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One of the profound tragedies of the westward migration of settlers in the 1840s is remembered at this excellent museum at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee. Lured by tales of unlimited opportunity in California, George Donner and his brother Jacob, both farmers in Illinois, organized a wagon train of several families and, in April 1846, set out for the promised land. In Wyoming, the Donner Party heeded bad advice and took what they thought was a short cut, which proved to be a fatal mistake.
The treacherous secondary route over the Wasatch Mountains and across the waterless Great Salt Lake Desert sapped their resources and put the group three weeks behind those who kept to the main trail. When they reached the base of Donner Pass in October, they were halted by early snowstorms and forced to construct emergency shelters at Donner Lake. Hampered by the most brutal winter in recorded history and by a lack of food, nearly half of the group perished. Those who survived did so largely by eating the flesh of their dead companions. The fate of the Donner Party prompted a search for a new route over the Sierra Nevada mountains, resulting in the creation of the Mormon-Emigrant Trail south of Lake Tahoe.
The museum, opened in 1962, offers a memorable 30-minute film that reconstructs the ordeal of the trek, and has several exhibits on the logging and railroad history of Truckee. The monument outside has a stone pedestal that is 22 feet high-the depth of the snow that trapped the settlers. (Another location, called the Donner Historical Site, is three miles north of Interstate 80 on Highway 89, and is the site where the Donner family camped.) Self-guided nature trails, a large campground and a beachfront picnic area are included in the park. Admission: Adults, $2; children 6-12, $1. The day-use fee for the park is $2 per car. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Information: Donner Memorial State Park, 12593 Donner Pass Road, Donner, CA 96161; (530) 582-7892.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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