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In their tracks

DONNER LAKE -- Late October is when the change of seasons begins in earnest, when trees give up their leaves, pumpkins appear on porches and children morph into Halloween monsters.

History doesn't record whether the ill-fated Donner Party did anything special in observance of All Hallow's Eve, but it would behoove Californians to think of them this fall.

It was during the final days of October 1846 that the splintered and straggling party of 81 men, women and children set out from Truckee Meadows on the last leg of their long trek west. Trapped by bad luck and worse decisions, the group became snowbound at two camps near what now is known as Donner Summit.

Their heroic struggle for survival, in which those who died of starvation were consumed by the starving, became a part of California history that still causes school children's eyes to open wide.

But the Donner Party's legacy doesn't stop at the Pioneer Monument erected in 1918 on the site of the group's Donner Lake camp, or with the well-hugged little doll, long on display at Sutter's Fort, that comforted 8-year-old survivor Patty Reed during the gruesome winter's darkness.

Every vehicle that blasts over Donner Pass on Interstate 80 collides with the ghosts of California history. And each October, a growing number of hikers gathers near the summit to learn more about the stories of this rugged, unforgiving landscape.

This year's Donner Party Hike, organized by the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce, attracted 298 people - double the number from the year before and a sure sign, said event coordinator Kathy Hess, that Northern Californians are hungry for regional history.

The event, now in its 13th year, featured a variety of hikes led by professional and amateur historians along portions of emigrant trails, the original summit route of the transcontinental railroad, and sections of old wagon roads and early motor highways that drew successive generations of emigrants to the West.

"A hundred and fifty years of California's transportation history is crowded into this quarter-mile-wide corridor, from the first wagon train to Interstate 80," noted Greg Palmer, who has guided Donner-inspired hikes in the summit area since the event's inception.

Most of the hikes offered over the Oct. 8-9 weekend are there for the trekking at any time. But without guides to bring the history to life, a casual visitor could not readily learn such arcane facts about the Donner Party as, for example, why the Donner brothers and their famlies spent the gruesome winter at a camp six miles from the rest of the party. And while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail between Mount Lincoln and Mount Judah, near the Sugar Bowl Resort ski area, is straightforward enough, it takes someone who knows to explain about side trips to places such as Roller Pass.

Here, in the pre-Gold Rush years of the emigrant movement, wagon trains waited their turn to traverse a 400-foot slope too steep for harnessed oxen to negotiate. Wagon beds had to be emptied of cargo, then hauled up on long chains tethered to teams pulling on flat ground above the hogback ridge. A large log, or roller, was positioned at the top to lessen friction on the chain.

"This was the shortest route over the mountains and through the snow belt," research historian Gordon Richards says of the Donner Summit corridor. "It was an ideal route for the time. But it was not the easiest route."

Nor, after 1846, was it the most popular. "And that had a lot to do with the Donner Party tragedy and the roughness of the terrain," he said. "It had a bad rap."

After the Donners, most emigrant traffic into the Sacramento Valley moved south, to the Carson Pass and Placerville routes.

Richards, who excavates area history for the Tahoe Donner Historical Society, this year led a Donner Party Hike group through about two miles of abandoned tunnels and snow sheds on the old transcontinental rail route over the summit.

Easily visible from I-80, the sheds are modern-day versions of those built by the Central Pacific Railroad from 1865-68 through avalanche and heavy-snow areas. Originally, about 35 miles of the sheds protected track between Blue Canyon and Truckee. The early ones were wooden, and posed asphyxiation and fire risks. Rockfalls and ice also were hazards.

"Brakemen rode outside, on top of cars, year round," Richards recounted. "Many were killed by tunnel ceilings and by icicles. There were a lot of accidents and wrecks in this area."

Besides moving freight, the transcontinental railroad opened California to tourism. But passengers from the East expecting a scenic trip were sorely disappointed.

" 'Railroading in a barn' was the expression they used," Richards said. "They'd get all the way here, and the view was shut out. The sheds were not very popular for tourism."

Miles of sheds were dismantled over the years as snowplows improved.

"But that's not to say they're not here - they just got pushed over the sides," Richards explained, gesturing to a jumble of rock and timber littering a steep slope below the rail bed.

The most critical sheds were replaced, beginning in the 1950s, with sturdier concrete structures. Meanwhile, a new, 2 1/2-mile tunnel, dubbed Tunnel 41, was blasted beneath Mount Judah in the mid-1920s, easing the grade for locomotives. In the early 1990s, most of the big sheds along the original summit route were abandoned and the tracks inside them removed.

Today, the Union Pacific Railroad owns and maintains the three-mile stretch of historic rail bed built by Chinese laborers during the Civil War between today's Donner Ski Ranch and Tunnel 41. Technically, the property is off-limits to the public. Yet that hasn't stopped it from becoming a popular hiking and bicycling route for those willing to ignore a "No Trespassing" sign at the de-facto trailhead.

"The only way to be here legally is on one of these guided hikes," Richards stressed as he led a group across a railroad supply yard and into the portal for Tunnel 6, a 1,659-foot-long cave blasted through solid granite.

This, he explained, was the original summit tunnel, "holed through" in 1867. Crews of Chinese laborers working frantically from both ends completed it in 18 months.

Although the tunnel was enlarged several times over the years to accommodate larger locomotives, there's evidence of the past. Traces of the original holes hand-drilled for placement of explosives can be found in the irregular rock face. Richards uses a flashlight to point them out, and to illuminate a 100-foot overhead shaft bored into the middle of the tunnel to remove debris during construction. Oil and coal smoke coat the roughly angled rock overhead. Hikers without flashlights splash through puddles and stumble on the rock ballast underfoot.

The pitch-black summit tunnel opens onto a short, bright, open space leading to Tunnel 7, a wide concrete shed dimly lit by narrow ventilation windows that resemble arrow slits in a medieval castle. At the next break, and at subsequent daylight openings, hikers get dizzying views of Donner Lake and the granite crest of the Sierra. Richards points out landmarks such as China Wall, a massive, still-intact retaining wall built in the winter of 1867 by Chinese workers chipping rock by hand.

"That wall supported awesome train loads right up until 1993," Richards says. "It truly is one of the monuments here."

At one point along the route, remnants of the old Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road, built to supply the railroad, are visible midway down the mountainside. At the bottom of the canyon, closely following the route through which emaciated Donner Party survivors trudged in the spring of 1847, curls the asphalt ribbon of Old Highway 40, now Donner Pass Road.

On a crisp autumn day, standing where so many lines of history intersect, it's easy to imagine plodding pioneers, whistling trains and chugging Model T's.

"This pass," says Utah historian Colin Gilboy, a speaker at the Donner Party Hike event, "is what really started to build us as a nation.