Donner Lake: Ice on the venerable lake is a matter of degrees |

Donner Lake: Ice on the venerable lake is a matter of degrees

Gordon Richards
Special to the Sierra Sun
H.K. Gage photo/Truckee Donner Historical SocietyTruckee residents and visitors gathered at the east end of Donner Lake to enjoy the finest ice skating in the nation during the 1880s. The warming hut contained a bar that allowed adults to get thawed out both on the inside and outside

Will it or won’t it? Freeze completely that is. The historical record is incomplete, but it seems warmer winters freeze Donner Lake less often than a hundred-plus years ago. It is anybody’s guess whether the weather will allow safe skating again.

Donner Lake looked to be the ideal location for ice harvesting, and in 1868, the Sitka Ice Company built a small storage house on the eastern shore of the lake. But they soon found out the water was too deep and the wind would come up and crack the ice. Building ponds down river meant less snow to deal with, so the ice house at Donner sat empty, until it blew over.

The first mention of ice on Donner Lake was on Feb. 27, 1869 when it was reported that the snow had been cleared and water run on the ice and allowed to freeze at night, creating a perfect skating surface. And we see later that summer, James Grant, who operated Grant’s Hotel at the present location of the Tahoe Donner Marina, was advertising small quantities of Donner Lake ice for sale.

In January of 1872, Grant sponsored an ice-skating party at his hotel. The sleigh road was broken and packed from Truckee, but only through 6 inches of snow.

In January of 1874, the low temperature recorded at Truckee was -30 degrees, and Donner Lake was a smooth sheet of ice. That was all it took for almost the entire population of Truckee’s children to spend many days at Donner Lake. One day they pushed the limit a little too far. Teenage boys were pulling a sleigh around on the thin and treacherous ice using a long rope.

Inside the sleigh were Mrs. Beedle and her 12-year-old sister and 13-year-old son. Alongside the sleigh, a few skaters hung on, and the sleigh fairly flew. As it was nearing the north side on the west end, the sleigh hit a thin spot of ice, which cracked open under the weight.

The sleigh went down slowly and perched itself shakily on a boulder. The skaters pulled the two children off, but Mrs. Beedle remained frozen in fear on the sleigh. A crowd quickly gathered, but no one could get close for fear of cracking the ice and sending the sleigh into the deep.

Boards were set up to bridge the gap of water between the sleigh and the thick ice and Mrs. Beedle attempted to walk across to safety. She panicked and lost her balance, then plunged, screaming all the way, into the icy water. Mr. Beedle heroically jumped in to save his sinking wife, and almost drowned in the process.

They struggled for a minute, then reached the sleigh. More boards were set up and the couple was rescued. They were cold, but they recovered from the scare.

Which brought up the story of three men who had recently found themselves skating in the middle of the lake on very thin ice.

Two turned back, just as cracking ice boomed under their shaky legs. The third skater took the opposite approach. He gathered as much speed as possible and sailed over another thin stretch of ice to the safety of shore. He walked back a half mile rather than chance the warming ice again.

The published a lengthy article detailing how Donner Lake, with its excellent and reliable ice-skating season could be as popular as New York City’s Central Park. To prove the point, winter hung on late into the spring of 1874. On April 23, the lake was still frozen solid, and the breakup didn’t occur until about May 15.

In January 1875, skaters glided merrily on 18 inches of ice, but there was no snow on the ground. In January of 1876, the first inch of ice was just forming on the 12th. Yet the People’s ice pond, located where the Truckee Regional Park is now, had an ice harvest 11 inches thick.

This led to an article the following week why Donner Lake wasn’t freezing. The weather had reached a low of -15 degrees, as cold as other winters covered by the writers ” which wasn’t all that many weather-wise. The narrow canyon funneled cold air right onto the lake, and it had frozen 5-6 inches thick for the past dozen years.

There was no wind, so reporters pondered what unseen force was at work. The popular theory at the time was that earthquakes had released pent up hot springs under the lake, similar to the hot springs found at Lake Tahoe.

February 1877 saw 50 people trying to skate on Donner, but they were defeated by rough ice formed by wind at the east end and a large open area in the middle of the lake. Still, “Brick Dowdy,” a brave or foolish lad depending on your view, got out too far and broke through. Luckily he didn’t go in far, and was able to get himself out, but that ended the day, and the group trudged back to Truckee.

In March of 1878 it was reported no part of the lake froze. But in February of 1879 daily trips to the lake were taken for fine skating. There was interest in buying an ice yacht for the lake.

The winter of 1879-80 was a monstrous one, with huge, record-setting storms in January. The Central Pacific Railroad closed. Donner Lake froze up to 2 feet thick in places. Low temperatures hovered around -20 degrees for most of January. The paper commented that the lake freezes around the edges every season, but rarely froze solid.

As with all thick ice, motion still exists, and that winter the ice put up quite a concert. The booming, cracking, and air moving under the ice that produced the low, weird, mournful hollow sounds reminded skaters of the Donner Party members who perished on the shores decades before.

A huge storm came up with strong winds and dry powder. The middle of the lake remained snow-free, but horse-high drifts were piling up along the shoreline. The lake held its ice all winter, and finally broke up and was gone by June 10. It was thought this unusual condition last occurred during the Donner Party winter of 1846.

Donner Lake was the site of the first organized Winter Sports event in 1880 when Jake Teeter, Bill Irwin and others cleared a mile-wide circle of snow at the east end. Hundreds of skaters came from Reno and California to enjoy a grand time on the ice. Night skating under moonlight and a score of bonfires made for all night festivities.

1883 saw the temperatures dip to -25 degrees in Truckee. Only the east end of Donner froze, and the breakup occurred about March 15. The next winter had lows of -32 degrees. The mostly frozen Donner Lake had great skating. In the winters of 1882 and 1883, up to 6 feet of ice and snow capped the lake.

In 1885 Truckee businessmen took advantage of an early hard freeze by organizing a Skating Carnival during late January. Merchants such as James Sherritt and Stewart McKay sold sandwiches, tea, coffee and of course, hot alcohol-laced drinks were served from a well-stocked bar. The skating was fine. Other than a concession stand that fell through the ice as it warmed up.

Truckee started holding its winter Ice Carnivals in 1896, by building an ice palace on the Plaza in front of the downtown businesses. They felt it would solve the challenge of taking visitors by sleigh to Donner Lake, and then dealing with chancy ice conditions. They picked two of the warmest winters in the 90s to hold it, and financial troubles led to an early demise after three winters.

During the first Carnival, skaters were still venturing to Donner Lake to skate the wide-open lake. In mid-February a large party of Truckee-ites and skaters from Reno and Sacramento went out for a day’s skating. The ice was not overly thick, and portions were clearly too thin to hold the weight of any person.

Fifteen-year-old Truckee resident Leslie Drew ventured out further from the shore than the others, and fell through the ice. He immediately sank out of sight, but then bobbed back up, gasping for breath. He made a frantic effort to get back on the solid ice, but it would break off each time he put his weight on it.

The stunned crowd could do little to assist him, due to the cracking ice. A long pole was thrown to Leslie, he grasped it but couldn’t hold on. He struggled in plain view of his friends for a minute or two, then slowly sank to the bottom. Skaters avoided the lake for the rest of the winter.

And on it goes. Most 1800s winters saw at least a partial freezing of Donner Lake, and in most cases a solid pack of ice formed, leading people to skate there on a regular basis. We’ll see what this winter brings.

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