Once in a lifetime

California’s Donner Memorial State Park - A Testimony to Tragedy

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The tales of America’s Old West are full of accounts of hardship and heroism, and none hold the fascination of tragedy more than the story of the ill-fated Donner Party.

A true “perfect storm” of events doomed the wagon train of 87 people that pulled out of Springfield, IL, in April 1846 with such high hopes.  By the time the group had rolled across the plains and through the Rocky Mountains on their way to California, events had conspired to turn the hopeful start of a new life into a catastrophe.

California’s Donner Memorial State Park, north of Lake Tahoe, is situated at the exact spot where many of the members of the Donner Party lost their lives.  The Emigrant Trail Museum, the Pioneer Monument, and the various cabin sites all hold testimony to what the members of the Donner Party endured during the harsh winter of 1846-1847.

The Donner Party wagon train had moved along well enough until taking an ill-advised shortcut that turned out to be a disastrous decision. Among other things the “shortcut” took the pioneers across the Great Salt Lake Desert, where many wagons, horses, and cattle were lost.

The final insult was ending up at the Sierra Nevada Mountains too late in the season to make it safely through the range.  Here they were trapped by unrelenting winter snows that covered the ground at an astonishing 22 feet, effectively eliminating any chance of finding fresh game and ultimately forcing the Donner Party to resort to cannibalism.

The Pioneer Monument at the Donner Memorial State Park is constructed near the original Donner Party cabin sites. It was dedicated in 1918 in a ceremony that included Donner Party survivors. The top of the shaft of the Monument is 22 feet, giving visitors a dramatic idea of how much snow the emigrants faced that winter.

The Emigrant Pioneer Museum exhibits artifacts not only of the Donner Party, but also relating to the area’s local Native Americans, particularly the Washoe Tribe, as well as the builders of the Transcontinental Railroad. Special campfire presentations on the fascinating history of the Donner Party and other pioneer emigrants who came through the area are conducted by State Park rangers.

Cabin Sites. One of the Donner Party cabins was built against a large granite boulder. Today this boulder, the  Murphy cabin site, is 200 yards from the Museum, and is where four families crammed into a small space and attempted to make it through the winter.

Another cabin site, known as the Schallenberger  Cabin site, is where a small cabin was built by three men in 1844. Moses Schallenberger and his companions were members of the Stephens-Townsend Party, the first pioneers to take wagons over the Sierra Nevada, opening the Truckee Route of the California Trail. Two years later members of the Donner Party were able to make use of the then abandoned cabin.

Besides a National Historical Site, the Donner Memorial State Park is also a beautiful State Park for enjoying the great outdoors. Recreational opportunities abound, including fishing and boating on Donner Lake. The Lakeshore Interpretive Trail is a 2.5-mile round trip hike that passes by eighteen interpretive trail markers and exhibits of the history of the pioneer emigration to California, as well as explanations of the area’s geology and ecology.

Camping sites are available in and around the State Park. Budget-friendly  timeshare rentals are also available on both the North and South shores of nearby Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America.

Alice Perkins is a timeshare travel blogger for RedWeek.com, the largest online market place for timeshare rentals, where vacationers can find luxury accommodations for less than the cost of a typical hotel room.

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