TRUCKEE – Mired in the bureaucracy of a contract dispute and lacking the funds to hire a coordinator, California state parks officials have delayed the opening of a new museum at Donner Memorial State Park.
Instead of opening this fall, the High Sierra Crossing Museum – a 9,400-square-foot structure that's nearly complete – will sit empty until fall 2014.
When it finally does open, the museum will feature exhibits on the Donner Party, regional American Indian history, the history of railroad development through Donner Pass and early highway construction.
Donner Memorial State Park is probably best known as the site where most members of the Donner Party, an 81-member wagon train from the Midwest, camped in 1846 and became trapped by heavy snows.
Unable to negotiate what is now called Donner Pass, 36 members of the party perished of starvation, exposure and disease, and some survivors resorted to cannibalism.
However, the main focus of the new museum, which is funded by transportation dollars, will be on early means of transportation, as well as on other aspects of the area's rich history.
In the meantime, until an official grand opening can take place, parks officials and their nonprofit partners are planning an "empty museum party" and walk-through events to give the public a glimpse of the new $9.6 million building – albeit without exhibits to view.
"This fall – in September, barring unforeseen circumstances – the building will be open on a limited basis, perhaps for hard-hat tours led by our partner Sierra State Parks Foundation," said California State Parks spokeswoman Vicky Waters.
Heidi Doyle, a former ranger who is now executive director of the nonprofit foundation, is coordinating an "empty museum party" to help raise money for a museum coordinator.
"When we know the date the contractor's finished, we'll throw an empty museum party for the public as a kickoff for our drive to fund the position," Doyle said. "Later, there will be a series of grand-opening events when the exhibits are in."
The museum coordinator position is a critical one, she said.
The coordinator would oversee the installation of sophisticated interpretative displays, organize tours and supervise volunteers.
Waters said State Parks also is working at funding the position, but currently there aren't enough staff members and volunteers to split between the new museum and the existing Emigrant Trail Museum, which will remain in operation until the new one opens.
The other holdup, Waters said, is an appeal of a contract recently awarded to an exhibit contractor who would do the majority of the museum's displays.
Until the other bidders' appeal is settled, she said, the state Department of General Services won't issue a final notice to proceed. "We anticipate that to happen in the next month or so," Waters said.
Along with the new building, exterior improvements include wide sidewalks that lead to the landmark Pioneer Monument, better parking, benches and picnic tables.
Despite the contract dispute over exhibit work, a few contractors have been given the go-ahead.
Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop of South Dakota, for example, has reproduced a full-sized covered wagon similar to the ones used by the Donner Party.
The old museum will remain open until its upgraded exhibits are transferred to the new building – now expected to take place over a few weeks next summer, Waters said – and will then be used for storage and park offices.
The new museum broke ground in the summer of 2011 when California State Parks planned to close 70 parks. The decision to build it was controversial.
But because of the current museum's small size, structural deficiencies, high energy costs and limited compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Waters said it was more cost-effective to build a new museum than to remodel the old one.
Construction funding came from the Federal Highway Administration, under the Intermodal Surfaces Transportation Enhancement Act grant administered by the state Department of Transportation, among other sources.