Rare 1865 photo of Pollard's Hotel (burned down around 1880)

 

 

Probably the best photo you'll ever see of The Lake House, also known as Pollard's Hotel and Pollard's Station. Notice the other side of Donner Lake, which came into view after I enhanced this photo.

 

Joseph D. Pollard advertised in San Francisco newspapers and told guests they would be picked up at the Summit Tunnel in a wagon--but which side of the Summit Tunnel was he referring to? The best spot for Pollard and the guests would be at the opening in the snow-shed where the wagon road went through just east of the tunnel. But this would require the train to come to a stop there, just one-half mile east of another stop, the Summit Hotel, and the conductor would have very little room for error when stopping exactly at the 15-foot wide opening. Or he meant at the west side of the tunnel, which would actually be the same stop as the Summit Hotel, and Pollard didn't want to mention that hotel by name. In either case, the wagons would travel the 3+ miles to his hotel on the 4-year-old Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, which is still there today. This was a closer and more interesting ride than if Pollard picked up his guests in Truckee (Coburns Station), about 5 miles away. He also probably didn't want them passing the Donner Lake Hotel at the east end of Donner Lake before they checked into his hotel. The Donner Lake Hotel was owned by James Grant.

 

The ad at the right is from June 26, 1868. Thanks to a relatively few industrious, creative, brave, and hard-working men who produced not only the wagon road, but the transcontinental railroad, the cities of San Francisco and Sacramento, and these hotels all in just 22 years after the first Europeans began settling a nearly empty California*, tourists were able to comfortably visit the site of the Donner Party tragedy and find "The table will always be supplied in the most liberal manner" and "other means of pleasure are kept in constant readiness." Safe to say, there's been nothing like it in human history.

*only 12,000 people lived in present-day California in June 1846, about half were Indians.

 

 

Were Pollard's Lake House and the later Donner City Hotel on the same site, today's Donner Lake Realty? Details at bottom of this page.

 

 

Above, probably around 1915, the Donner City Hotel viewed from current Donner Pass Road and South Shore Drive, and opposite the view of photo below. Notice the old highway on the right and the telephone poles in each photo. The photo below used a very wide-angle lens which makes the distance from the hotel to the start of the hill look a lot farther than it really was, and the photo above used a telephoto lens which makes the distance look a lot closer.

 

 

Below, three 1915 panoramic photos taken with early color film (not colorized) by J. Waters

The photo above is looking east from the west shore of Donner Lake and shows the same area as the page below from the 1915 State Department of Engineering Survey of the old road. The photo was taken two months before the survey in 1915.

The surveyor was working east to west. Notice the "cottage" on the left is 150' to the right of the road as noted in the field book, and then the "Donner City Hotel and Bar" is 426 feet beyond that point (closer to the photographer) and 40' to the left.

The big round sign is a Red Crown gasoline sign. The hotel and surrounding area was expanded greatly a few years after this photo--owned by Wally Gelatt.

The photo above appears to be where present-day Donner Lake Road meets Donner Pass Road. Notice the old car on the road and the cows grazing.

 

There's a plaque at the Donner Summit "Rainbow" bridge overlook that is titled "Those Who Passed Here" and it refers to the pre-Highway 40 highway as "unpaved and primitive." Other than not being paved, this 1915 Donner Lake road above is hardly primitive (in many countries today this is considered a modern road). In fact, when Highway 40 opened in 1926, it was not paved either, and wasn't paved for several years. Between 1863 and 1926, the old road was constantly maintained and improved by the railroad, then county and state governments. Check out a 1917 letter from Caltrans about this very road on the Documents page.

 

Many times I thought of the "Forty-niners" as we saw the sign, "Overland Trail." In coming along the Lincoln Highway, we are simply traversing the old overland road along which the prairie schooners of the pioneers passed. How much heart-ache, heartbreak, and deferred hope this old trail has seen! I think of it as we bowl along so comfortably over a somewhat rough but yet very passable road.

                                         ---Effie Gladding, 1914

 

Below, a portion of a 1915 Lake Tahoe brochure. The first map shows how the state viewed the highways from Sacramento--there was one highway that went via the north side of Tahoe, and one via the south--they both met at McKinney's, midpoint on the west shore. Soon, the northern route changed to go to Reno instead of Tahoe.

 

Below, 1915 photo on Auburn-McKinney's State Highway.

 

Notice the tag hanging from the radiator. After some adjustments, look what showed up:

 

 

Above, an 1865 Lawrence & Houseworth photo of the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road, within the 1 mile section that was illegally blocked until 2011. That stump is still there, although rotted. If you look in the center, you'll see the photographer's covered carriage off to the side of the road. It held a portable darkroom. (click photo for full screen)

 

 

Above, an 1877 Andrew Hill painting depicting the 1844 Stephens-Townsend-Murphy pioneer party making their way around the same hill that drivers go around today on old Highway 40.

Hill won a gold medal for this painting in 1878 at the State Fair in Sacramento. This painting was purchased and placed in the California Pioneers Association of San Francisco, but destroyed by fire in the 1906 earthquake. Luckily, someone took this black & white photo of the painting prior to 1906, but the colors are lost forever.

(click photo for full screen)

 

 

The same location 82 years later in 1926, soon after the bridge was opened.
During construction of Highway 40 in 1924-26 (which was to the left of the photo), rocks fell down on the old road which went to the left of where the letter D in Donner is (see photo below for better view) and the state created a detour, which is below the letter O in Donner. Thanks to Jack Duncan for this information.

 

Below is a 1924-25 photo of the same area while Highway 40 was under construction. The old road is buried under rocks and the detour goes over the granite hump. The bridge is not yet built, although Highway 40 is in the works. The flat area on the other side of the old road is dry, but became a pond the next year and ever since, due to excavation of dirt in the flat area for use in Highway 40. There are photos showing houses in that area. The pond is not natural and should be filled in.

 

 

Below is close-up of above photo showing two cars and the dry flat area. This would have been in 1925. A portion of the old road just to the right of the car on the right was soon buried beneath supporting rock for about 200 feet where the new Highway 40 continued from where it leaves off here; the old road was shifted about 30 feet to the west so that travelers could use it until the new road was completed. If you look just to the left of telephone pole on the right, you'll see what looks like that shifted detour, all set to go, which needed to be completed before work continued on the new road. So these two cars could have been the last cars to drive on the original old road. The 1915 survey shows that the old road is not actually under the newer roadway, only under the supporting rocks.

 

The photo below is very interesting due to the second it was taken--showing the third car coming from the old road (actually, the detour for the old road) onto new Highway 40. If the photo was taken one second later, it would not be obvious that the cars were coming from the old road onto the new road. The entire new road wasn't opened until the bridge was finished in August 1926. The bridge is just left of the photo. The old road went to the right where the third car is seen.

 

 

The same location another 79 years later in 2005.

 

 

Above, around 1950, looking at Highway 40 (the darker road) with the older Lincoln Highway / Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road (the white road). Today, the older highway is visible, but not as clearly. In many places, it is overgrown with brush or eroded by water.

We are hoping to clean it up and have it look like this again. Thanks to Norm Sayler for this rare photo. This photo was taken after 1938, the year the vista point was built next to the Donner Summit Bridge--seen to the left of the truck driving towards the bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right, 1923 photo shows a car making its way up the Lincoln Highway to Donner Summit. The photographer is standing between the current China Wall plaque and the vertical rock-climbing wall. This section of road between the car and the photographer is now covered with 2 to 4 foot boulders placed there as a result of the gas pipeline and/or the ATT fiber optic cable buried in the 70s and 80s. Someone must have said "Here's a flat area--let's just put them here." There is also the story that the Forest Service required the utilities to place the boulders in the road to prevent public use--even though the county road is not Forest Service property.

This is one of three points where the old state highway is difficult to walk from Truckee to the summit. There is another section with large boulders in the road further to the east near the Y that goes to the washed-out bridge (although there is a narrow path next to the boulders). Also, a short portion of the road is buried near the summit bridge due to Highway 40 construction in 1925.

(This spot is about 1/2 mile below the summit)

 

The following is on the back of this postcard:

This dramatic description reflected the popular thought just 85 years ago. Compare that respect for history to that of certain present-day history-hating politicians from Nevada County and Truckee, including County Supervisor Ted Owens and Town Councilperson Barbara Green, who worked hard and deceptively for years to give this county road to a private party. Or the rogue personnel at the Truckee US Forest Service station, specifically, Joanne Robique and her crew, who have worked for years to obliterate and actively discourage the public's use of the portion of the county road that passes through the Forest Service land (including the spot in the above photo), while knowingly making illegitimate claims of Forest Service ownership of the county road.

 

Above, 1929 photo on what is today's South Shore Drive. Highway 40 was only 3 years old, behind the hotel. The hotel and restaurant is on the site of today's Donner Lake Realty. The hotel is the same one as the photos at the top of this page--but about twice the size. Look closely at the roof--it shows the original size and the addition. The hotel was moved in the late 40s to across from today's boat dock and named Lakeshore Hotel. 1949 photo below. It burned down in 1961.

 

 

Above and below, two pre-1926 photos of the road on the way to the summit.

 

 

 

 

Above, looking north through the "subway." This new 1914 route slightly east of the old one allowed the state highway to make a less steep climb and avoid going through an opening in the wood snow shed as it had done since 1866. There were reportedly cases where car drivers would not stop and get out to see if a train was coming and drive into the snow shed right when a train was coming. Not good. Today, this tunnel is visible from Old 40.

The older road is also still there and can now be walked but is is overgrown with 95 years of trees (see Hiking Guide).

The state highway surveyor in 1915 noted that this new tunnel was 16 feet high by 16 feet wide. Since Highway 40 was finished in 1926, this tunnel (and the 1914 roadway going to and from it) was only used as the state highway for 12 years. The older route over the tracks was used for at least 60 years.

Another interesting fact is that the lifetime of this tunnel is almost identical to the lifetime of the popular use of the term "Lincoln Highway" --1913 to 1926.

 

Below is the 1913 law authorizing building of this tunnel.

 

 

The tunnel and the new road to it opened on August 1, 1914, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The photo below was published in the San Francisco Call in their special December 1914 Christmas edition. The photo looks like it was taken the week it opened, based on how clean the new incline looks, and how clean the old road looks. Notice the log directing traffic away from the old route. Also notice the small bridge with concrete sides in the bottom right of the photo. This bridge is noted in the  state's 1915 survey. Thanks to Norm Sayler for this photo.

 

By the way, the California Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento has a large recently-painted mural depicting the 1865-67 construction of this section of the transcontinental railroad (the railroad is just to the right of this photo). Only one problem: It shows workers right next to this 1914 incline! Oh well, what's a little 50-year error when it's just a HISTORY museum! A museum 20 feet from the building where Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, and Hopkins ran their railroad enterprise. Not surprising that we currently have a president who refers to the building of the "intercontinental railroad" and re-writes history crediting the government for building the transcontinental railroad.

 

 

 

Mr. James, the author of the 1915 article below, mentions the new tunnel.

 

THE LAKE OF THE SKY
BY GEORGE WHARTON JAMES
Copyright, 1915, BY EDITH E. FARNSWORTH

At Summit a marvelous view is had in both directions, east and west. Westward the fall of the Sierras into the Sacramento Valley is apparently so gentle and easy as to lead one to wonder that he has risen so high, but eastward the descent is much more steep and abrupt. The rude granite in many places is almost barren though Sierran trees abound. The grade is easy, and the new grade and tunnel under the Southern Pacific tracks makes an added improvement. Almost immediately on emerging from this tunnel the full glory of the eastern view is forced upon the attention. At one's feet, apparently, lies the placid surface of Donner Lake, its pure blue giving one a premonitory foretaste of the richer blues that await him at Tahoe, while beyond are the mountains that overlook the Great Basin of Nevada. Rapidly the road descends, well engineered and easy to negotiate to any responsible driver, and before one is aware he is bowling along on the level Donner Boulevard, which is as perfect a piece of country road as can be found anywhere on earth. The Monument (not yet completed) erected by the Native Sons to the memory of the Donner Lake pioneers, and the Memorial Cross, erected on the spot where the unhappy party camped, are passed and in a few minutes Truckee is reached.

 

 

Below is an interesting excerpt from the same article written in 1915 about the Coldstream Canyon emigrant route, used for about 18 years, from 1846 to 1864 by many pioneers, but not the Donner Party. The Donner Party made all their attempts on the Stephens route, traveling the north side of the lake. The Coldstream route was an alternative to the 1844 Stephens route. It was longer and higher but less steep than the Stephens route.

The article also shows that the Coldstream route was never used after the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road opened in 1864, which only makes sense. 

 

The 1866 photo at right (yes it really was taken in 1866) shows the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road near the summit, looking north--Highway 40 is now above this road, with the bridge to the right. If you are walking down the incline below the auto tunnel, you'll see this view. Notice the wagon train. Mark Twain most likely used this road, since he worked in Virginia City and Sacramento.

 

DFDLWR in use from 1864 to 1909

Many articles about this road repeat the claim that the DFDLWR was not used much--or at all--after the railroad opened in 1869, until the state took over the road in 1909. This never made sense to me and I've yet to see any historical evidence of this, such as newspaper articles from the period.

And now I have some evidence: the 1915 article below refers to "county road officials" who had "for years ignored" the Coldstream trail. Reading between the lines: county road officials maintained county roads for decades prior to 1915, the year of the article. Therefore, the DFDLWR, being a maintained official county road, was in fairly decent shape when the state took it over in 1909, despite the single state bureaucrat's report at the time that it was in bad shape and needed costly repairs--probably true to some extent but more likely exaggerated so funding could be increased.

When the railroad opened in 1869, it took only a portion of travel from the DFDLWR. All wagon travel, horseback travel, stagecoach travel, and even walking travel for 45 years, from 1864 to 1909 traveled on this modern (at the time) DFDLWR (or the longer Carson/South Tahoe route) to reach Sacramento or San Francisco. Are we supposed to believe that an expensive, state-of-the-art road into California would rarely be used by the thousands of newly arriving pioneers? Like the old saying, "Build it and they will use it." California highways have always had more traffic than they could handle, and the 1800s were no different. Then there is the cost factor for the traveler--railroad travel cost money. This road was free to use after 1872. And free would attract many emigrants looking for a new life in California.

Also, records show that even in the early 1900s, people still referred to the road going through Truckee (and beyond) as the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Road (they had dropped the word "Wagon"). Not what we'd expect to see if the road was rarely used for 40 years.
If anyone has solid evidence that traffic on this road came to "a virtual end" after 1869 until 1909, please let me know at 415-727-0044 or info@historicdonnertrail.org .

 

 

The same excerpt refers to a spot described as "turning south to Cold Stream" is near the intersection of the current Donner Pass Road (then the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Road) and Coldstream Road, just east of the Donner Museum. Donner Pass Road is a bit south of it's original location--it was re-aligned in 1963 when the freeway was built. Most people aren't aware that most of the old alignment is still there--it across the freeway--it's the current onramp to the westbound 80 (not the loop onramp near the Shell).

 

 

THE LAKE OF THE SKY
BY GEORGE WHARTON JAMES
Copyright, 1915, BY EDITH E. FARNSWORTH


An unusual trip that can be taken from Tahoe Tavern is down to the foot of Donner Lake and then, turning to the left, follow the old emigrant and stage-road. It has not been used for fifty years, but it is full of interest. There are many objects that remain to tell of its fascinating history. Over it came many who afterwards became pioneers in hewing out this new land from the raw material of which lasting commonwealths are made. Turning south to Cold Stream, it passes Starved Camp. The stumps of the trees cut down by the unfortunate pioneers are still standing.

It was always a difficult road to negotiate, the divide between Mt. Lincoln and Anderson Peak being over 7500 feet high. But those heroes of 1848-49 made it, triumphing over every barrier and winning for themselves what Joaquin Miller so poetically has accorded them, where he declares that "the snow-clad Sierras are their everlasting monuments."

This road is now, in places, almost obliterated. One section for three miles is grown up. Trees and chaparral cover it and hide it from the face of any but the most studiously observant. When the road that takes to the north of Donner Lake was built in 1861-63 and goes directly and on an easier grade by Emigrant Gap to Dutch Flat, this road by Cold Stream was totally abandoned. For years the county road officials have ignored its existence, and now it is as if it never had been, save for its memories and the fragments of wagons, broken and abandoned in the fierce conflict with stern Nature, and suggesting the heart-break and struggle the effort to reach California caused in those early days.

 

 

Below, "The Road Past Donner Lake" 1916. That appears to be Wally Gelatt, owner of the Donner City Hotel and other properties of the area, including Donner Lake Camp. He also ran the Winter Carnival in Truckee for several years beginning in 1914. He and his wife even had their own post office for a while when the west end of Donner Lake dropped the name Donner City and became officially known as Gelatt, California from 1923 to 1935.

 

Probably Wally's wife in the second photo--they each got out to take a photo of the other in their one-horse open sleigh. Gelatt bought 13 of these sleighs in Virginia City to be used in his Winter Carnival.

But wait--did the name ever really go away?

Gelatt had a pet pelican! Turns out his bird had been away for four years and flew back to Donner Lake in July 1927, when this photo was taken.

Also in July 1927, Gelatt pushed for the oiling of the new Highway 40, which was just gravel. He had been involved with the routing of Highway 40 and gave speeches promoting the highway and commerce. He owned the rights to the Donner Lake water, but gave water away downstream for free. He ran a real estate business out of his hotel, selling lots at Donner Lake. He also had his own Donner Lake Orchestra, was a singer and harmonica player. He and his wife lived in San Francisco and spent summers at Donner Lake. They eventually moved to Reno. He died August 22, 1938.

Below, also in 1927, in Citrus Heights at Auburn Blvd and Greenback Lane. This was soon after new Highway 40 opened to Reno and was still called the Victory Highway but not for much longer. People seemed to like signs. Roll mouse over for close-up of the "You Are Here" map (allow Active X control if asked).

Below, 2009 at same spot. Looks like a former gas station and garage similar to the old building. What used to be Greenback Lane is now Desimone Lane, a shortcut to Greenback Lane, which was shifted east a bit (at the stoplight) to connect with Highway 80. (Google photo)

 

Were the Pollard Hotel and the Donner City Hotel on the same site?

It seems very likely that the current Pollard Hotel monument needs to be moved to the other side of Old Highway Drive in front of the current Donner Lake Realty buildings. Here's why:

 

The recorded 1909 "Donner City" and 1948 "Donner Ski Haven" subdivision maps for this area along with the 1922 Highway 40 construction plans establish beyond a doubt that the Donner City Hotel sat on the exact site of the current Donner Lake Realty buildings. The old state highway/DFDLWR would therefore have been behind the current buildings (going through a bit of the northwest corner of the Realty building on the right), meeting up at the curve in Old Highway Drive. The current short section of Old Highway Drive from the curve to South Shore Drive was a 1948 re-alignment of the old highway.

 

I found the 1865 photo of Pollard's (seen at the top of this page) and computer-enhanced it to bring out the lake and hillsides in the background. The few other fuzzy copies of this photo on the internet do not show the lake and beyond. We can see that the Pollard Hotel faces the lake and not the road, just as the newer Donner City Hotel did in the 1915 photo (50 years later). The carriages in the 1865 photo seem to be on the road right next to the hotel traveling at the same angle as the road in the 1915 photo of the Donner City Hotel. Keep in mind that the road stayed the same from the 1865 photo above to the 1915 photo above (and until 1948).

 

There is also the fact that both buildings are hotels. It seems very unlikely that the newer hotel would have been built in a different spot than the Pollard Hotel. If the Pollard Hotel had a concrete foundation, it probably survived the fire and could have been used for the new hotel (they both appear to be the same size) and any water and sewer setup from the Pollard Hotel could have been re-used to some extent.

 

And here's more rock-solid evidence: Notice the bump in the ground to the right of the Donner City hotel in the 1915 photo (the color panoramic photo near the top of this page)--looks like a granite outcropping. If the Pollard Hotel was at the southwest corner of Old Highway Drive and South Shore Drive as the current monument shows it, we would see that bump in the above photo, near the tree stump--but it's not there.

 

Below are three maps showing Pollards Hotel. The first is a 1865 survey that shows two buildings which the surveyor identified by dots, Pollard's Barn and Pollard's Hotel, one on each side of the road. The surveyor used similar dots on other structures on his map. Notice the different sizes of the two dots, the hotel being larger than the barn.

The next map is from 1868, drawn by Montague. It also shows two buildings, one on each side of the road. The third map is from 1883 and is in the Auburn Courthouse. It also shows a larger structure and a smaller one. All three maps show the hotel being close to the road. If Pollard's Hotel was where the current monument is, the hotel would be 200 feet from the road--and even further from the barn. Not likely.

 

 

 

 

Below is a cropped photo showing Pollard's Hotel from a distance across Donner Lake. To the right of the hotel is another structure--the barn. It's clear from the maps that they were fairly close to each other. The lake level seen in the photo was higher than today due to either spring runoff or an early dam. Today, water level is precisely controlled.

 

 

Below is another photo of Pollard's from a different angle--here the barn is very clear--it's a one story barn, like the one in the next photo.

 

 

Below is a photo from 1866 showing a similar hotel at Crystal Lake--the hotel has the same L-shape and is nearly identical to Pollards. The structure to the right is probably the same type of barn that was at Pollard's.

 

 

A group by the name of E Clampus Vitus placed the monument at its current location in 2000. They may not have realized that Old Highway Drive was realigned in 1948 and only knew that the hotel was on the south side of the old road. A search of old Truckee newspapers may find a story about the building of the Donner City Hotel and whether it used the Pollard Hotel site. The Donner City Hotel goes back to at least June 1911, when it was mentioned in a magazine article. I'm guessing it was built right after the September 1909 subdivision map was recorded showing a one-acre Lot A at the spot.

 

Back in July 1864, Joseph Pollard made a great deal with the owner of this land, Daniel W. Strong of Dutch Flat: If Pollard built a hotel "as planned," or spent $2500 towards that goal, he would then own the 354 acres on the west side of Donner Lake--that's most of the land where houses are today. Apparently, Pollard later sold the land to the Tomlinsons, who were the landowners in 1909.

 

By the 1940s, most of the land around Donner Lake was owned by big-time Reno/Tahoe wheeler-dealer developer Norman Biltz and his stepsons John and Edmund Nash, who were cousins to Jacqueline Kennedy. Their company was called the Donner Lake Development Company, and sold lakefront lots for $500. Edmund Nash started the Donner Lake Property Owners Association in 1957 and in 1962, Edmund developed Southside Highlands on the south shore of Donner Lake.