Preserving history: Archaeologist presents findings on Donner Pass at national conference
Since settlers first began crossing the Sierra more than 150 years ago, the route through Donner Pass and the settlements along the way have undergone many changes.
From the early days of the ice and timber industry to the construction of the railroad, much of what the area looks like today has been forged by different modes of transportation and their route through the Sierra.
“The connections between all of these things are huge,” said Broadbent & Associates’ Project Archaeologist Stuart Rathbone. “You can see in the lumber and the ice industry ending just around the time the highways get put through there, and that leads to the emptying out of the middle part of the Truckee Canyon. There’s very little activity between Boca and Verdi now. It used to be very busy down there but it just becomes inaccessible and bypassed.”
Rathbone recently presented findings, which outline a partial history of the route along Donner Pass, at The Society for Historical Archaeology’s 2020 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology. The presentation, titled “‘Over the Hill’ A stratified approach to the archaeology of the Donner Pass Route through the Sierra Nevada” detailed the archaeological and architectural resources that have been identified along Donner Pass.
“It is exciting to have had one of our esteemed archaeologists present at a national conference,” Matt Herrick, principal hydrogeologist and division manager of Broadbent & Associates said in a news release. “Stuart has spent ample time studying the Donner Pass, its history and the impact that it has had on the northern Nevada that we all know today. We are honored to have him as a part of our cultural resource management team.”
MAPPING 150 YEARS OF ACTIVITY
Rathbone said work on the study initially began roughly four years ago at the Truckee Railyard. Since then other land development projects along with work by federal agencies have triggered work done elsewhere in the Sierra, allowing Rathbone to begin cataloging different historical sites around the region.
So far he said the first 40 miles — Reno to Troy — have been sampled with about 50 historic sites being identified along the way.
“That’s not all of them, that’s just the ones we’ve been able to date,” said Rathbone.
Mapping roughly 150 years of activity along the route has shown the different phases of development related to the different transportation systems moving through the area.
“You can actually see how each one of those — when it’s gone through, when it’s been established — changes the pattern of activity along the route,” added Rathbone.
As early settlers made their way across the Sierra Nevada, different routes were developed, and according to Rathbone, the one over Donner Pass became less used.
When the Central Pacific Railroad decided upon its route through the Sierra, it forever changed what the areas and settlements along its rails would become.
“They put in a construction road for the railroad … the earliest settlements in Truckee are along that construction road,” said Rathbone.
“Everything else has to follow it, because that’s the easiest way to get up into the mountains and across, so the telegraph goes through there, the telephone goes through there, the airmail route goes through there — because they can transport the materials on the trains. So, once it’s established it just locks down that that’s going to be the way into California. It’s no coincident that the interstate followed it.”
UNDERSTANDING ‘WHY THINGS HAPPEN’
The sites Rathbone has identified so far include the Marmol Marble Works, which is located near Verdi and is just concrete foundations now; the Mystic Hot Springs, an early resort, which later became the site of the Farad powerhouse; the Polaris ice company; several large concrete arrows, which are remains of the airmail route; and more.
“Because things happened very quickly and keep changing, there’s not a tremendous amount known about (some of the sites),” said Rathbone. “And a lot of stuff that’s up there, the exact locations aren’t known. This is stuff where we’ve actually been able to put a mark on a map.”
Rathbone, who said he often goes out on his own time with Nevada Department of Transportation archaeologist David Rigtrup to check out locations, said plans are to continue to identify historical sites all the way to Auburn.
“It’s really important that when we work at a particular site, we try and understand why things happened at that location, and to do that, we need to consider the wider setting of the activities,” said Rathbone.
Findings from his presentation at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s 2020 Conference will also be included in a book, said Rathbone, although that won’t be available for several years.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at email@example.com or 530-550-2643.