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Donner Lake archaeology dig to begin

Under a plot of land that may soon house the newest museum honoring the Donner Party’s tragic journey over the Sierra Nevada, sit pieces of history dating back almost 9,000 years.

These artifacts ” whether they be musket balls, earrings, or Washoe cooking ovens ” will come out of the ground this summer, as a team of archaeologists descends on Donner Memorial State Park to dig, catalogue and analyze the earth.

The archaeological investigation will be only the second dig of its magnitude at the lakeside location where dozens of the Donner Party died of starvation, said Susan Lindström, a local archaeologist who has studied the Donner Party for 30 years.



“The excavations have been few and far between,” Lindström said. “Who knows what could come up?”

The archaeology, which will be overseen by a Chico State professor and conducted by state parks archaeologists, will make way for a $6 million museum to replace the park’s aging building.



Lindström dug around the site of the Murphy’s cabin in the 1980s, where she found plenty of evidence of the hardships of the pioneers who were trapped at Donner Lake by early, heavy snows. Approximately half of the Donner Party members, who were split between camps at Alder Creek and Donner Lake, died during the winter of 1846.

Along with musketballs, bones, earrings and broaches, the team found a religious medallion, she said.

“That was a sobering experience,” said Lindström. “You can only imagine what the members of the party were doing as the winter days passed.”

Many of the larger artifacts may have been taken away by souvenir hunters and amateur historians soon after the Donner Party was rescued.

“There have been quite a lot of disturbances in that area,” she said.

Because of the history of the Donner Party, the park is nationally recognized as a historic area. But there are many other fragments of history that could be found this summer.

Washoe Indians dating back 9,000 years, and pioneers such as Moses Schallenberger who preceded the Donner Party, also left indications of their time spent on the east side of Donner Lake.

“The whole reason for doing this investigation is to see if they can locate some of the remnants,” said Hayden Sohm, superintendent for the Sierra district of California State Parks.

Archaeology work is expected to begin by mid-June, with seven or eight team members involved in the dig.

Artifacts found during the study may be displayed in the new museum, said Sohm.

California State Parks has released their final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed “High Sierra Crossings Museum.”

State parks is still formulating construction drawings and completing national environmental procedures, but hope to begin building the structure next spring, said Sohm.

The museum is planned for an area alongside Donner Pass Road, after state parks abandoned an unpopular proposal to locate the building near the eastern shores of Donner Lake.

Sohm plans to lay out the final museum plans before the Truckee Town Council later this summer, he said. The project should go out to bid in January 2007.


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