Children depicted in a Donner Party exhibit at a new Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center are at play, but when the wagons rolled, they had a job to do.
A red ribbon tied to a wheel helped them count revolutions, which would be multiplied that evening by the wheel’s circumference to determine the miles traveled that day.
“It’s amazing how accurate the counts often were,” said Bill Lindemann, the park system’s Sierra District interpretative specialist.
“Pioneers might have information that a site was 15 miles away and they could calculate how long it would take to get there,” Lindemann said.
Almost 20 years after planning began for the park’s new visitor center and museum, an opening celebration is planned Saturday. The public is invited.
“We’re very excited the new center is finally opening,” said Mike Rominger, supervising ranger at the park.
The lengthy delay included a community petition against a much larger, lakeside building that would have required another road into the park. There was also a relocation, redesign, archaeological digs, a bond freeze and then, after completion of the building in fall of 2013, an exhibit contract dispute.
The last hurdle, hiring an interim museum coordinator, was solved by the nonprofit Sierra State Parks Foundation, which raised $50,000 to fund the position for the first year.
The foundation is also providing and training volunteers and raising more money for the museum. Earlier fundraisers included an “empty museum party.” Next up is a $150-a-head gala scheduled Friday.
“One of the problems with this building is it came without any staff or any way to operate it,” Rominger said.
“It has to have someone assigned to it who can operate all the systems,” he said. “We put in a proposal, which the governor approved. Now it’s gone to the Legislature and we’re hoping they don’t take it out, or our hours and services will be severely reduced.”
Thanks to the foundation, Rominger said, the new visitor center at the popular park will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, excepting major holidays – at least for the first year.
“Even if the budget passes with the augmentation, it will take up to six months for the funds to be available,” said Heidi Doyle, the foundation’s executive director. Foundation donors are also funding the school-group programs, she said.
The 9,400-square-foot building, initially proposed to cost $250,000, was built for $9.6 million, funded by the Federal Highway Administration. It includes improvements to the park entrance, day-use parking lot, landscaping and a paved walkway to the Pioneer Monument.
The museum’s grand opening will take place on the 97th anniversary of the dedication of the distinctive monument, a tall sculpture of a pioneer family standing atop a 22-foot pedestal, the height of the snow that stranded the Donner Party during the fateful winter of 1846-47.
A window in the center also frames the monument.
Because of its transportation funding, Rominger said, the exhibits’ emphasis is on the emigrant wagon trains, the building of the transcontinental railroad, early motoring adventures over Donner Pass, and the creation of the nation’s highway system.
“Visitors are interested in the Western migration, the ‘manifest destiny,’ ” Rominger said. “And the museum’s main exhibit is on the Donner Party, telling their story.
“The exhibits also provide information on this being the homeland of the Washoe,” he said, “the contribution of the Chinese to the railroad and the building of the Lincoln Highway, followed by Interstate 80 in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Even in the worst weather, you can still negotiate the Sierra, one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the world,” Rominger said.
Truckee archaeologist Susan Lindstrom helped design the Washoe exhibit, which includes many artifacts found in the area and a bark-covered shelter.
The migratory Washoe traveled on foot, but there’s a replica of an 1846 covered wagon in the Donner Party exhibit and a restored 1929 Model A Ford in the Lincoln Highway display.
The building also features a multipurpose theater room with a nine-screen video wall and audiovisual systems for presentations.
Park visitors have always wanted more information on the Donner Party, Rominger said, and they will find it in the large exhibit on these ill-fated pioneers.
Neither the railroad nor the freeway were there to help the Donner Party when they became trapped at the lake by heavy snows in 1846.
Unable to negotiate what is now called Donner Pass, almost half the party died of starvation, exposure and disease, and some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.
There is dispute about how many were in the party and how many lived and died. A list provided by Lindemann, the district’s interpretative specialist, names 49 survivors and 42 who perished.
Two of the party’s campsites are commemorated at the park. (George and Jacob Donner, their families and teamsters camped about 6 miles away at Alder Creek because of a broken axle and George Donner’s injury while trying to repair it.)
The Breen cabin site is marked by the Pioneer Monument. A nature trail beside the older Emigrant Trail Museum leads to the Murphy cabin site, where a plaque commemorates the party members who lived and died.
Other families in the party also sheltered at those two sites and in tents and hastily built cabins nearby.
History tours to the Breen and Murphy cabin sites will be available Saturday, said park employee Gayle Green, who will lead some of them.
“We get a lot of 4th-grade classes who are studying about the Donners and pioneer history,” Rominger said, adding that there will now be parking space for their buses and a building that can accommodate them.
The 1962 museum the new Visitor Center replaces will remain open until the grand opening and afterwards will be used for park offices and archival storage.
• What: Grand opening of new Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center
• When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
• Where: East end of Donner Lake in Truckee. From I-80, take exit 184 onto Coldstream Road and immediately turn right onto Donner Pass Road. The park entrance is just over half a mile on the left. You'll see the new visitor center and parking area as soon as you drive in.
• Cost: Museum admission and parking are free during the grand opening.
• Activities: At 11 a.m., members of the Washoe tribe will perform a site blessing, followed by a ribbon-cutting and speeches by dignitaries. Museum tours will be given until 2 p.m. History tours of the Donner Party cabin sites will take place throughout the day, beginning at 9 a.m.
• Information: (530) 582-7892