"The wagon road from Donner Lake to the Summit was a source of frequent surprises."  W.W. Stone, July 30, 1903.


Welcome to one of the most historic and interesting 6 miles in America

 Here, you'll find hiking tips, maps, many historical photos, and information about this road in the Donner Lake area...click on each button above to see everything.




Above, this current photo shows a portion of the old State Highway and Dutch Flat-Donner Lake Wagon Road

between Donner Lake and Donner Summit



An original metal sign from 79 years ago, recently sold on ebay






Above, the 1844-1926 Donner Summit Road, part of America's "interstate highway" for over 80 years. This is not the Old Highway 40 road or summit, which was in use from 1926-1964. The Old 40 summit is 800 feet north of the first summit. Location details in Hiking Guide.


The Old Highway 40 summit now has its own sign, shown below.









Above, June 1912 -- 107 years ago

Cars began driving over Donner Summit in 1901. Notice the light showing through the backside opening of the snowshed.

(this repaired-from-original photo copyrighted)




Check this out:

An amazing 1990 video of train on old tracks at summit, with the old 1914 state highway "subway" bridge in the middle of the scene. Click here. Click back button to return here. Tip: After first minute, nothing new to see.


Old Photo fans:

Click here to see very rare 1870 photo of backside of wood showshed where the 1864 DFDL Wagon Road and 1909 State Highway passed through. The photographer was about 130 feet southwest of the spot where the photographer in the above video stood overlooking the tracks,120 years later--the 1864 photographer was facing west and the 1990 guy was facing east.




Rare 1865 photo of Pollard's Hotel at Donner Lake, and ...

1925 Highway 40 construction photos near Summit Bridge (both at Historical Photos button).


Recently discovered and "never before seen" official State of California 1915 map of this old road based on 1915 state survey, and ...

1916 AAA map of the this old road (both at Maps/Surveys button above)




Below, the recently found 1915 State survey map overlaid onto the Google Earth 3D view of the 1-mile road section west of Donner Lake (looking south--Donner Lake on left; I-80 at left corner). The green survey line matches up exactly with the visible old road.


Roll mouse back and forth over the photo to see the same view without the overlaid map and green line--you'll see the old road is still visible.  (If it doesn't swap, wait a bit for the other photo to load.


See the Hiking Guide for more views and Maps and Survey for the 1915 map by itself.







From the Sangamon Illinois Journal





Below, Westward The Course Of Empire, 1862 painting by Emanuel Leutze.

The second wagon says "California" on the side.


This actual painting is large--to download a high resolution of it to view the great details, go to http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/upload/westward_77207.jpg

For the artist's interesting notes about this painting, click here.


The spot where the pioneers would be this excited to finally reach a summit and (artistically) view "the Pacific slope" would likely be the first Donner Summit. Only the right 3/4 of the painting is geography accurate. The valley to the left is supposed to represent the Sacramento Valley, but in reality, the only valley visible from Donner Summit (after climbing granite 50 feet higher than the road itself) is the nearby Van Norden (Summit) Valley--with many hills to descend before seeing a view of the Sacramento Valley with the Pacific Ocean as shown in the painting. Actually, in 1862, the date of this painting, most pioneers traveling north of Lake Tahoe came over Roller Pass near the original summit of Donner Pass, but that route doesn't have a view resembling the painting. In fact, no summit of any route into California provides a view of the Sacramento Valley due to trees and geography.


In 1862, the majority of pioneers came to California via South Lake Tahoe and the (Kit) Carson Pass, slightly easier than the route north of Lake Tahoe. However, the summit at the Carson Pass does not resembles anything like the painting.


In 1862, the transcontinental railroad builders were in the planning stage of turning the 1844 Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party and Donner Party's "Truckee Route" into the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road. Once that well-engineered road was completed in 1864, it became the main pioneer route, and any travelers would go over the original Donner Summit which resembles the right 3/4 of the painting.


The Donner Party survivors used the trail of the Stevens-Murphy-Townsend Party after rescued in 1847, and the summit on that route became known as Donner Summit for 80 years until 1926, shown here (lat 39.314450, long  -120.326920). It is 800 feet south of the second "Donner Summit" on old Highway 40, used from 1926 to 1964; the current "Donner Summit" is on I-80.




Visit these excellent sites about the Donner Party, Road, and Railroad history:


Dan Rosen's Donner Party Diary

Norm Sayler's Donner Summit Historical Society

Kristin Johnson's New Light on the Donner Party

Daniel Faigin's California Highways

And last but not least, the CPRR.org website has thousands of historical railroad photos and documents. See old photos by clicking on Enter Photograph Museum button on their home page... Here's a tip: At the right top of the first page of the Photograph Museum is an option to change the background color from the bright red.


Theodore Judah

Just one example of the thousands of documents on the CPRR website is the 17,000-word report by Theodore Judah in 1861 detailing his reasons for choosing the Truckee Route over the South Tahoe route for the transcontinental railroad--an amazing amount of work by Judah (right). According to a newspaper article, he was only 5'6" and 135 lbs. He died at age 37. A short life of a small guy, yet he was one of the great builders of America--Judah's monument in Old Sacramento is well deserved. Take a look at his report at http://www.cprr.org/Museum/CPRR_1862_Engineering.html


Lewis Clement

Clement was the Central Pacific Railroad engineer in direct charge of the final location, design and construction of the section between Colfax and Truckee, including the Sierra tunnels and snowsheds. Many who look at the old tunnels today wonder how the builders figured out where to carve into the rock so that both ends met up in the same spot--and it wasn't just two ends, but 4, with workers working outward from the center shaft. Well, it was Clement's engineering:


"The...crews worked round the clock... Then, at 1am on May 3, 1867, a great, noisy crumbling took place at the east facing, and light from torches in the west could be seen flickering through the dust. ... The Summit had been pierced. The Sierras had been bested. ...a week after the breakthrough, young Lewis Clement, the engineer in charge of Summit Tunnel, strode into the now widened bore, surveyor's instruments in hand. With torchbearers stationed every few yards in the 1,659-foot bore, Clement began his first series of observations in the damp and eerie tunnel. During the preceding two years' work he and his assistants, including Samuel Montague and Russell Guppy, had been measuring under conditions never taught about in engineering schools. They had made their calculations under poor visibility on a wildly uneven tunnel floor, plotting a bore not only divided into four distinct parts, but one that had to gradually rise, descend, and curve as it penetrated from west to east. ... the expected margin of error was large, and if the various bores were seriously misaligned, many months of expensive remedial work would have to be done, delaying the Central Pacific Railroad's progress east. ... As Clement finished his measurements and worked out the geometric statistics at a rude desk near the tunnel mouth, he found his prayers answered. Summit Tunnel's four bores fitted together almost perfectly, with a total error in true line of less than two inches. The seemingly impossible had been achieved. The longest tunnel anyone had cut through natural granite, cut at a daunting altitude in an abominable climate, had been bored by a small army of Chinese thousands of miles from their ancestral home. The Sierras were truly breached and ... the great race across the continent was on. ... " —John Hoyt Williams, A Great And Shining Road






Building the 1926 Donner Summit Bridge



Here are some interesting facts about the construction of the famous "rainbow" bridge, thanks to rare original state documents provided to me by Jack Duncan, author of "To Donner Pass From the Pacific."


This bridge was the final segment of the new and re-aligned State Highway 37. It replaced the old Highway 37, which was also the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, built in 1864 and taken over by the state in 1909. The state's plans for the new highway were completed in 1922--all those plans are labeled "Highway 37." No one knew of any "Highway 40" until a year after the bridge was completed, when the name of this new highway was changed to Highway 40, as part of the new interstate highway numbering system.


The bridge was designed by the California Department of Engineering's Bridge Department group in Sacramento, led by Harlan D. Miller. He came from New York State's Bridge Department. His design included the descending curve, which was a first in bridges, and the view bench. He died the year this bridge was completed. Continues below the next five photos.

Above, two men working on the view bench in 1926.

Above, forms still in place. Notice all flat surfaces were formed with boards, not plywood. Also, the method of creating the rail openings can be seen--there was a small curved piece at the top of each opening, and a simple square box below. Some of the openings shown have the curve section popped out, but most openings still have them and the cross-bar holding the form boards.


Above, opening day ceremony on Sunday, August 22, 1926. Notice the forms still supporting the concrete.


Above, a close-up of another photo taken right before the ceremony. Notice the rail forms still attached to the left side entrance, and also the same forms laying down to the right of the storage container. Those rails on the left entrance are still there--they weren't replaced in 1995 like the rest of the bridge rails. The other rails were changed to have smaller openings--supposedly so very small kids couldn't fall through.


Above, a close-up from the same photo. Notice the California flag and another flag on the other side. Notice the view bench is not completed and the approach fill is not quite full. And of course, no vista site, which was built 10 years later.



The cost of building the bridge in 1925-26: Hard to believe but it was only $37,500 (this included $8500 unplanned cost for the extra span and widening the approaches)

Job was opened for bids on May 26, 1925

Ten bids were received from $26,350 to $38,650.

Job was awarded to C.C. Gildersleeve of Fresno on June 9, 1925.

Contract executed on June 18, 1925.

Excavation for the footings began on June 15, 1925 (didn't wait for the contract to be signed)

Hand drills were first used, then a compressor and jackhammer.

The first concrete was poured in the footings for the arch on July 11, 1925

Work stopped on October 14, 1925 due to weather--66% complete.

Work resumed on May 12, 1926.

Dedicated and opened for traffic on August 22, 1926

Final concrete was poured on September 7, 1926

All contract items were completed on October 25, 1926


An average of 12 men were employed--5 carpenters ($6-8 a day), 7 laborers ($4 a day).

One resident engineer for both years.

One resident inspector for 1926 only.

Gildersleeve's profit was less than $1500.



From the final report: "Difficult form work, due to unusual alignment, was responsible for some delay in the completion of the contract."




Harvey M. Toy, San Francisco Highway Commission

Lewis Byington, San Francisco, Native Sons of the Golden West

Hilliard E. Welch, Lodi, Native Sons of the Golden West




The equipment used:


5-ton truck

1˝-ton Reo truck

1˝-sack Jaeger concrete mixer

Power circular saw

Power band saw

Compressor and jackhammer

Berg concrete finishing machine

Wheel barrows


Photo is a 1925 Jaeger concrete mixer.


According to the old documents, the concrete mixer was set up on the westerly end of the bridge. Concrete was wheel-barrowed by hand down the slope.


Below, a portion of a newly found photo showing the storage shed and the mixer (just as described, set up on the westerly end) and a water tank. After the tank was somehow filled, water could flow by gravity to the mixer when needed.

Approaches to the bridge were filled with rock material from the "railroad waste dump 1/2 mile distant" (between the 1914 incline and the older incline). That "railroad waste" was actually the blasted chunks of rocks from the summit tunnel and carted out of the tunnel and tossed over the cliff in 1865-67. After laying there for 60 years, the rock material was loaded into a hopper at the dump and hauled to the new bridge in the 5-ton truck, using the old state highway/DFDLWR. So every time we drive over the bridge approaches, we're driving on rocks carted out of the summit tunnel 145 years ago.


Other materials used were:

Sand and gravel from American River Sand & Gravel, Mayhew, Sacramento (not from Donner Lake as rumor had it)

Cement from Santa Cruz (supplier not listed)

Steel from E. L. Soule, San Francisco

Lumber from Hobart Mills, California

Shipments of materials were made to a railroad siding one mile from the bridge site and were hauled over the newly constructed road (the railroad siding is currently the Donner Ski Ranch overflow parking lot).


Water was obtained from several small lakes in the vicinity of the site (ponds still there, but no mention of how the water got to the bridge site).


The bridge doesn't go over any river or even creek--only a granite ravine.




Website, including enhanced and altered old public domain photos, copyright 2005-2019 Rick Martel.







Original 1864 Logo

The Historic Donner Trail

At Donner Summit


All about...

The Original Donner /Pioneer Trail

The 1864 Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road

The 1914 Lincoln / Victory Highway

The 1909-1927 Immigrant Gap-Donner Lake California State Highway 37

The 1927 US Highway 40

...between Donner Lake and Donner Summit