Donner Lake: A Rich History, Part I

Donner Lake as seen from Donner Peak. | Mark McLaughlin

First there was rock and then came ice. Unlike Lake Tahoe, which was formed by the Sierra Nevada uplifting along faults and fissures, with the land in-between collapsing to form a deep valley (horst and graben topography), the Donner Lake Basin was scoured by glacier action during the last Ice Age.

Due to its trench-like structure, Lake Tahoe contains an enormous amount of water that maxes out at 1,645 feet deep, while Donner Lake is less than 3 miles long and reaches a maximum depth of just 238 feet.

For perhaps 8,000 to 9,000 years, after ice from the last glacial period receded, Native Americans utilized nearby Coldstream Canyon and areas around Donner Lake, particularly the verdant zone near the lake’s outlet that is now Donner Memorial State Park. The Washo Tribe of present-day western Nevada called the Truckee River “a’wakhu wa’t’a” and resident archeologist Susan Lindstrom has reported that before downtown Truckee was built, the site was a seasonal Washo village named “K’ubuna detde’yi.”

The Washo had permanent villages on the eastern side of the Sierra and the California Maidu on the western slopes, but both climbed into the mountains during the summer months to hunt. Artifacts recovered from around Donner Lake trace human activity back to at least the Martis Phase, about 4,000 years BC.

Read Mark’s stories on Chief Truckee, Moses Schallengerger and the Donner Party at


Flakes of basalt and obsidian used to make arrowheads and spear points, as well as petroglyphs and grinding holes, are found throughout the area, but archaeologists stress the importance of leaving artifacts where they lay because they are only important to research when in context. Collectors should be aware that the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act legally protects the human remains and sacred and cultural objects of indigenous Americans and requires permission from the appropriate Native American tribes before excavation or removal.

The first wagon train
In the fall of 1844, the first Euro-American wagon train appeared on the scene. Led by Elisha Stephens and Caleb Greenwood, this determined group of 50 people was attempting to reach California, an undeveloped province of Mexico at the time. A Paiute Indian leader that history remembers as Chief Truckee had given the emigrants directions to follow the Truckee River west, up to a lake and gap in the ridge of mountains. To cross Truckee Pass (modern-day Donner Pass), the group disassembled their farm wagons and rigged up a block-and-tackle system to hoist up the pieces — as well as their oxen — over steep-walled cliffs. Just west of Donner Pass, inclement weather delayed their progress and a few members returned to Truckee Lake (Donner) to protect wagons and family possessions left there.

Joseph Foster and Allen Montgomery, along with 17-year-old Moses Schallenberger, returned to Donner Lake and built a small cabin to wait out the weather. But after several weeks as the snow increased in depth, they realized that there was no game to hunt and that help was not coming. The trio snowshoed up and over the pass, but teenager Moses lacked the endurance to continue another 50 miles to the Sacramento Valley. He retreated back to the lake where he spent a harsh winter alone in the crude hut, most likely the first person to do so and survive. Indigenous Americans always left the high country before the heavy snow season.

Six members of the Stephens Party split off from the main group to follow the Truckee River south to it its source at Lake Tahoe. This band included five Anglos and an African American woman named Francis Deland. They became the first non-native people to stand on the shoreline of Big Blue. In a journey that took them 11 months to complete, the Stephens Party not only opened the California Trail for the multitudes that would follow, but no lives were lost and two babies were born on the way.

Schallenberger Ridge is named after Moses in honor of his plucky determination and nearby Stephens Peak credits Elisha Stephens’ leadership. The well-publicized tragedy of the Donner Party in 1846-47 changed the nomenclature for topographical features in the region including Donner Lake, Donner Creek and Donner Pass.

Development follows
A visit to Donner Memorial State Park covers the fascinating history of this area, with highlights on Native Americans, Chinese railroad workers, the early days of the automobile era and more.

Indicative of the busy emigrant and freight wagon traffic over Donner Pass, within a decade of the Donner Party entrapment a commercial turnpike was built. The first toll road along the north shore of Donner Lake was established in 1857. By the early 1860s, Central Pacific Railroad was investing money to improve this route from the foothills above the inland port of Sacramento to the booming Comstock mining district centered in Virginia City, Nevada Territory. This Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road, financed by Central Pacific, soon became the supply line for the construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad that pushed through Truckee and into Reno in the spring of 1868.

Building the transcontinental railroad
The western portion of the transcontinental line, from Sacramento to Promontory, Utah, required 690 miles of track, virtually all of it built by Chinese immigrants without whose determination, hard work and incredible effort the epic project would never have been completed. Central Pacific hired an estimated 12,000 Chinese railroad workers who made up 90 percent of their workforce.

Although these men faced racism, discrimination and a lack of support from their employer, their varied skill sets enabled them to successfully function in mobile miniature communities in the mountains and desert. Before migrating to the United States, many Chinese workers were trained as cooks, doctors, farmers, blacksmiths and architects. This broad variety of expertise equipped the workers to tackle the complex engineering and construction problems they encountered on the job.

Hundreds of Chinese laborers camped at Donner Lake as construction passed through the area. Blasting and tunnel work at Donner Pass took nearly two years. Many relics from this period have been recovered and China Cove in Donner Memorial State Park is an acknowledgement of the important contribution the Chinese made to the region’s history. In 1925 the Victory Highway opened to automobiles through the Truckee River Canyon, a route that closely followed the one taken by the Stephen’s Party nearly a century before. The improved Lincoln Highway (Route 40) followed, which was then eclipsed by the modern Interstate 80 completed in 1964.

Read Part II at

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Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.