After eight days of wildfire ravaging Donner Ridge of Truckee in 1960, people were left with the view of the charred remains of over 44,000 acres of forest land. Several years later, when former NFL football player Jack Kirby purchased 4,020 acres of the fire-damaged area from a local Christmas tree farmer, he saw something entirely different: potential.

In the Donner Ridge burn scar, Kirby saw the terrain for a perfect beginner/intermediate ski hill. An entrepreneur and real estate developer, he had a dream of creating a family-friendly mountain community with endless recreational opportunities. Five decades later — with 6,500 homes on 7,300 acres, and an estimated 25,000 member homeowners invested in its success — the scenario he envisioned is thriving as Truckee’s largest neighborhood, Tahoe Donner, which officially commemorates its 50th anniversary this year.

“He had a vision to be a four-season resort that offers great value [and] access to all these different activities and amenities — and he wanted to do it right,” Tahoe Donner Marketing Engagement Lead Derek Moore said of Kirby.

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MAN WITH A PLAN: Tahoe Donner founder Jack Kirby, right, joins Justin Dart, whose Dart Industries kit homes were some of the earlier homes in the development, on a site visit to a project in Silver Lakes. Photo courtesy Tahoe Donner

The downhill ski area became Tahoe Donner’s first amenity when it opened in 1972. Soon after, Kirby brought in experts to help develop the rest of the resort’s amenities. Following the advice of his public relations consultant, Lawrence Laurie, the mastermind behind major media events like the widely publicized Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King tennis match, Kirby created the Tahoe Donner Sports Advisory Board to evaluate which amenities were best suited for his new venture.

“Tapping into their expertise was a real big component of the development of the amenities and what those look like,” Moore noted.

The 12-member board included prominent sports figures like Olympians Andrea Mead Lawrence and Bill Disney, pro golfer Jerry Barber, decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, and Michael Reagan, the adopted son of former President Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, who set world records for power boat racing. John McKay, then head football coach at USC, served as chairman.

Shortly after the opening of the downhill ski area, Kirby focused his efforts on other recreational opportunities and amenities, with the Tennis Center and original Equestrian Center opening in 1972, the opening of the golf course in 1975 and the Cross-Country Ski Center in 1985, and the completion of Trout Creek Recreation Center in 1993.

“It’s really common for [a homeowners association] to have a pool and a recreation center and maybe a golf course, but for them to have a downhill ski area, a cross-country ski area, equestrian center, five pools, five restaurants … [the founders’] dream was to create a community that had every recreational opportunity at your fingertips,” Moore said. “Whether or not you wanted to ride a horse, whether or not you wanted to play bocce, whether or not you wanted to play golf, cross-country ski, anything. That was the drive for creating this community.”

Tahoe Donner was planned and developed with its natural surroundings in mind to be a wilderness community where the residents had the feeling of being tucked away in the high sierra without a lot of neighbors. The community was an immediate success, with homesite sales exceeding a total $20 million before the golf course or ski hill even opened. Truckee’s convenient location along Interstate 80 made it inviting to visitors from Reno, Sacramento, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Jenn Roberts grew up coming to Tahoe Donner after her parents, Leroy and Stefanie Dove, bought a house in 1979. “In the summers, we always camped at the lower and upper portions of Carpenter Valley, which recently became part of the land acquisition by [the Truckee Donner Land Trust],” Roberts, now 51, recalled. “My father told me the last camping trip was the summer of 1978, where my mother made it clear she was not going to do dry camping anymore.”

And so began their search for the ideal cabin. The effort resulted in a lifelong friendship between her parents and the real estate agent they hired at the time. Having previously rented in Tahoe Donner, the Doves were already familiar with the area, and their agent took them to see the only two homes available at the time. They made an offer on a fully furnished move-in ready house and in August 1979 they officially became Tahoe Donner members. Today, the Doves are some of the development’s longest-standing residents.

Homeownership was not without its own trials and tribulations in the early days, however. The dwelling was a Dart Industries kit house that was packaged, transported to the site, assembled, and finished in less than a week. The structure was installed on concrete columns with the siding coming within a few inches of the ground — which allowed birds and animals to camp under the house.

“There was a 1-inch gap all around the house at floor level between the sloping roof and the plywood flooring. You could actually see the ground outside from the first floor,” Leroy Dove, now 81 years old, recalled in an email to Moonshine Ink. “We always wondered why it was so breezy in the house when the wind was blowing. The water coming off the roof on the east side of the building would flow under the house.”

Concrete blocks were eventually installed to block the critter access and a drainage ditch was installed on the east side of the house. In the meantime, porcupines had chewed the plywood siding on the house and the cedar-shingle roof on the house was eroding due to years of severe weather. One winter, a large portion of the roof blew off during a storm, resulting in water damage when the snow melted.

Snow removal was a challenge for the Doves the first year. Big storms with snow drifts over 4 or 5 feet were hard to clean up, and snow would accumulate up to 10 feet in the driveway.

“Major storms had very high winds that would shake the house and cause waves in the toilet and bathtub,” Leroy recalled. “In the early days, street snow removal was the county of Nevada responsibility. Snow removal for your drive was done on an as-needed basis. You would call a company and they would send a front-loading tractor out to clear the driveway. There were no rotary plows like they have today.”

LOOKING BACK: “Skiing provided our family a great winter activity,” recalls Jenn Roberts, whose parents are among the longest standing Tahoe Donner homeowners. “… I laugh at the memories of racing my older sister down the mile run, even though she would always beat me … I couldn’t wait for the hot chocolate at the end of every ski day.” Courtesy photo

While Dove recalled the challenges of homeownership during the resort’s beginning years, his daughter offered her memories through the eyes of her child self. She reminisced of the joys of a white Christmas and playing in the snow. The family would play cards and board games. While her mother was always working on her latest craft project, dad often worked diligently on a jigsaw puzzle. The entire family always skied at Tahoe Donner, and that is where Roberts herself learned to ski.

“I spent a great deal of my childhood in Tahoe Donner and I have so many fond memories of that time in my life,” Roberts reflected. “Our cabin provided a lot of quality family time, which as a parent I now appreciate and cherish those times more than ever.”

The face of Tahoe Donner has changed much since those early days of the 1970s, when the average third-acre lot was going for about $8,000. It’s no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has furthered that growth.

“Right now, I’m hearing lots going for $270,000 up on Skislope [Way],” director of marketing Lindsay Hogan told Moonshine Ink.

Naturally, there is much diversity with pricing depending on the type of lot, such as whether it’s flat or has a view. There aren’t a great many remaining unbuilt lots for sale, however, as Tahoe Donner is estimated to be 90% built out. Nowadays people are building on those lots once deemed “unbuildable.” 

“What we know — with the technology of the way things are able to be built now — is some lots that are so sloped, 30 years ago may have been deemed as unbuildable,” Hogan explained. “But they have some strategies now that make those a lot easier to build on.”

Another shift is the makeup of residency. Until recently, Tahoe Donner was on average 85% off-hill second homeowners and 15% full-time residents. Those numbers have shifted to about 70/30 with more people living there full-time as they are able to work remotely.

“Even though you think that’s a big chunk, that’s double the amount potentially at our greatest assessment, but it’s still only 30% of the homes,” Hogan noted.

And the growth shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

“We are seeing [that] the people who are coming to the community are so excited to get out and participate and be active in the amazing things that are Truckee and Tahoe Donner,” Hogan said. “We’ve seen record season pass sales numbers, we’ve seen record interest in our summer camps, we’ve seen record interest in things like kayak and boat storage at the marina, and boat and RV storage — little, tiny services like that where they’re so excited.”

With growth came not only the development of services and infrastructure, but also the preservation of open space and protection of natural resources, the latter of which isn’t typically associated with growth progression.

SCARRED: The Donner Ridge fire in the early 1960s scorched more than 44,000 acres of land in a matter of days. In the Donner Ridge burn scar, former NFL football player Jack Kirby, who went on to found Tahoe Donner, thought the terrain would be ideal for a beginner/intermediate ski hill. Photo courtesy Tahoe Donner

“Tahoe Donner has always been dedicated to preserving its natural capital and environmental resources for future generations to enjoy, while meeting the community’s development needs sustainably,” explained Moore. “This was a foundation of [Jack] Kirby’s vision for the resort community. Fifty years later, Tahoe Donner continues to strive for healthy growth, stability, and revitalizing redevelopment efforts for the benefit of its homeowners and the Truckee community, as well as visitors, in this beautiful mountain town.”

Recent projects include the completion of a $2.2 million renovation at its 18-hole championship golf course in honor of its 50th anniversary, completion of a Nature Loop Trail, remodel of the Trout Creek Recreation Center, and installation of a new Snowbird triple chairlift at the downhill ski area in 2018. The Tahoe Donner Downhill ski lodge, originally built in 1971, is set to be soon rebuilt and the new Alder Creek Adventure Center is outfitted with a state of the art 5.88 kilowatt solar energy system that on a sunny day produces 25,000 watts.

In 2016, the Tahoe Donner Association purchased 640 acres in Crab Tree Canyon from the Truckee Donner Land Trust. The land will be forever preserved and not built upon, where folks can ski, hike, and bike. Tahoe Donner is currently working with the Truckee River Watershed Council on watershed enhancements and improvements in the restoration of Euer Valley. The land there long ago was used for cattle ranching and dairy cows; animal impacts have caused erosion and damage to the creek bed. The goal is to preserve the land and use it for recreation without causing more damage. In similar agreements with TDLT, the association had previously acquired land in Euer Valley; 200 acres in 2003 and 482 in 2011.

Tahoe Donner has invested in the community with more than just open space preservation. The association has long partnered with various schools and youth programs to host athletics and training such as high school tennis practices and tournaments, cross-country skiing programs, youth mountain bike championships, and more. A number of Olympic athletes — Mark Engel, Annika Taylor, and Russell Kennedy, to name a few —  have trained at Tahoe Donner; some even learned to ski there.

Its nonprofit philanthropic arm, the Tahoe Donner Foundation, has contributed to various community causes and organizations by way of fundraising events like its lecture series. Each year, it awards grants and scholarships to local students; $387,860 to date since this began in 2015. The foundation has also supported the development of the Tahoe Pyramid Trail, Sierra Senior Services, the Emergency Warming Center, Arts for the Schools, Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe, and more, donating a total of $45,000 just in 2020.

As Tahoe Donner continues to grow, Hogan sees the potential for increased community involvement from its members. Whether it be through leadership positions within the association and the community at large or by volunteering with service organizations and working to preserve the outdoor-life culture in the region.

“So many of us … came here at some certain time because it’s such an amazing place,” she noted. “Now more people are doing that, and so I hope that whenever we talk about the community expanding that we can see the benefit in that too and understand that the same reasons why we came here are the same reasons why this influx is coming right now, too.”  

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