NUGGET #241: DONNER PASS 20 MILE MUSEUM
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
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