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.

Mountain Passes: Bridger Pass

In 1849 Major Howard Stansbury of the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was assigned the job of exploring and surveying Great Salt Lake and its surroundings. In 1850 the Stansbury Expedition employed mountain man Jim Bridger to guide them through areas of the Rocky Mountains. It was during that time that Bridger found a pass south of South Pass and led the expedition through it. The significance of this pass (named Bridger Pass) was that it cut 61 miles off the distance of the Oregon Trail. In the mountains a wagon train may have averaged ten miles a day, so Bridger Pass could have saved immigrants a full week of travel as they headed to Oregon. 

James Bridger was born in Virginia in 1804. At a very young age he went west to St. Louis, where he worked as a blacksmith. In 1822, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Missouri River Expedition to further explore much of the territory that Lewis and Clark had traveled. Bridger was the youngest man on the trip.(Jedediah Smith was on this expedition, as were Hugh Glass and Thomas Fitzpatrick — all three of them mountain men (trappers and explorers). Many members of the expedition, among them Jim Bridger, stayed in the mountains to trap furs after the expedition had ended. Mountain men traveled thousands and thousands of miles, zigzagging across the west, blazing trails, finding rivers, lakes, and mountain passes.

In order to survive in the wild Bridger learned to speak with anybody he met. He spoke not only English but also Spanish and French and six different Indian languages. In addition, he was fluent in sign language.

In 1843 Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez opened a trading post in Utah Territory. Their outpost came to be called Fort Bridger — a very important stop on the route west. Wagon trains stopping at Fort Bridger were able to buy food; re-shoe their horses, mules, and oxen; repair their wagons or buy other wagons; and receive further directions on where to travel and how to do it. The Donner Party stopped at Fort Bridger on its way to California in 1847.

Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850, statehood did not make communication with the far western state any easier. Business and personal mail still took months to reach California via wagon train or ship. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company was a stagecoach line that carried passengers and mail to the west, too. At first the stage took the southern route through Sitgreaves Pass to Los Angeles, then north to San Francisco. Later it switched to a northern route going through South Pass. And then it abandoned the South Pass route for the Bridger Pass one. Still, a letter sent by stagecoach took weeks and weeks to arrive in California.

In 1860 the founders of the Overland Mail did something very bold: they started a mail service of relay riders whose sole job was to carry saddlebags of mail from the end of the telegraph line in St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express, as it was called, employed young men who weighed approximately 120 pounds, so that their body weight would not slow down the horses too much. The men were young, with an average age of 20, and one rider was 11 years old.

Each rider was paid $100 for a month of work. He rode from 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at one of the 185 Pony Express stations along the route. At the end of 75 or 100 miles, the rider passed his mail on to another rider. One rider left from the east and one from the west once a week. Via the Pony Express the mail reached California in just eight days in summer, twelve days in winter. These riders galloped east and west through Bridger Pass.

Started in April of 1860, the Pony Express ended in October of 1861 — a mere eighteen months. It ended when the telegraph line across the continent was completed and messages could be communicated in a matter of minutes. By connecting California to the Union via speedier mail, the Pony Express helped keep that state on the Union side during the Civil War. In addition the Pony Express proved that the central route across the United States — through Bridger Pass — could be traveled all year long and was the best route connecting the different sides of the country.

Bridger Pass was significant in another transportation-and-mail way, and that had to do with the Union Pacific Railroad. Before the Civil War the federal government had plans to build a transcontinental railroad. Although the bill providing for this railroad was passed in 1862, and work on the railroad began then, it wasn’t until after the Civil War ended that the government went full speed ahead with the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad headed west from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific headed east from Sacramento, California.  (The tracks met in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.)

The chief engineer of the Union Pacific was General Grenville Dodge, who had served in military intelligence during the Civil War. According to some accounts Dodge, wanting to shorten the route of the Union Pacific in any way he could, asked Jim Bridger if there was an alternative to South Pass. According to these accounts Bridger encouraged Dodge to do what the Overland Mail and Pony Express had done — use the mountain pass that Jim Bridger had discovered in 1850. Dodge and the railroad engineers investigated Bridger Pass and decided that building the railroad through it would indeed save time and money. And so the tracks of the Union Pacific were laid through that pass.

Mountain Range:  Sierra Madre
Elevation: 7,532 feet 
Location: On the Continental Divide in southeastern Wyoming, near Medicine Bow National Forest.

In order to speed up the laying of railroad track across 1,776 miles, the government urged the two railroads to “race” each other. For every mile of track laid, each railroad was granted $48,000 in government bonds plus 12,800 acres of land. In order to lay more miles of track the Union Pacific offered male passengers reduced fare if they would help lay the railroad beds and tracks.

The Union Pacific (which had to dig a mere four tunnels compared to the Central Pacific’s fifteen tunnels) won the race, and General Dodge credited Jim Bridger for this. Bridger died in 1881, one of the last of the mountain men. In 1904 General Dodge had a monument erected over Bridger’s grave, crediting him for discovering Bridger Pass and helping lay the route of the Union Pacific Railroad.

Not only was Bridger Pass a great route for the railroad, it turned out to be the best route for Interstate 80, which runs from Teaneck, New Jersey to San Francisco, California. Exploration, immigration, communication, transportation — Bridger Pass played a prominent role in each.

Bridger Pass

hoof beats, dust cloud,
skinny rider, bursting
saddlebags: why not stay a while? — 
so long!


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