Labor of love: $9.6 million Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center opens | SierraSun.com

Labor of love: $9.6 million Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center opens

Margaret Moran
mmoran@sierrasun.com

TRUCKEE, Calif. — The history of the Sierra Nevada came to life this past weekend through artifacts and exhibits inside the newly unveiled Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center.

On Saturday, the new visitor center east of Donner Lake officially opened to the public — an event roughly 20 years in the making that garnered much fanfare.

"With the opening of this visitor center, we're now going to ensure that all visitors, our children, future generations will continue to learn of this place, of the people and the stories of the people," said Lisa Mangat, director of California State Parks, before a crowd of hundreds at Saturday's dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony.

The center's theme is Crossing Barriers Changes Lives. Exhibits include displays on the Donner Party, regional Native American history, construction of the transcontinental railroad through the Sierra by Chinese workers, and development of roadways over Donner Pass.

"(It) gives one the sense of struggles people faced as they made their way over what we know as Donner Pass," said Don Schmidt, a retired supervising ranger at Donner Memorial State Park who served as emcee. "They were forced to interact with cold rivers, vertical granite rock and environmental extremes to trade, hunt, travel or search for a better way of life in California."

Helping bring that to life are the interactive features of the new exhibits, including films and kiosks.

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"In school they taught us the stories and we would read about them in books, but here you can actually touch and see it," said John LeBlanc, of Novato, Calif., while he toured the new facility. "It's cool."

Bob Popp, of Lincoln, Calif., was also among many touring the $9.6 million, 9,400-square-foot visitor center Saturday afternoon.

"I think it's really nice," he said. "… At last they are honoring the Chinese and the Washoe Indians, which I never did see at the old place, so that kind of impressed me a little bit. There's more honors going around to everybody."

Originally, in 1996, the project proposed to upgrade the 1962 Emigrant Trail Museum's outdated exhibits and refurbish the building, according to California State Parks.

Yet, due to the museum's small size, structural deficiencies, ADA access issues and high energy costs, state parks found it more cost effective to build a new museum.

Construction of the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center began mid-May 2011 — a time when the California State Parks system was in the middle of its well-documented run of financial struggles — and concluded in summer 2013.

"This truly has been a labor of love," Mangat said. "It truly has taken a village. I wish I could say that state parks could do it alone — that's absolutely not the case, and you can see it took tremendous support for us to be here today."

With the opening of the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center, the Emigrant Trail Museum building will be used for archival storage, training, and office and meeting room space.

"This is your park," said Marilyn Linkem, Sierra District superintendent for State Parks. "Remember that. This is your park. This belongs to you. It belongs to the people of California, so please come and enjoy it."

More info

What: Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center

Where: 12593 Donner Pass Road, Truckee

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Sunday, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day

Phone: 530-582-7892

Online: parks.ca.gov/?page_id=503