Stand on Donner Summit in any of many places and you are surrounded by history.
For thousands of years Native Americans came to the Summit in summers to hunt and over the Summit to trade. The first wagon train to reach California, the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party, crossed Donner Summit. Almost the same route was used for the first transcontinental railroad, the first transcontinental highway, the first transcontinental air route, and the first transcontinental telephone. Once the railroad was completed the first transcontinental telegraph moved to Donner Summit as well.
The Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party was the first wagon train to reach California, doing so in 1844. They approached the Sierra after a grueling journey across the Nevada desert and along the Truckee River. As they climbed to the Pass it was snowing. They came to a rock wall and there appeared to be no way to pass save a small cleft that an ox could just go through. They disassembled the wagons and hoisted them up.
At their camp at Big Bend, on the Yuba River, the first white baby was born in California, Elizabeth Yuba Murphy.
In 1913 the Lincoln Highway was inaugurated, putting together stretches of road all across the country to form America’s first transcontinental highway. You can see sections of the highway, and hike them, all along Donner Summit. Below, a truck is approaching the underpass just below Donner Pass.
Fighting avalanches, accident, fire, and blizzards the workers of the Central Pacific blasted
fifteen tunnels through solid granite, built forty miles of snowsheds, filled ravines, built stations and turntables, and laid rail. They built a railroad that united the nation. Suddenly it took only days to get to California instead of months. Letters brought news that was still “news.”
The railroad brought settlers, business, and ideas. In exchange it took the products of California to the rest of the nation. The railroad opened California and it went, and still goes, right over Donner Summit.
The first transcontinental air route crossed Donner Summit. The
beacons, markings, and arrows guided flyers through the Pass. The building above sat on the east side of Donner Ski Ranch, Signal Hill. It was airway station 15 (right). On one side of the roof “Donner” was painted and on the other, “SL - SF.”