The Donner pass route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains was used by the first wagon train crossing (1844), the first transcontinental telegraph (1861), railroad (1869), highway (1913) and telephone (1914).

"The rugged beauty of this route makes it one of the most scenic passenger routes in the United States. Today's Interstate 80 is roughly parallel to the railroad, and travels the same basic route that people have taken for thousands of years."
(From the Tahoe National Forest History Page.)


In 1519 Ferdinand Magellan left Spain with 5 ships to sail around the world. Magellan was killed two years later during a battle in the Philippines. Only one of his ships commanded by Juan Sebastian Eicarno, completed the journey in 1522. Only 17 of the 241 men who started completed the trip.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator exploring for Spain, was the first European to see California in 1542.

In the 1840's people started comming to California. Many preferred the sea route either going around the horn (a 6-8 month trip) or crossing by land at Panama and taking another ship to San Francisco. See Great Migration below.

Early Crossings by pioneers

The first recorded crossing of the Sierra Nevada was in 1826 or 1828 when trapper Jedediah Smith returned from California crossing near the present Ebbetts Pass. Other mountain men such as Kit Carson and Joseph Walker soon followed finding new routes over the mountains. The first wagon road to California was the old Spanish Trail, established in 1829, connecting the Santa Fe Trail to Los Angeles. The Bidwell Bartleson Party attempted the first wagon train crossing of the Sierra Nevada in 1841, but had to abandon their wagons and crossed on foot near Ebbetts Pass. In 1844 the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party became the first wagon train over the Sierra Nevada Mountains crossing at Donner Summit. The route roughly coincides with the Donner Pass Road (Old Hwy 40). The ill fated Donner Party became snowbound at Donner Lake in the winter of 1846-47 and 42 of 91 people in the party died. 2/3 of the men died only In 1848 the Mormon Emigrant Trail over Carson Pass was established as an alternative to the difficult Truckee route.

A second pass was used by the Aram Party in 1846. Looking for a way to avoid the steep wall at Donner Pass, they found a route up Coldstream Canyon to a saddle between Mt Judah and Mt Lincoln, about two miles south fo the original pass. Wagons were hauled up the last 400 ft. by attaching long chains and pulling them from the top. XTo lessen the frection of the chains a log was laid across the lip of the rock; as a result of this method, the pass was called Roller Pass.

Later on, an even easier pass between Mt. Judah and Donner Pass was opened and was called Coldstream Pass or Judah pass. See Donner Pass Wagon, Highway & Railroad Routes.

Early Settlers and the Great Migration

Originally populated by a number of small Indian tribes, no european settlements were established until the Spanish moved up from Baja California in 1769-70. The first sailing ship from the eastern United States made it to California around the horn in 1796. In 1839 John Sutter, a pioneer trader, arrived in Monterey via Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii and built a fort at what is now Sacramento in 1841. John C. Fremont discovered Lake Tahoe from Red Lake Peak near Carson Pass while on a surveying assignment in 1844.

Wagon trains were organized during the great migration starting in 1843. The 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to California took 4-5 months. In 1846 about 1,500 people took the overland route to California. Many preferred the sea route either going around the horn (a 4-6 month trip) or crossing by land at Panama and taking another ship to San Francisco.
After California and the southwest was won from Mexico in 1848, migration increased.
In 1849 85,000 people migrated to California: 40,000 came by ship, 15,000 via Mexico, and 30,000 by trek on the notorious California Trail.
In 1850 approximately 11,700 prospective gold diggers used the Cape Horn route, and another 13,800 migrated via Chagres and Panama. (Source: Andrea Franzius) The Oregon Trail to the north and the Old Spanish Trail to southern California were originally more popular routes to the west, but the California Trail cutting through Donner Pass gained popularity as a more direct, although more difficult, route to the Gold Country and San Francisco.

Gold to Silver to Farms

The discovery of gold at John Sutter and James Marshall's sawmill on the South Fork of the American River, in Coloma in 1848 started the gold rush. Auburn, Foresthill, Downieville, Sierra City, Nevada City and Placerville were established and grew during this period as over 100,000 people migrated to California. Highway 49, which intersects I-80 at Auburn, cuts through the heart of the Gold Country.

In 1859 the Comstock Lode (silver) was discovered near Virginia City, NV.. This set off a second wave of get rich fever.

Most settlers did not get rich from gold prospecting. The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, promised free land (160 acres) to settlers who would establish farms and many of the new Californians turned to farming. See the California History Page for more.

Stage Coach and Wagon Roads

Many stage coach lines including those of Wells Fargo were started beginning in 1849. These started as lines connecting local areas. In 1857 regular service between Sacramento and Carson Valley was established using routes over Echo summit. In 1858 there was competition between two stage routes, and a shipping route for a lucrative transcontinental mail contract. One stage route went over the Sierra Nevadas (near what is now Hwy 50) the other went through El Paso and Los Angeles. The southern route eventually won out.

After 1860 plains Indians were very hostile, and during Civil War few troops could be spared to protect emigrants. This along with improved stage routes resulted in less migration by wagon.

The Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road (DF&DLWR) was completed in 1864 to help in building the railroad. The road ran from Dutch Flat to Tinker's Station (Summit), to Donner Lake and then on to 'Coburns Station' (Truckee) and Lake's Crossing (Reno)


The state purchased the Lake Tahoe Wagon Toll Road (Hwy 50 now) in 1895 and it became the first state highway. The DF&DLWR was replaced by a State Highway #37 in 1909. The first coast to coast highway, the Lincoln Highway, was completed in 1913. It crossed the Sierra Nevada roughly following the route of today's Interstate 80 on its way from New York City to San Francisco. In this area, the Lincoln Highway was actively maintained between approximately 1913 and 1927, when it was replaced by US 40. This highway was, in turn, replaced by today's Interstate 80 in the mid-1960's. Portions of old 40 and the Lincoln Highway in the Big Bend-Donner Lake area are still open as a scenic route during the summer months.

(Taken from the Tahoe National Forest History Page.)
See: Donner Pass Wagon, Highway & Railroad Routes


In 1862 congress passed an act to build a transcontinental railroad and and funded the project with appropriations for loans and land. The transcontinental railroad had been dreamed about since the 1840's, but controversy over the route, a northern route from St. Louis or a southern route from New Orleans to Southern Calif. The secession of the South from the Union opened the door for the northern route. The Central Pacific Railroad was started in Sacramento in 1863. It was managed by trustees Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford. Construction moved eastward to Rocklin (May 1864), Colfax (Sept. '65), Dutch Flat (Jul. '66), Cisco (Nov. '66). The winters of 1866-7 and 1867-8 were treacherous in the Sierra and the tunnel east of Cisco wasn't completed until the spring of 1868. The tracks reached Nevada in June of 1868 and regular passenger service from Sacramento to what soon became Reno, began shortly thereafter. It connected with the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah Territory on May 10, 1869 to complete the first transcontinental railroad. Railroad towns like Norden, Cisco, Colfax, Dutch Flat, and Truckee. were populated during this period. 25-30,000 Chinese immigrants, called coolies from the Chinese words for rent and muscle, were hired to carve the route out of the granite mountains. They worked in deplorable conditions, for meager wages and had a high injury and death rate.

Despite 15 tunnels and 37 mi of snowsheds built over the tracks to protect against snow and avalanches during construction and operation, on at least two occasions trains became snowbound with passengers trapped for days. One in the winter of 1889-90 and another in Jan. 1952. Hundreds of people were trapped for 6 days in the 1952 incident. Helicopters were used to drop provisions and rescue people.

See Also: The Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum.
"Nothing Like It In The World; The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Rail Road 1862-1869", S. E. Ambrose
1865 Railroad Map
CPRR at:,

Recreation and Vacation Spots

Traffic increased as Lake Tahoe turned into a vacation and recreation area starting in the early 1900's. The Tahoe Tavern Hotel just south of Tahoe City was completed by D.L. Bliss in 1902. This marked the beginning of a period when the west shore of Lake Tahoe became a posh summer watering hole for the West's wealthy. Primary access was via a rail link from Truckee to Tahoe City. The Tavern stood until 1968.

The sport of snow skiing started growing in the 1930's in the Yosemite area.
The second ski area in the US was in the early 1930's on the west side of where Donner Ski Ranch is now. The 1934 winter olympic ski team trained there. The Sierra Club warming hut behind Clair Tappaan Lodge is the base of the rope tow.

With the opening of Hwy 40 as a year-round road in the 40's, the donner summit area (Soda Springs and Norden) became the center for skiing until the 60's when it shifted to the North Tahoe ski areas following the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley and the completion of I-80.

See also: Homewood History.

Because of low taxes in Nevada, Incline Village has become the favorite place for the rich and famous during the 80's and 90's.


Some overland mail reached California as early as 1848, if erratically, via the military through Fort Leavenworth and Santa Fe. The first regular mail service to California was started in 1848 when the Post Office Department contracted with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to transport the mail via two ships and a rail link across the isthmus at Panama. Snowshoe Thompson carried the mail over the Sierras on twenty foot skis from 1856 to 1876. The first transcontinental stagecoach route, established in 1858, got a contract to carry mail via a southern route through El Paso and Los Angeles. The trip took about 25 days. The Pony Express took over in 1860. 20 riders covered the route between St. Joseph Mo. and Sacramento. The route roughly followed that of Hwy 50 through Kyburz, Placerville. 20 riders made the trip in 10 1/2 days. It lasted for only 19 months from 1860-61 before it was discontinued because of financial difficulties and the availability of the telegraph.

The first transcontinental telegraph line from Omaha, Neb. to San Francisco was established in October, 1861. It went from Carson City north of Lake Tahoe and over the mountains south of the current highway and railroad.

Once the railroad was completed in 1869, transcontinental mail was sent by train, while stagecoachs continued to carry local mail.

See a letter on the experimental first use of the telephone in the Sierra Nevada snowsheds on the transcontinental railroad in 1878:

Improvements to the vacuum tube led to a practical telephone repeater which enabled the first transcontinental long distance service. Lines strung over Donner Summit met lines placed from Denver at the Utah Nevada border in 1914. The first official call between between Alexandar Graham Bell in New York and Thomas Watson in San Francisco was made in Jan. 1915.

20,000 Yrs. - First Native Americans migrated from Asia to N. America.
5,000 Yrs. ago Petroglyphs
1796 - The first sailing ship from the east reaches California via Cape Horn.
1804-5 Lewis and Clark explored routes to the Oregon Territory
1821 - Santa Fe Trail completed from Independence MO. to Santa Fe, NM.
1828 - First recorded crossing of the Sierra Nevada by trapper Jedediah Smith.
1829 - Old Spanish Trail to Southern California from Santa Fe.
1841 - John Sutter built a Fort at what is now Sacramento.
1844 - John C. Fremont discovered Lake Tahoe.
1844 - The Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party was the first wagon train over
       the summit.  This opened the California Trail.
1846-48 Mexican American War results in the acquisition of California and the Southwest.
        (peace treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) 
1846-7 The Donner Party became snowbound.
1848 - Gold was discovered
near Coloma on Jan. 24, 
1848 - population 14,000 (plus about 150,000 Native Americans)
1848 - Steamships carry mail to California via land link through Panama.
1849 - Stage coach routes established within California.
1850 - California admitted to the Union.
1852 - Population 223,856
1854 - The Flying Cloud sets a world record by sailing from New York to San
       Francisco in 88 days.
1855 - Panama Railroad completed reducing the trip across the ismus
       from 4 days to 4 hrs.
1857 - A stage route between Carson Valley and Sacramento established
       through Kyburz, Placerville and Folsom.
1858 - First transcontinental stage coach line.
1859 - The Comstock Lode (silver) was discovered near Virginia City, NV.
1860 - Population had 380,000 (Native Americans declining to about 30,000). 
1860 - Pony express delivers mail to Sacramento.
1861 - Telegraph reaches California.
1862 - The Homestead Act promised free land to settlers who would establish farms.
1863 - Construction of Central Pacific Railroad begins.
1864 - Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, CO.
1864 - Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road (DF&DLWR) completed to help
       in building the railroad.
1869 - Central Pacific Railroad completed - First transcontinental railroad.
1896 - Lake Tahoe Wagon Road (Hwy 50 now) becomes the first state highway.
1902 - Tahoe Tavern near Tahoe City completed.
1909 - DF&DLWR replaced by Sate Highway.
1911 - First transcontinental airplane flight.  49 days.
1914 - Lincoln Highway - First transcontinental highway.
1914 - First transcontinental telephone line from New York to San Francisco
1914 - Panama Canal completed.
1921 - Transcontinental air mail. 1 1/2 days.
1926 - U.S. Highway Numbering System adopted.
1927 - US 40 completed over the same route.
1930's - Transcontinental air travel becomes popular
1952 - Train becomes snowbound and hundreds are trapped for 6 days.
1960 - Winter Olympics held at Squaw Valley.
1964 - Last section of interstate 80 over the summit completed.

Travel Times:
Mode          Speed
Sailboat. (via Cape Horn)      New York to Calif.    3-4 mos.     (1840)
Wagon Train  10-15 mi./day     Missouri to Calif.    4-5 mos.     (1845)
                               New York to Missouri  3 weeks.
Steamship-overland (via Panama New York to Calif.    30 days.     (1848)
Steamship-Rail (via Panama)    New York to Calif.    21 days.     (1855)
Stage Coach   6-15 MPH         Missouri to Calif.    25 days.     (1858)
Pony Express 200 mi./day       Missouri to Calif.    10 1/2 days. (1860)
Train        25-40 MPH         New York to Calif.    10 days      (1869)
Train        50 MPH            New York to Calif.    3 days       (1920)
           New York to Calif is still 3 days 1 1/2 hrs.
Airmail (De Havilland )        New York to Calif.    1 1/2 days   (1921)
Airline  (Ford Trimotor)       New York to Calif     1 1/2 days   (1930)
                                          (11 refueling stops)
Airline       (DC-2)           New York to Calif     18 hrs.      (1934)
(Lockheed Super Constellation) New York to Calif.    8 1/4 hrs.   (1953)
Airline       (jet)            New York to Calif.    6 1/4 hrs.   (1959)

 Mary Lu Kost's book, Milemarking I-80, on traveling I-80.
Other Books.

See Also: 
Caltrans History Page and 100 Years of Caltrans Service.
 History of the U.S. Postal Service
 U.S. Department of Transportation
The California History Page.
Gold Rush History at and Sierra Heritage Magazine.
Hwy 49 Guide
The Robber Barons 1869 to 1906
History of gold in Placer County.
Oregon - California Trails Association: CA-NV Chapter
Information for towns along I-80 in Placer Co. and Nevada Co. at
Opening of the California Trail
Overland Journal
History of Union Pacific RR
Old Books on California
Hastings Guide to Oregon and California
The way West (Gold Rush History)
Gold Rush - The Journey
California Gold - Migration
Oregon-California Trails Association
Gold Rush Journey at PBS
Homewood History

I-80 Sierra Nevada.

last updated 16 July 2007