Donner Party Tracker: Stopped - End of October 1846
One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, the lead wagons in the Donner Party reached the east end of Truckee Lake (later re-named Donner Lake). The lake, about five miles long and aligned along an east-west axis, lies at the base of a pass over the Sierra; the pass towers more than 1,000 feet above the lake.
The wagon company did not reach the lake as a cohesive unit. Some members would never see the lake because they were strung out for miles back along the trail from the lake north to Dog Valley, which is where Prosser and Boca Reservoirs are today. The Breen family and others led the way, while the two Donner families and their hired teamsters were the caboose on the train.
Not only did the Donners lag behind, but when they reached the Alder Creek Valley, about five miles northeast of Donner Lake, one of George Donner's wagons broke an axle and crashed on a steep hill. Fortunately, his children riding in the wagon were unhurt, but the accident forced the two Donner families to stop for repairs.
Two October snowstorms had deposited a blanket of white on the Sierra Crest earlier in the month, but during the last days of October, a much colder and powerful storm from the Gulf of Alaska slammed into Northern California. After lashing the coast with rain and gusty winds, the storm blasted into the mountains and dumped several feet of snow. Drifts on the pass exceeded five feet. The unusually winter-like weather had effectively closed the pass nearly a month earlier than was expected.
Protected as they were by their positions at lower elevations on the trail up from Truckee Meadows (Reno), the pioneers had no idea of the storm's intensity in the High Country. For several days as they headed west, rain, mixed with snow at times, had dampened the trail, but the relatively warm ground and light snowfall had kept snow accumulations to only a few inches. Slowly they climbed upwards with hope and plans to get over the rugged range to the west that separated them from central California and safety.
When the Breen, Eddy, and Keseberg families got to a point just east of the lake on about October 31 (the date is disputed by some historians), the pass was obscured by clouds. But when the sun briefly broke through, the pioneers could see that deep snow covered the pass.
Most of the emigrants were from the Midwest and completely ignorant of the severe mountain climate in which they traveled. It rained on them during their first night camped near the lake; they thought the rain would melt the snow in the higher elevations. Any mountain person could have told them that rain in the valleys usually means snow in the High Country.
Nearly all of the other wagons that had already completed the rough California Trail in 1846 had used Coldstream Canyon, which is just to the south of Donner Lake. (Shallenberger Ridge lies between the lake and Coldstream.) The 1846 pioneers ahead of the Donner Party on the trail went up Coldstream to reach Roller Pass on the Sierra Crest. Roller is located about 1.5 miles south of Donner Pass. Roller is easier for wagons than Donner Pass. The Donner group, arriving late, ran into the weather and snow conditions described above. Because of the (early) deep snow, the Donner Party was forced to try the more direct (but difficult) route along the north side of the lake and upwards toward Donner Pass. It was too late for them to use Coldstream and Roller Pass.
November-Trying to Get Over the Top
During the first days of November, the emigrants made several attempts to reach the pass, all of which were thwarted by deep snow that reached chest-high near the summit. Reluctantly, the pioneers retreated back to the lake and began to construct a couple of log cabins for protection. The Breen family moved into a primitive, existing shelter that had been built in 1844 by members of the Stephens Party.
The Jake and George Donner Families
Meanwhile, at Alder Creek, five miles east of Donner Lake, the situation was more desperate. George Donner had been wounded when the ax his brother Jake was using to carve a piece of wood into a replacement axle glanced and gashed George's hand. George's wife, Tamsen, cleaned and bandaged the wound, but the injury hindered his ability to work and it eventually became seriously infected.
As the storm turned colder and snow began to fall at Alder Creek, the Donner families were unable to build cabins due to a lack of manpower and the deteriorating weather conditions. They had to pitch tents and hastily construct crude lean-tos using cut tree branches covered with canvas, blankets, pine boughs, and rubber raincoats.
Editor's Note: This installment is #18 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, weather historian, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series for Tahoetopia. Maps are by the Tahoetopia staff.
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