HISTORY: Making it over the summit: Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road
Special to the Sierra Sun
IF YOU GO
How to get to the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road sheep pens:
Take the Soda Springs exit from I-80, exit 174. Take Donner Pass Road to the flashing light in “downtown” Soda Springs. Turn right, or south, and cross the railroad tracks. You will see the dam on the left at the end of one of the large dirt parking lots. To the left of the dam is a dirt road. Take the dirt road 1.75 miles to the sheep pens trailhead.
Early travel over Donner Pass and Summit Valley was a challenge for the early emigrants. At first they crossed wherever they could initially using Donner Pass, then Roller Pass, and finally Coldstream Pass.
Later some freight crossed the Sierra heading to Truckee probably using Coldstream Pass. Most of the trans-Sierra traffic went via the Placerville and Virginia City routes until plans for the Transcontinental Railroad became real.
The Central Pacific, which was building the transcontinental railroad from the west, built the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road as a toll road. They needed this road to carry materials and equipment to the various railroad construction sites. The Dutch Flat route bypassed Coldstream Pass and went instead down Summit Canyon to Donner Lake.
The road was built from 1862 to 1864 and became heavily traveled. Travel could be faster on the Donner Lake route, as it was called, than the Placerville route and stage companies extolled that fact.
By the time “end of track” (in other words the train could go no further) reached Cisco the traffic on the wagon road was significant. In 1865, 85 train car loads of freight were unloaded at Cisco each day and put onto wagons for the trek over the summit.
If you fell out of line on the wagon train (due to a broken axle, wheel, child birth, etc.) it would take hours to days to get back in. Friendliness was not a common commodity.
With the completion of the railroad to Truckee in 1868, the road fell into disuse except as a stock route. You can still see some of the sheep pens near the road and a sheepherders hut.
By 1873 both freight and passengers took the railroad. The Sacramento Daily Union said,
“Along the route were the remains of many buildings which had been erected years ago, before the railroad was completed, but disused as soon as travel was transferred to the great passage-way. Large barns and hotels still stood as wrecks, their roofs crushed by the weight of snow, and in some cases only the blackened remains of large hotels … that had been consumed by fire …”
When Van Norden Dam was built in Summit Valley the road disappeared under Lake Van Norden for most of the year. When the dam was breached in 1976 to end impoundment of water, the road reappeared and can easily be seen and walked today. It’s a good bike trail in summer and ski trail in winter. Nothing grows on the old wagon train route, which is elevated above the meadow, and is perhaps a testimony to the heavy freight that packed the ground.
Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than 40 years. He is a retired public school teacher and administrator and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. He writes and edits the Donner Summit Heirloom, has published two books on local history, written a variety of pamphlets and exhibits, leads hikes, and more.
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