By Judy DePuy
The Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road offered travel over Donner Summit like no one before had ever seen in the 1860s. Imagine making it from Sacramento to Virginia City in only 17 hours, Although use of the road didn’t last, it served a great purpose and without it, travel over the summit through the Sierra Nevada would have remained treacherous.
Except during the region’s notorious winter snowstorms, present day-to-day travel over Donner Summit is fairly smooth and uneventful. It’s a far cry from what it was during the mid-1800s when emigrants were headed west, lured by dreams of new lives — and finding gold and silver. With no definitive routes, travel through the Sierra was a challenge, especially with wagons loaded with all their possessions plus oxen, cattle, horses, and children.
Although its heyday was short-lived, the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road saw its share of traffic. It was a road to the future, of sorts, not only serving as a gateway welcoming emigrants into the Golden State but also playing a role in fostering the growth of the West. The wagon road supported the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, offering a way to transport construction material for the new railroad and hauling major freight through the mountainous region.
Why the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road?
In 1855, a survey determining where to build the United States’ first transcontinental railroad was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Would it be best on a path across the northern, central, or southern states? After much debate, the U.S. Congress could not come to a consensus on which path to use. When the South seceded from the Union in December 1860, however, the remaining Congress, with President Abraham Lincoln’s support, passed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. The hope was to promote unity between the eastern and western states — despite the Civil War fighting — and to allow for the proper security of the nation and its gold- and silver-mine production.
During the construction of the western section of the railroad, Central Pacific Railroad needed considerable amounts of freight moved along the path of the new, unfinished railway line. It also needed to transport supplies to the booming Comstock mines in and around Virginia City, Nevada.
The existing Lake Tahoe Toll Road near South Lake Tahoe had already proved to the railroad entrepreneurs that toll roads made money, and Central Pacific wanted to build its own toll road over Donner Pass. Central Pacific Railroad Company owners Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Collis Huntington — collectively known as the Big Four — formed the Lake Pass Turnpike Company in early 1861. The company intended to create a turnpike running from Dutch Flat to Steamboat Springs, Nevada, but it was never completed. The company was later renamed the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road Company, after it bought out other investors.
Building of the Toll Road
Central Pacific built the toll road from the west from 1862 to 1864. The wagon road went from Alta, over Donner Pass, through Coburn Station (now Truckee), then north to join Henness Pass Road near the present-day Stampede Reservoir. The Dutch Flat route bypassed Coldstream Pass and instead went down Summit Canyon to Donner Lake. The path was chosen to be in close proximity to the planned railroad line to deliver supplies, equipment, and men during the railroad’s construction.
It was anticipated that the road would bring money to its investors and that towns would be built along the railway.
The only tools available to build and maintain the road were hand tools: picks, shovels, crow bars, hoes, axes, wheelbarrows, hand saws, etc., all of which required human toil. When spring- and storm-induced runoff created gullies and ruts in the road, men would come out and install culverts, bridge streams, haul in gravel for soft spots in the road, and even-out rough spots. The work was constant.
In 1864, the now quiet shore of Donner Lake was bustling with life, and by 1868, the toll road was heavily traveled. If you fell out of line on the wagon train due to a broken axle, wheel, childbirth, or other unforeseen circumstance, it would take hours to days to get back in, as friendliness was not common. The toll road was so profitable that the owners were able to use the earnings to support railroad construction when income from slow railroad bond sales was insufficient to meet railroad construction expenses.
After hours of traveling among rocks and trees on Donner Summit, road users found only one solitary building serving as a warm place to shelter — Coburn Station. In 1863, Joseph Gray had built a tavern for weary travelers. Gray was a friend of Charles Crocker, so he knew that the transcontinental railroad would come through Coburn Station, and he built the inn appropriately. His log house still stands in Truckee, relocated from East Main and Bridge streets to Church Street.
When the railroad was finally complete, it moved freight and passengers at a much lower cost than the toll wagon road. As early as 1868 the road was free of charge, but it soon fell into disrepair. In 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association followed much of the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road route over the Sierra Nevada for the newly designed Lincoln Highway, which would later become U.S. Highway 40. You can still find remnants of the wagon road, you just need to know where to look.
Finding the road:
Built beginning in 1862, the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road went through Summit Valley at Soda Springs. Because of the heavy wagon loads and constant traffic, the trail is easy to see at Donner Summit but less conspicuous through the granite canyon leading to Donner Lake. Today, you can clearly see the route through Summit Valley, where it sits higher than the surrounding meadow. So much traffic packed down the earth; it is believed that may be why, as the forest encroached on the meadow, trees did not grow on the path route.
Take the Soda Springs exit 174 from I-80. Follow Donner Pass Road to the flashing light in downtown Soda Springs. Turn right, heading south, and cross the railroad tracks. Make a left at the large dirt parking lot and you will see a dam on the right. To the left of the dam is a dirt road, which is Old Highway 40. Follow for 1 mile and park your car just past the bridge. Walk along the stream to the meadow and then turn left. You will see the wagon wheel ruts where nothing grows.
If you’re up for a challenge:
From Soda Springs, drive east on Donner Pass Road to the new trailhead hub at the top of Donner Summit. Park by the metal map station, walk down the road to the Pacific Crest Trail and turn left, down toward Donner Lake. At the fork, take the eastern (left) path that parallels Tunnel 6, an abandoned railroad tunnel. The original path of the wagon road runs along the right side of the tunnel and then over the pass between Tunnel 6 and Tunnel 7. It is similar to the Lincoln Highway pass down to Donner Lake. See photos to make sure you are on the right path.
~ Judy DePuy is a member of Truckee-Donner Historical Society and on the board for the Truckee Donner Railroad Society and Museum of Truckee History. She resides in Tahoe Donner with her husband, Dave, and their dog, Morticia.
From ads promoting the Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road when it opened in 1864:
“Only 17 hours from Sacramento to Virginia City.“
“Safety and comfort can’t be beat.”
“By far the best road constructed across the mountains.”