worth 25 to 30 million dollars apiece could afford to risk their lives, I could afford to risk mine which is not worth half as much.” For a bit of comfort, two small boards were installed as seats.

The men were well-dressed, but apparently not concerned about their clothes or their lives. While stout workmen held the two boats over the rushing current, the daring city slickers were told to jump in as soon as the boats were dropped. They were also warned that: “A flume has no element of safety. You cannot stop, you cannot lessen your speed; you have only to sit still, shut your eyes, say your prayers, take all the water that comes…and wait for eternity.”

Lumberjacks often floated small wooden V-shaped boxes called Go Devils down the flumes. The Go Devils carried tools, supplies, and sometimes lunch from worker to worker. Image is an artist’s line drawing rendition of  two brave souls riding a flume. Published in Harper’s Weekly, June 2, 1877.

The boat was lowered and suddenly they were off. When the terrified reporter finally opened his eyes, they were already streaking down the mountainside. The trestle was 70 feet high in some places, and since Ramsdell was lying down, he could see only the aerial flume stretching for miles ahead. The second boat crashed into the first and the men were thrown into the rushing water. The tangled confusion of splintered wood and terrified adventurers slid 15 miles in just 35 minutes, scaring the daylight out them but saving themselves a whole day of traveling by horse-drawn carriage.

The experience enabled reporter Ramsdell to write a good story, but his main satisfaction came from the fact that his wealthy hosts were so battered and sore, they could not get out of bed the next day.

Like the miners working the dangerous Comstock Lode, loggers worked hard and played hard. Here’s a lumberjack taking the fast route to the saloons and brothels in Virginia City. The artist took the liberty of painting a tree trunk, but usually the timber had been sawed into lumber by the time it made its way down a water flume.




























Tahoe Snapshot History



After the United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), both countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo giving the U.S. more than half of Mexico’s original sovereign territory.

U.S. expansion into the West began with President Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase and culminated during President Polk’s administration with the annexation of Texas and victory in the Mexican-American War. It was a controversial and unpopular war and considered a land grab by many, but it brought California and much of the Desert Southwest into the American fold.

When the question of California’s geographical size and official borders came up at the state’s first Constitutional Convention held in Monterey in October 1849, there were two main options considered. One called for including all of what Mexicans called Upper California, which included a big chunk of the Great Basin as well as portions of present day Utah and Arizona.

Many of the delegates, however, preferred a more manageable border in the Sierra Nevada, for both political and practical reasons. The possibility of an uber-state later being politically carved into slave territories was one serious concern.

Among those pushing for a state line along the Sierra Range was none other than John C. Frémont, credited as the first Euro-American (along with his cartographer Charles Preuss) to see Lake Tahoe. Frémont was also a strong proponent of California entering the Union as a free state, not slave. Considering that Frémont had already seen the size and beauty of Tahoe (he called it Lake Bonpland), the topographical engineer probably assumed that the important lake would be totally included on California’s side of the boundary.

John C. Frémont’s 1848 map illustrates the general contours of the Sierra Nevada. Courtesy Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc. 

Finally, one of the delegates called for an eastern border fixed in the mountains, but based on longitude and latitude, not geography. The delegate himself had no concept of Sierra Nevada topography and hydrology when he made his suggestion and despite the lack of a survey the convention submitted to Congress an eastern state border based on an imaginary grid, not the ground. This ill-conceived action by a few has caused headaches and confusion for Nevada and the federal government for decades. Bi-state water rights issues on the Truckee River continue to this day.

Two of California’s boundaries were no brainers; 42nd degree latitude for the northern border (based on an earlier agreement incorporated into the Oregon Territory treaty when Great Britain relinquished all claims to the present-day Pacific Northwest), and the Pacific Coast (including all the major bays, harbors and offshore islands). California’s southern state line would be run right down the middle of the Colorado River and then along the 35th parallel on the border with Mexico, but it was the eastern boundary that gave everyone fits.

Shaded area indicates trouble zone for California and Nevada’s shared border. Nevada Territory was established in 1861 (after the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode) when the federal government split Utah Territory in half. Note how additional Mormon land was ceded to Nevada, which gained statehood in 1864. Map courtesy John P. Wilusz from his article published in Professional Surveyor, January 2002.

On October 11, 1849, the youngest delegate attending the convention, James M. Jones, offered a land description of the eastern border which was adopted and incorporated into the state constitution. The description started at the northeast point of the state at the intersection of the 42nd degree latitude at the 120th degree longitude, and then “…running south along the 120th degree longitude until it intersects the 39th degree of north latitude [an intersection that falls within Lake Tahoe]; thence running in a straight line in a southeasterly direction to the Colorado River… “

Jones description placed Lake Tahoe and its water, which flows into the Great Basin, not the Pacific Ocean, directly in the crosshairs of dispute and disagreement between California and the future state of Nevada. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo not only described the new international boundary between the United States and Mexico, it required each government to commission a survey to run and mark the boundary line on the ground. The California convention delegates skipped this important step. When the first survey to mark the state’s eastern boundary was completed in 1863, they were surprised to find that only two-thirds of Lake Tahoe actually fell within the new state border, with one third in Nevada.

Running the state line through Lake Tahoe (see Nugget #238 for the history behind the name) generated controversy and conflict between California and Nevada over water rights.

More surveys were undertaken in the 1860s and 1870s and each found discrepancies with previous work. In 1872, the federal government hired astronomer and surveyor Alexis Von Schmidt to improve the results. Part of the challenge for these early surveyors (besides rugged topography, hostile Indians, lack of funding, and an aggressive schedule) was the difficulty of locating geographic coordinates, especially longitude.

Of the two coordinates, latitude is the easiest to determine using astronomical observations and scientific instruments, but longitude is a function of time based on global meridians in relation to Greenwich, England. At the 39th degree latitude (Lake Tahoe) a clock error of only one second would cause a surveyor to post his longitude marker nearly a quarter of a mile out of position. Von Schmidt faced challenges similar to his predecessors, but he had an important advantage when it came to determining longitude. By 1872, accurate time signals could be transmitted by telegraph from San Francisco. The wires followed the transcontinental railroad tracks and crossed the border near Verdi, Nevada.

Diagram defining the border calculations. Courtesy John P. Wilusz, PE, published in Professional Surveyor, 2002.

In addition to the technological challenges, Nevada caused more problems when it passed the Organic Act. Instead of simply recognizing California’s existing eastern border as its western margin, this act demanded California give up any land associated with waters that “did not flow into the Pacific.”

The congressional acts that created Nevada Territory (1861) and the State of Nevada (1864) provided for a western boundary at the Sierra Nevada crest line if the California state legislature would agree to change its existing boundary from 120 degrees longitude. California, however, declined to relinquish any territory, particularly its portion of Lake Tahoe which is located east of the Sierra crest line.

North Lake Tahoe survey monument from Alexis Von Schmidt’s 1872 survey.

Lake Tahoe was not the only casualty from this early confusion. The so-called Roop County War took place when residents near the disputed state line around Honey Lake near Susanville in northeastern California proclaimed themselves in a separate territory. Their independence freed them from California law and taxes. It took a heavily-armed, 90-man militia from Plumas County to enforce California’s jurisdiction, but after two days of fighting the defeated rebels became part of Lassen County.

A hydrological border along the Sierra crest would have mitigated many of the controversial issues of watershed management along the eastern Sierra front, with Nevada having control over vital water sources emanating from the “California Mountains.” Fortunately, over the past 150 years bi-state agreements and federal decrees have solved many of the problems associated with a state boundary that does not take into account physical features like streams, lakes, and rivers.

Special thanks to Guy Rocha, retired Nevada State Archivist, for his prior research into this topic.




























Tahoe Historical Tour Tahoe Snapshot History



For generations, Lake Tahoe has inspired untold numbers of people fortunate enough to view its pristine waters and forest-cloaked mountains. For countless summers, American Indians of the Washoe, Maidu, and Paiute tribes foraged, fished and hunted the region’s natural bounty.

Their ancestors, prehistoric nomadic tribes who spent their winters in the high desert and California valleys, also took advantage of the mild alpine summers in the Sierra Nevada to collect edible and medicinal roots, seeds and marsh plants. In the Truckee area, there is archeological evidence of Washoe villages dating back at least 8,000 years. The Washoe had named the Truckee River “a’wakhu wa’t’a,” and they called Lake Tahoe “da’aw.”

Known locally as “Big Blue,” Lake Tahoe never fails to impress. A lake of superlatives.

The region’s nomenclature changed dramatically in 1844 when Captain John C. Frémont led a small expedition into present day Western Nevada. Frémont had earlier surveyed the Rocky Mountains, but this was his first mapping mission of the geographical region he later named the “Great Basin.”

The Paiute chief Truckee was certain that the Anglo-Americans were the tribe’s ancestral white brothers and he greeted them warmly. In his journal, Charles Preuss, a European cartographer with the Frémont expedition, noted one of their first encounters with the tribe: “January 15, 1844. During a short day’s march we reached a deep lake [Frémont named it Pyramid for the giant pyramid-shaped rock near its eastern shore], but do not yet know whether it is Mary’s Lake or not.” [Mary’s Lake was the name for the end of the Humboldt River. Pyramid Lake is the terminus of the Truckee River.]

In January 1844, Frémont and his men reached Pyramid Lake which the explorer named for obvious reasons. Today Pyramid Lake is the site of a Pauite Indian Reservation. Note the field artillary piece. The group lugged their trusty cannon along for months until they lost it in the deep snow near Walker Pass in February 1844.

Preuss continued: “The lake has no outlet, but a small river flows into it. Near where we are camping, the river is swarming with magnificent salmon-trout. We traded a few trinkets for a whole load of fish from the Indians and I almost ate myself into oblivion. The winter is rather mild here, if only the wind would not blow so often.”

There are no known photographs of Chief Truckee, but this is his son Chief Winnemucca.

After observing the abundant fish in the desert stream, Frémont called it “Salmon-Trout River.” The name would be changed to Truckee River later that same year after Chief Truckee helped the first immigrant wagon train (Stephens-Murphy-Townsend) in their epic overland crossing into California.

Captain Elisha Stephens successfully led the first wagons over Truckee’s Pass in the fall of 1844. Later the pass would be renamed after the 1847 Donner Party tragedy.

Frémont and his band continued their journey south, where they came upon two more streams emanating from the snow-covered mountains to the west. Frémont named the first one “Carson” after his friend and guide Christopher “Kit” Carson. The third and most southern of the rivers was named for Joseph Walker, a noted mountain man accompanying this expedition. He blazed Walker Pass in the southern Sierra, the first snow-free route to the Pacific Ocean.

Christopher “Kit” Carson (left) with Capt. John C. Frémont. The two men explored much of the western United States together during a series of mapping expeditions from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean.

Frémont spoke to the Indians about reaching California. One of the tribal elders told him that “before the snows fell it was six sleeps to the place where the whites lived, but that now it was impossible to cross the mountain on account of the deep snow.

In desperate need of supplies available at Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento), Frémont decided to tackle the mountains despite the warnings. He wrote: “In the morning I acquainted the men with my decision, and explained to them of the beautiful valley of the Sacramento, with which they were familiar from the descriptions of Kit Carson, who had been there some 15 years ago, and who had delighted us in speaking of its rich pastures and abounding game. Carson drew a vivid contrast between the summer climate less than 100 miles distant, and the falling snow around us.”

Terminus of the Truckee River which drains Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake has a surface area almost as large as  Tahoe. Pyramid Lake is the largest remnant left over from the ancient Lake Lahontan, a huge inland sea that once covered much of Nevada and the Great Basin.  The lake is part of the Pyramid Lake Pauite Tribe’s reservation and is a productive fishery. Anglers flock to Pyramid Lake year-round to try their luck catching the world’s largest cutthroat trout that thrive here.

The men prepared for their Sierra crossing as best they could by dressing in leggings, along with moccasins and heavy clothing to resist the snow and cold. Frémont’s men were uncharacteristically silent, but they pushed on using large wooden mallets to break the snowpack’s crust. Pruess complained, “This surpasses all the hardships that I have experienced until now. Here all we have is a buffalo hide on the snow as our bed.”

On February 14, 1844, while climbing an isolated peak, Preuss and Frémont “discovered” Lake Tahoe. Frémont named it Lake Bonpland in honor of Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist. But for once Frémont’s official appellation didn’t stick because in 1854, supporters of California’s third governor John Bigler named the lake for him.

Approximate view of Lake Tahoe from Red Lake Peak as seen by John Frémont and Charles Preuss on Valentine’s Day 1844. Although the expedition was reduced to eating mules, peas, and dog meat, all the men survived the trans-Sierra journey to Sutter’s Fort in the southern Sacramento Valley. Photo courtesy David Antonucci.

During the Civil War, Union sentiment objected to calling the lake Bigler because the former governor was an outspoken secessionist, and a political movement was started to designate the phonetically-sounding Washoe name, “Tahoe” meaning “water in a high place” or “edge of the lake.”

California did not restore the lake’s original Native American name until 1945, when the State legislature officially renamed it Lake Tahoe in honor of the first Americans to call it home.