Weather Window | Conquering Donner Pass by car
Ryan Summerlin May 15, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. For the first installment click here.
Motorists take Interstate 80 for granted, the year-round, trans-Sierra highway that crosses the mountains at Donner Pass, except of course when it’s shut down for hours by winter storms. It is a quick link between markedly different climate regimes in California and a vital conduit for a large portion of the tourism dollars that flow into the Tahoe-Truckee region.
The spring of 1911 offered a greater than usual challenge to anyone attempting to cross the Sierra by automobile. It had been a long, hard winter with late season snow. On March 11, 1911, official snow depths reached extraordinary levels, nearing 40 feet at 8,000 feet at the U.S. Weather Bureau station at Tamarack, Calif., southwest of Lake Tahoe. Despite the Tahoe Tavern’s well-advertised award, it wasn’t until June 1911 that anyone would try to drive over the mountains to collect the 3-foot high trophy and earn a daredevil reputation.
Although promoters at the Tahoe Tavern were calculating their coveted trophy cup would be won by a socially prominent person from San Francisco, the primary contender turned out to be a group of men from the Grass Valley area led by Arthur B. Foote. Mr. Foote had purchased his first car in January 1908, and it was shipped in parts by train. After reading the instruction manual, he spent a couple of days assembling the machine. Once his new vehicle was put together and fueled with gasoline purchased at the drug store (there were no gas stations yet), Foote took a ride and immediately became an aficionado of the new horseless carriage. When he heard about the Tahoe Tavern contest a few years later, he decided to take on the challenge with his Model T Ford.
A little help from his friends
Foote, who was assistant superintendent of the North Star Mines Company, needed help in this arduous endeavor. Pushing, pulling and dragging an automobile over the roadless Sierra would be a major physical and logistical hurtle, so he convinced several men he knew to help. Foote’s matter-of-fact diary entries detail the Herculean task before them: On June 2, the first day, he wrote: “Packed stuff, took off windshield, Mr. Starr and I left for Emigrant Gap at 4 p.m. with shovels, tackle, etc. Passed Emigrant Gap and got stuck in soft snow 2.5 miles further on. Walked to Cisco, got there 10:30 p.m.” Snow drifts had blocked the trail, but the following morning Foote and Starr woke early and surveyed the road ahead until they came to a washed-out bridge on the Yuba River. They returned to Cisco where they joined the other men and slept until the early morning hours. When they awoke they started driving on the still-frozen snowpack. Although parts of the surface were bare granite, the car would occasionally fall into deep crevices in the snow, but each time the men used their block and tackle system to pull it out. Five hours later they reached the Yuba River roaring with snowmelt. Both Foote and Starr were accomplished engineers and they quickly rigged a metal cable over the raging torrent and slid the car to the other side.
Foote’s group wasn’t the only one competing for the prize, but when the other drivers following them came to the washed out bridge on the Yuba, they were at a loss on how to cross. Foote and Starr had removed the cable and told no one of their technique. This gave them an insurmountable lead. Two days later they were stuck in snow again, but having gained a substantial lead they confidently left the car and returned to Grass Valley by train to gather more equipment. On June 7 they were back at it using wooden runners to push the car over the snowpack. By June 9 they had reached Soda Springs, where they spent the day repairing or replacing various broken parts. Finally, on Saturday June 10, they pulled their vehicle over rock and snow down to Donner Lake where they had breakfast. Taking advantage of the clear road from Truckee to Tahoe City, they reached the Tahoe Tavern at noon and claimed their handsome trophy.
Promoters at the Tahoe Tavern were completely surprised by their arrival. The next day the Grass Valley Morning Union featured the story on page one: “The victors enjoyed the consternation which they caused by their unexpected arrival. The resort management had not expected these men from Grass Valley to achieve their success by shoving, tugging, and hoisting their Model T over seemingly impassable mountainous terrain.”
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com . You can reach him at email@example.com. Check out Mark’s blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.