History: The true story of Truckee’s turkey fiasco
Special to the Sierra Sun
With Thanksgiving fast approaching, it is appropriate to share the real story about the turkey truck that went off Highway 40 just above Donner Lake. There are many different versions of the story, probably because it is a good story to tell. And as the story gets passed around, diverging from the truth, it undeniably makes the story more interesting.
The true account of the turkey story per Norm Sayler, longtime resident of Donner Summit for over 65 years, takes place around Thanksgiving, 1955.
On Nov. 5, 1955, very early in the morning, a large tractor-trailer truck had trouble negotiating the steep downhill on Old Highway 40 which in those days was a fairly middle-aged highway. Interstate 80 would not come along for another nine years.
As the truck came down the hill, its air brakes failed, it went over the edge of the road and plunged down a 200 foot cliff taking 30,000 pounds of frozen turkeys with it. The 19-year-old driver, Robert Rotnow of Whittier, jumped safely from the cab as the truck finally stopped 175 feet from the roadway. As the truck fell it split open scattering the cellophane wrapped birds everywhere. “There were frozen turkeys roosting in every tree when I arrived at the scene at 7 o’clock yesterday morning,” said CHP officer Carroll Maynard.
People soon found out about the scattered turkeys and more than two thousand people converged on the site to pick up some for dinner. Highway patrolmen were called to the scene to protect the cargo and even deputized help to prevent the looting but to no avail. The bombardment of people looking for free turkeys was more than they could control. One spokesman for the CHP said what the people did was the “most disgusting, degrading thing I have ever seen. It made me almost ashamed to be a human.” When the cargo was released to a Reno insurance adjuster, they found that only 1,200 pounds of turkey had been collected. Since the truck was heading to Nevada it was interstate commerce and the turkey thieves could be prosecuted under federal law.
That’s the real story and it agrees with Norm Sayler’s version. Norm said he was traveling up the highway when he saw the truck go over the side. He immediately grabbed two turkeys and headed for Donner Ski Ranch to put them in the freezer. He then began calling friends to tell them of the turkey bonanza. Friends told friends and apparently most of Truckee and people passing by helped themselves despite the presence of law enforcement.
Follow up rumors stated that the turkeys were government property and that law enforcement went door to door in Truckee to recover the stolen turkeys. Supposedly they took the confiscated frozen turkeys but did not keep them cold so all the ones they retrieved were spoiled. There is no follow-on information on whether anyone was prosecuted but it does add additional color to the story.
Based on Truckee’s history of being turkey lovers, maybe we should do a turkey give-away. With our exploded population, that could require giving away an entire tractor trailer’s contents.
Enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday and gobble gobble.
Judy DePuy is a member of the Truckee-Donner Historical Society and Donner Summit Historical Society. She is also a board member of the Museum of Truckee History and Truckee Donner Railroad Society. Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than forty 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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