Truckee History



The Central Sierra’s first sled dog race in 16 years, slated for March 2-3 during the upcoming Snowfest celebration, was recently cancelled due to poor snow conditions at the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort near Donner Pass. The Truckee-Tahoe area hasn’t had a significant snowstorm since the Christmas holidays nearly two months ago. Fortunately resorts are still sitting on a solid snowpack due to cold temps this winter and skiing and riding has been good.

Note striking similarities between winters 2011 (red line) and 2013 (blue line). Both started out with precipitation trajectories that exceeded 1983 (wettest winter of record in this data set), and both 2011 and 2013 flatlined after Christmas. After boasting precip accmulations at 200% of normal early on, the Northern Sierra is currently down to 109% for the date with no major storms on the immediate horizon. Of more concern is that water content in the snowpack is below normal for this time of year. Waiting for another “Miracle March.” 

Organizers of this year’s Jack London Commemorative Sierra Sled Dog Derby said that they “could not ensure their ability to conduct the race in a manner that would guarantee safety for both the dogs and mushers.” A key tenet of the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers, a charity association that works to promote the recreational sport of sled dog racing in California, is safety of the canine athletes.

Sled dog races in Truckee have alway drawn large, enthusiastic crowds as depicted at this Feb. 1929 Sierra Dog Derby event.

The Jack London race was to honor the noted California author of “Call of the Wild,” a novel written by London in 1903. After spending nearly a year in Alaska during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, London penned his fictional story about a sled dog struggling to survive abusive humans and an extreme winter environment. The book became an instant classic and brought Jack London fame as one of America’s favorite authors. Three years later London wrote “White Fang,” a companion novel that thematically mirrors his first book. 

It’s not always fun and games for Sierra sled dogs. In the days before oversnow vehicles, aircraft crashes near Donner Pass required canine rescue. Here a team is hauling out parts of an airplane that went down.

The International Sled Dog Racing Association claims that the first sled dog race in the lower 48 states was staged in 1917 in Ashton, Idaho. That state’s on-going American Dog Derby may call itself the “oldest dog sled race in the United States,” but the town of Truckee actually held America’s first dog sled competition in 1915.

Among the many spectators to cheer the dogs on in that historic event was none other than Jack London. These canine-driven competitions were an important part of the Truckee community’s annual winter carnival to promote winter sports and bring tourists to the mountains.

Novelist Jack London (center left) with his friend John “Iron Man” Johnson at the nation’s first sled dog race held in Truckee in 1915.

Truckee’s winter sports industry got started in the 1890s when several of the town’s leading citizens formed a private Winter Carnival company to build and operate an ice palace on Front Street in downtown Truckee. They were convinced that developing and expanding winter tourism could boost revenue with year-round activity.

Their pioneering efforts resulted in the construction of the town’s first Ice Palace, which became the cornerstone of the earliest winter carnivals. Soon activities like fast toboggan runs and horse-drawn sleigh rides, ski races, and moonlight ice skating parties on Donner Lake began to attract the attention of residents in San Francisco and Sacramento.

By 1910 nearly 1,000 tourists were showing up on weekends, filling Truckee’s hotels. Southern Pacific Railroad was also promoting the carnival and helping to house visitors by parking Pullman sleeper cars on track sidings. Promotional movies were filmed of people enjoying the snow, part of an aggressive marketing campaign to spread the gospel of winter sports.

In this promotional photo from about 1931, a sled dog team pulls a glider along the Truckee River in a race with a passenger train on the Lake Tahoe Railway. Gliders launched and pulled by sled dogs became a popular activity during winter.

The Truckee Ski Club formed in 1914, first of its kind on the West Coast. Newspapers began touting Truckee as the best winter sports resort town nationwide. In the evenings the Isis Theater in Truckee showed motion pictures, and dances sometimes went all night. Sledding was a big part of the winter carnivals, and there were boxing matches and baseball games in the snow.

Nobody told this miniature dachshund that he couldn’t be a sled dog too.

In 1915, John “Iron Man” Johnson, a legendary Alaskan musher arrived in Truckee with his dog team. Johnson had won the punishing five-day, 408-mile All-Alaska Sweepstakes in 1910, 1913, and 1914. His 1910 time of less than 75 hours is a record that remains unbroken today. Johnson had been invited to put on an exhibition dog sled sprint race from downtown Truckee to Donner Lake and back.

Three sleds competed in this highly publicized sprint, including Alaskan Bill Brady with his malamute dog team and Ed Parker’s team of huskies. This first race in the contiguous 48 states was easily won by “Iron Man” Johnson and his famous team of Siberian wolves.

Dog sledding quickly became a popular winter activity and sport. In the late 1920s, a dog sled race from Truckee to Tahoe City and back was held. That event was won by Fred Prince, with a team of Irish Setters. Men dominated the sport until 1928 when Thula Geelan first entered the Tahoe Dog Derby.

Thula Geelan, from McCall, Idaho, was the first female to match her skills and endurance against men in the international sled dog racing circuit. Here she poses with Jack Titus and one of her Irish Setters during the 1929 Sierra Dog Derby event in Truckee. 

In 1931, on her third attempt, she won the Tahoe Dog Derby beating seven men, some of them among the most noted drivers in the world. The 60-mile competition was held during a raging snowstorm, but Geelan and her team of Irish Setters finished in less than six hours, winning the $1,000 prize.

Thula Geelan, America’s first professional female musher, takes off out of Truckee during a 1929 race.

In 1930, another legendary musher arrived in Truckee with his dogs and sled. Scotsman Alexander “Scotty” Allan, who won the grueling All-Alaska Sweepstakes an incredible five times, was in town for some training and to film scenes for a movie shoot at Soda Springs near Donner Pass. 

Scotty Allan’s sled dog team in Tahoe City.

In March 1949, Lloyd Van Sickle became the U.S. champion of 11-mile dog sled racing when his team, led by his prized Samoyed, Rex the Blizzard King, took first place in a national competition held near Truckee.

Two months later, Van Sickle and Rex successfully defended their national crown in the Sierra Dog Derby in front of an estimated 1,000 spectators, beating out Lloyd’s brother Bob, who was visiting from Idaho with a team of malamutes.

Rex may have weighed only 70 pounds, but in 1954 he broke the world record for weight pulling at a contest in West Yellowstone, Montana, with a pull of 1,870 pounds.

When in Tahoe this winter, experience the thrill and excitement of dog sledding on a 2.5 mile tour that winds through the Squaw Valley meadow.

Special thanks to my friend Frank Titus, born in Truckee in 1922, for sharing his family photos with me.








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