The Donner Party Revisited: Trucking Westward


Recently I wrote a review of an audiobook on the Donner Party. I grew up in Waterbury Ct. Later, I moved to South Carolina. Hence, when I started trucking 23 years ago, I had no concept of what the mountain west was like. However, my first trucking job was with a company out of Salt Lake City Utah. Thereby I got a quick indoctrination into the subject.

Running coast to coast for the better part of my career, I never cease to think of the Donners and Reeds when I’m traveling to California on I80. One who has never traveled this route can’t really magine the hardships these emigrants endured. Moreover, one who has traveled it can only begin to imagine.

I won’t get into the details of the journey here. Furthermore, I won’t address the difficulties presented in crossing the Rockies and western Wyoming. My focus here will be on two specific challenges that seem to me to be almost insurmountable for a wagon train.

The Donner Party had to cross the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The Donner Party and the Bonneville Salt Flats

This track across the salt desert took the parry 6 days. There is no portable water along the way. Hence, they nearly died of dehydration. Furthermore, their cattle nearly perished. Near the end of this stretch, they had to loose the oxen from the wagons and lead them to water. However, the cattle caught smell of water and stampeded. Many were lost. Thus, wagons had to be abandoned. The remains of those wagons are pictured here.

The Donner Party and the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Crossing the Sierra Nevadas.

The Donner Party in the Sierra Nevadas.

The above picture was taken yesterday at Donner Summit. Roughly six miles east of this rest area is where the party had made camp after getting caught in an early snow. This picture is intimidating enough. However, at their camp there was 21 feet of snow. Pulling out of this rest area, there is a sign warning truckers of the 40 mile downgrade ahead. You read that right. 40 miles west through the mountains to safety.

Furthermore, we must remember that California was then a part of Mexico. Moreover, this land was on the established California trail. Further still, the mountains weren’t the only issue. Maneuvering this trail required over a dozen crossings of the Truckee River.

The Sierra Nevadas
Looking back towards the Donner Camps.

There is a statue honoring the survivors of the party briefly visible through the trees alongside Interstate 80 in California. It sits atop a 21 foot high base to mark the snow level that year. It stands in honor of the brave Americans who tempted fate to move westward on the California Trail. Let’s not forget these brave Americans who expanded our horizons and helped to make our country what it is today.

The Donner Party
California flag atop Donner Summit

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