The Old Road
Today’s motorists who drive over Donner Summit on Interstate 80 rarely pay attention to the names of the places they pass by on their way through the Sierra Nevada.
But those who leave the modern interstate and wander onto Old U.S. 40 discover locations like Cisco Grove, Norden and Soda Springs that evoke an earlier, more leisurely era in the history of Donner Pass.
Driving the 20 miles of intact highway from Glenshire to Cisco Grove offers area residents a glimpse into that earlier time.
For a half-century, the main highway over the summit wandered through mining camps and timber towns, following the route carved out of the Sierra for the nation’s first intercontinental railroad.
In 1914, automobile enthusiasts named the existing road over the Sierra the Lincoln Highway. The same roadway would serve as the principal passage over the range for a half-century, long after the federal government designated the highway U.S. 40.
For decades, motorists stopped at the motels and lodges that sprang up along the way, gassed up at service stations or stopped to shop at a number of grocery stores. Few of the shops and inns survive today, apart from such stalwarts as the Rainbow Lodge or the Soda Springs General Store.
Driving the familiar contours of the older highway today, much of it known as Donner Pass Road, gives motorists an alternate scenic byway to the high-speed and sterile interstate.
Norm Sayler grew up in Sacramento and started traveling with his family to the Tahoe area in the late 1940s. He shoveled snow and helped run the ski lift at the Soda Springs Ski Hill, bartering his services for stays at a friend’s mountain cabin.
After a stint in the service, the young Sayler moved to Soda Springs on Donner Summit in 1954, when the community was a vital stop along the national highway.
When he first moved to the summit, Sayler said the thriving area boasted 1,600 rental rooms, five gas stations, three markets and two post offices.
He remembers following the highway through Orangevale, Roseville, Rocklin, Newcastle and Auburn. Soon, sections of the Interstate 80 freeway replaced the old road, and with it the businesses that served the motoring public.
“We started to lose that restaurant or this service station,” Sayler said during an interview at his office overlooking Donner Ski Ranch. “Every year we’d come up, we’d lose another piece of our history.
After crossing Donner Summit, the old highway descended to the three-mile-long north shore of Donner Lake, a bustling resort community with more than two dozen motels and lodges, including the stately Donner Lake Lodge at the lake’s west end.
Rex Reid was a successful frame contractor in Southern California when his doctor ordered him to take it easier or he would jeopardize his health.
Reid bought a property on Donner Lake in 1950 sight unseen, and has worked as a contractor and woodworker at his Creative Interiors shop ever since. (He claims the building that houses Zano’s Pizza as one of his creations.) Donner Lake was a far different place when he arrived than today.
“In season, you’d wait 30 minutes to cross the highway to the lake,” said Reid, who turned 92 in July. “What are condos today were motels then.”
Reid recalls that Truckee itself was a much smaller town then, with fewer than a thousand residents. Instead of asking for money for some of his jobs, he would trade other businesses for building materials.
The weather seemed more severe then, as well.
“When I first came here, on the 15th of October all the carpenters went south looking for work in the winter,” Reid recalled. “But I had a pot-bellied stove, a coffee pot and a radio. I didn’t care if it snowed or not.”
Over the summit at Donner Ski Ranch, Sayler lived for the snow, helping manage the popular ski hill that he visited as a youth. In 1980, he approved the sale of a lift ticket to a Kings Beach snowboarder, breaking a Tahoe-area taboo against snowboarders.
“I don’t want the snowboard; I want his 10-dollar bill,” Sayler recalled telling the ticket seller.
With the rise over the years of real estate-oriented resorts like Vail, Sayler said the ski industry has changed, but not necessarily for the better.
“We’ve lost the atmosphere that brought us into it,” Sayler said this week, adding that the snowboarding generation has helped revive it. “They brought life and energy with them.”
Just as U.S. 40 brought life and energy to the mountain corridor it served.
In 1861, the principals of the Central Pacific Railroad Co., including Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Judge Edwin B. and Charlie Crocker, incorporated a toll road company, and obtained from the State of California a 10-year exclusive right of use to the corridor the railroad would follow.
Built near the planned railroad line over the Sierra to Truckee (where it then diverted to the north), the toll road was especially profitable from 1864 to 1868, helping to fund railroad construction when bond sales fell short.
In the early years of motor transportation, private groups lobbied for identification of cross-country routes and the creation of directional signs. In 1914, the Lincoln Highway Association and the California State Automobile Association painted “Lincoln Highway” signs on utility poles. Signs were eventually installed from New York City to San Francisco, but no new road construction was needed.
The Lincoln Highway Association promised to make the highway fully signed and hard-surfaced within 20 years.
As its final public act on Sept. 1, 1928, the association ceremoniously installed, with the assistance of local Boy Scout troops, 2,435 concrete posts commemorating Abraham Lincoln along portions of the route across the nation.
By 1927, the nation’s highway system had grown to about 200 named routes. A national numbering system was announced, and the California State Automobile Association installed shield-shaped U.S. 40 signs over the 1927-28 winter.
By that time, the highway was already paved in California except between Colfax and Donner Lake, where the mountain road was mostly gravel-surfaced. The road was oiled over Donner Summit. By 1932, hard surfacing was complete, and U.S. 40 served generations of motorists entering and leaving California.
The Interstate Highway Act authorized the creation of a new system of national highways with uniform engineering standards.
Red-white-and-blue Interstate 80 signs were installed along all of U.S. 40’s expressways, freeways, 4-lane roads, 2-lane roads and streets, while construction began on the new system of freeways.
By 1964, the new highway was completed over Donner Summit, and portions of Old U.S. 40 were preserved as local byways.
In 1961, the Nevada County board of supervisors approved renaming the highway Donner Pass Road.
– , Jibboom and Spring streets, Truckee. Located just off Old U.S. 40 in the heart of downtown Truckee, the Old Jail Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on summer weekends, staffed by volunteers with the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. Exhibits describe the area’s early economic activity, including timber and ice harvesting. Call the society at 582-0893 or visit http://truckeehistory.org for more information.
– , 12593 Donner Pass Road. Opened in 1924, the park recounts the experiences of the area’s indigenous people and American settlers crossing the Sierra Nevada. Includes a portion of C.F. McGlashan’s butterfly collection. A self-guided walk takes visitors to the site of the Murphy cabin in the Donner Party’s struggle for survival in 1846-47. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Parking fee is $6 per car.
– , Boreal Ski Area. Sponsored by the Auburn Ski Club, the museum tells the story of outdoor winter sports in the West. Exhibits describe the history that led to the opening of U.S. 40 in the winter, and the opening of Sugar Bowl and other Tahoe-area ski resorts. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
– is newly incorporated, and will begin activities before long. Interested persons should call Norm Sayler at (530) 308-9665 for further information.