Mountain Passes: Donner Pass

In 1844 a group of emigrants bound for California, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, which consisted of ten families from Iowa, became the first overland settlers to cross the Sierra Nevadas. They followed the route of the Truckee River and crossed through a pass which had a very steep ascent from the east, but a more gradual ascent from the west. 

For perhaps two or three years, this pass may have been referred to as Stephens Pass. But after the winter of 1846-47, it was always called Donner Pass.

In spring of 1846, approximately 7,000 covered wagons, traveling in small groups of 10-20, left Independence, Missouri, to cross 2,500 miles of plains, deserts, and mountain ranges. The emigrants were heading to California or Oregon. Some of these wagon parties were large, with thirty or forty wagons to the train. Others were smaller, with ten wagons to the train. The group led by George and Jacob Donner was small.

Donner Pass

It was also ill-fated. Nothing seemed to go right for the Donner travelers. Heavy rains stopped them in their muddy tracks. Flooded rivers delayed them further. Heavy rocks and boulders slowed them to a mile a day in some places. But worst of all, they were following bad advice — advice from ex-Confederate major, nouveau-Californian lawyer Lansford W. Hastings, who wrote The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, which suggested to the westward bound that they could shorten their journey significantly by taking a shortcut.

Following the regular wagon train route through South Pass in Wyoming, the Donners reached Fort Bridger by the end of July. There the men, women, and children spent four days resting their oxen and repairing their wagons.

But after the Donner party left Fort Bridger, it took a shortcut route. Tragically, this route was not only more difficult than the regular one, but also 125 miles longer. Rough ground, tangled undergrowth, and deep sands delayed the wagon train a whole four weeks. All the delays, both nature-made and human-made, contributed to the disaster that took place at Donner Pass.

Wagon trains tried to make it through the Sierra Nevadas before the end of September. Due to delays, the Donner Party didn’t reach the pass until October 31, 1846. They built a camp 1,000 feet below the summit of the long and difficult mountain pass. On the other side was the downhill route, safety, and Fort Sutter, California.

Donner Pass
Mountain Range: Sierra Nevada Mountains
Elevation: 7,239 feet (2,206 meters)
Location: On the Nevada-California border, in the El Dorado National Forest of California.

But that night a storm dropped five feet of snow into the pass, blocking it completely. The wind blew the snow into twenty-foot drifts. Men, women, children, and animals sank into the snow and could not move forward. Wagons slid backwards. The next day it snowed more . . . and more . . . and more. The Donner group was blocked in the mountain pass. They built small cabins to live in.

Their food ran out. They ate leather, bones, twigs, and dirt. And then they ate the bodies of those who died. By the time rescue came, in February and April of 1847, only 46 of the 87 emigrants remained alive. When they reached California, the survivors told the tale of how they were trapped and what they did to stay alive. Ever since, the pass has been called Donner Pass.

In 1863, less than twenty years after the Donner Party, another group entered Donner Pass. This was a larger group — thousands of Chinese men. They had been hired by the Central Pacific Railroad to build bridges, dig tunnels, build retaining walls, and lay railroad track from California eastward. The Central Pacific would build eastward and the Union Pacific would build westward. When they reached one another, the United States would have its first transcontinental railroad. This would allow people, livestock, and goods to travel across the land more easily than ever before.

Theodore Judah was the engineer who laid out the route of the Central Pacific, which included 105 miles of track through Donner Pass. So accurate was his planning that today, more than 150 years later, nobody has found a better route across the Sierra Nevadas.

In order to get the tracks through Donner Pass, the Chinese workers blasted tunnels. Fifteen tunnels in all. Tunnels allowed the trains to travel at a lower grade — instead of following the pass to its top, the tracks followed a less steep route by going through a tunnel.

Work on the tunnels through Donner Pass continued year round. In the winter of 1866-67, forty-four snowstorms raged. One of the storms blew for two full weeks and dropped ten feet of snow. But the railroad crew, thousands strong, supplied with food by the railroad, dug huge tunnels through the snow. Back and forth the workers moved through the snow tunnels, in order to work on the real tunnels — those they were blasting through the mountain sides.

On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met in Provo, Utah. At long last, the United States had a transcontinental railroad. Today trains going to and from California still use  Donner Pass and the railroads still use the tracks built by Chinese workers more than 150 years ago. Interstate-80 also goes through Donner Pass.

Donner Pass
Fierce winds pack
sudden snow,
fill crevice
and crack,
block route
front to back —
wagon train
under attack.


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Bridger Pass.

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