Donner Party Tragedy Memorialized

Pioneer Monument at Donner Memorial State Park

Nature Trail

Murphy Cabin site

During a recent drive through the Sierra Nevada range on Interstate 80, I found myself thinking about the Donner Party tragedy, which occurred a century and a half ago.

Most folks know the basic facts: in April 1846, George and Jacob Donner, along with family and friends, set out from Illinois for California. Eventually 20 wagons and 89 people became part of the group.

The party set out in early November to cross the Sierra Nevada but became snowbound near the lake now named for them, which is just west of Truckee. Several efforts to cross the mountains failed and the party was trapped for months with little food.

When the first rescuers finally reached the Donner Party in late February, they found half-starved survivors and the remains of several people who had died from starvation. They also found evidence of cannibalism.

The last survivor wasn’t removed from the camp until April of 1847, almost exactly one year after the party had set out with such promise and optimism. Only 47 of the original 89 members survived the ordeal.

With that in mind, I decided to stop at the Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee. The park encompasses several former sites of structures used by members of the Donner Party, including the Breen and Murphy cabins.

The first thing you see at the park is the towering Pioneer Monument, located on the former site of the Breen cabin. The massive bronze sculpture was built between 1901 and 1918 to honor those who made the arduous journey on the California Trail.

The monument also provides some idea of the enormous difficulty faced by the Donner group. The base of the monument is 22-feet high, which represents the depth of the snow during the winter of 1846-47.

Adjacent to the monument is the Emigrant Trail Museum, which serves as a visitor center for the park. There, you can view a 26-minute video about the Donner Party and view displays about the history of the region.

A developed Nature Trail begins south of the museum and leads into the surrounding forest. In addition to winding through flora and fauna, the trail leads to the former site of the Murphy cabin.

The cabin was built against a large boulder, which formed the western side of the building.
It was a crude structure, about 25-feet long and 18-feet wide, with a dirt floor. Sixteen members of the Donner Party lived in the cabin for several months.

Just east of the trail is scenic Donner Creek, which is swollen from recent rains.

The park, operated by the California Department of Parks & Recreation, is open year-round and offers a variety of activities including cross country ski and snowshoe trails, both particularly popular at this time of year.

The park and museum are open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. At the museum there is a $3 admission charge for adults, $1 for children. Cross country skiers and snow-shoers can obtain a day use park permit for $6. For more information, call 530-582-7892.—-Richard Moreno

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