Donner Lake is appreciated as a beautiful gem tucked into the base of Donner Pass, a gift of nature for all to enjoy. Others have considered it a natural resource perfectly located for exploitation, a common practice in the Tahoe Sierra during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The California Gold Rush attracted hordes of people to the state, but during the 1850s few tried to settle in the high elevation mountains. The region’s geology is not gold country and winters are long and harsh. It took the 1859 discovery of silver and gold in the Washo Mountains of Nevada to draw traffic to Donner Pass, away from the primary trans-Sierra route over Carson Pass via Placerville, south of Lake Tahoe.
In 1860-61, Central Pacific Railroad’s chief engineer Theodore Judah surveyed a route over the Sierra Nevada for the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. His analysis of the topographical challenges blazed the tracks east over Donner Pass and Donner Lake toward the future site of Coburn’s Station (Truckee), but construction would not be completed for years.
Over the course of half-a-century, at least 26 companies cut ice from hundreds of acres of dammed or diverted ponds, a time when Truckee was known as the Ice Capital of the West.
In the meantime, in June 1864, a new toll road opened over Donner Pass, the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road. By the mid-1860s, the rapidly increasing traffic of freight wagons, livestock and passenger stagecoaches between San Francisco, Sacramento and the Comstock Mining District at Virginia City, Nev., led to the first way stations, resort hotels and logging operations on Donner Lake.
Logging and sawmill production boomed as Central Pacific Railroad pushed through and soon timber was being logged at Donner Lake to supply railroad construction. Water-powered sawmills were built, soon to be replaced by internal combustion steam engines. In 1864, brothers Angus and John McPherson established the first sawmill near Donner Lake, most likely in Cold Stream Canyon. At the east of the lake, they started a summer tourism business that promoted their prominent Donner Lake Hotel equipped with sailboats and rowboats available for rent.
The following year the Towle Brothers built a large steam plant with four saws on Donner Creek, a quarter mile east of the McPherson mill. The dam Towle Brothers built below the lake’s outlet obstructed fish runs, an early nail in the coffin for spawning native Lahontan cutthroat trout on the Truckee River system. Early logging in the Sierra Nevada was a seasonal enterprise that shut down during winter, so when the snow started to fly timber workers looked for jobs in natural ice production.
Ice Capital of the West
Prior to mechanical refrigeration, people relied on ice ponds where the frozen product was cut into blocks during the winter months and then stored in thick-walled warehouses. On the mild Pacific Coast, only high mountains could provide ice. In 1868 commercial harvesting became established along the main stem of the Truckee River, as well as its tributaries, from the town of Truckee east to Boca and Prosser. Over the course of half-a-century, at least 26 companies cut ice from hundreds of acres of dammed or diverted ponds, a time when Truckee was known as the Ice Capital of the West.
On Donner Lake, shoreline ponds were constructed and unused logging millponds were flooded to produce ice. At its peak, yields from the lake reached 35,000 tons in one year. Most of the ice was shipped by train to the Comstock Lode to cool off over-heated hard-rock miners, to the Sacramento Valley to refrigerate perishable produce for transport and to San Francisco where luxury hotels used the high-quality ice for fancy cocktails. Central Pacific constructed temporary railroad sidetracks to Donner Lake to transport both lumber and ice to the mainline.
While ice skaters were always attracted to Donner Lake, ice fishing soon became a popular winter activity for locals. Once a portion of the lake was safely frozen over, warming huts were built, holes cut in the ice and baited hooks dropped. One observer noted: “Wagon loads of fish are being caught and the supply is inexhaustible. Anybody can catch the fish through the ice. The most expert fisherman has no advantage over any man, woman or child. The fish just catch themselves!”
Fish hatcheries were established by 1871 at Donner Lake, breeding more than 500,000 trout over a decade. Wild caught and farmed gamefish were quickly transported fresh on ice to restaurants serving the Nevada mines, Sacramento and San Francisco.
Truckee businessman William H. Krueger operated a hatchery at Donner Lake along with a saloon, corral, barn and boats. Krueger was co-owner of the Truckee Lumber Company with E.J. Brickell, namesake of Truckee’s Brickelltown District. They manufactured and distributed products including railroad ties, furniture, shingles, doors, blinds and moldings.
In 1889 Brickell and Krueger sold their land holdings, dam and water rights at the east end of Donner Lake to a consortium supervised by Nevada Senator Francis G. Newlands. Sen. Newlands envisioned doubling the lake’s storage potential as a massive reservoir proposed in his Newlands Irrigation District for western Nevada. Fortunately, the original plan fell through, but Donner Lake is currently used as a reservoir to enhance Truckee River flow for various entities including utilities, The Paiute, Nevada ranchers, farmers and the Reno-Sparks metro area.
Tourism industry blossoms
McPherson’s Donner Lake House was soon joined by other entrepreneurs intent on profiting from increasing tourism in the region. In 1865, J.D. Pollard’s Station and Lake House opened on the west end of the lake, with horses, carriages and rental boats available to wealthy vacationers arriving by train in Truckee. One visitor described Pollard as “an affable man and an old hand at the hotel business who will make sure his guests are not neglected.”
Next to Pollards was Donner City, a tiny settlement with accommodations and saloon that catered to railroad crews working in advance of track and tunnel construction. D. Cameron’s microbrewery operated nearby, while a telegraph line connected residents and visitors with Sacramento and Virginia City.
In 1870, James Cardwell built the Summit Hotel on Donner Pass (Norden), a resort noted for having 70 rooms, spectacular views of Donner Lake and the largest dining hall on the railroad between San Francisco and Ogden, Utah. Winter storms often buried Cardwell’s inn, but when spring arrived, he paid snow shovelers out of his own pocket to clear the county road down to Donner Lake and to Truckee. Resort and hotel owners in the region outfitted their own stage lines to cater to tourists wishing to visit scenic spots.
Nicknamed “Jolly Jim” for his extraverted personality, Cardwell kept wild animals to amuse his guests including monkeys, deer, racoons and a large bear raised from a cub. The cinnamon-colored bruin was intimidating but usually friendly to the point of giving bear hugs to visitors to acquire any edible treats they might be carrying.
Special thanks to archeologist Susan Lindstrom and researcher Gordon Richards.