Nevada History by John C. Evanoff is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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The Tragic Trail

The old Dog Valley Road
March , 2008
By John Evanoff

If you have traveled over the hills and into the valleys northwest of Verdi to explore this gorgeous Sierra Nevada region, you may not know of this place’s very important spot in history.

In April of 1846, several families began to head west from Iowa and Illinois to a place they had heard was everything they had ever dreamed of finding including prosperity and good fortune near the “Bay of Francisco.” At that same time, a man known as Lansford Hastings was very near being run out of California for the fabrications he had sent to other easterners who, when they arrived and tried to settle in, complained of the conditions around Sutter’s Fort and of Hastings’ alleged California Paradise where you could just bend over and pick up chunks of gold and grow anything with very little work. Hastings was actually heading east anyway, to con more Emigrants into buying his tales, books and maps. Those he left around Sutter’s were glad to be rid of him. More than 300 wagons and 1,700 Emigrants would spend that historically wet spring moving from Kansas City, Missouri across the land to points west including Oregon and California. The Donner Party was one of those groups. What was thought to take only four months to accomplish, became a nightmare for this small band of wayward travelers. Donner’s group, including the Reed family and a number of hired hands totaling around 30, eventually hooked up with the large Russell Wagon Train until the Donners and Reeds decided to take the Hastings’ Cutoff in mid July to save time. By this time, the group had 87 people, several small herds of cattle and teams of horses, mules and oxen in their wagon train. What they did not know, was that the Hastings’ Cutoff was at best a trail meant for one or two on mules to traverse. The cutoff route from Fort Bridger was tortuous and created conflict between family members when things became tougher than thought. Arguments broke out on a daily basis and the entire collection of easterners began to slowly break apart for lack of expert guidance.

By October 20, 1846 when the group, now numbering 82 entered the Truckee Meadows, they were almost completely spent and lacked the spirit to head over the last great barrier, the Sierra Nevada’s. October 26th, 1846, the Donner Party, cold and weary from their travels across hundreds of miles of countryside, decided to move up the Truckee Canyon from the Truckee Meadows. They moved to a spot near present Verdi and headed up the hill on a new route discovered the year before by Caleb Greenwood.

If you travel to Bridge Street in Verdi, this is where you cross the river on the bridge north of Verdi and head up into Dog Valley on the old Dog Valley Road, which is now called the Henness Pass Road. The dirt road goes up the canyon passing juniper, sage, willow, aspen and a few small groves of young ponderosa pine. The region was heavily cut for lumber in the years from 1864 to 1889 and the lumber mill and town near Crystal Peak at one time held 1,500 people. There are very few signs of that once lively lumber camp and the many homes around it. Later, the river below just below present day Verdi became the home of another lumber mill (Verdi Lumber) that was fairly productive and very modern for it’s time. The company built wooden boxes and barrels which were transported west to Sacramento and south to Virginia City. Verdi was also home to a large ice house that moved huge blocks cut from ponds near the river to the railroad and on to San Francisco. By 1915, the ice house was moved near to Boca and later, with the building of a dam, to the reservoir above.

The dirt road west from Verdi through the canyon moves from the top of the first pass and down into Dog Valley. There are two forks off of the road at the bottom of the hill at the turn, one going up the hill west next to Verdi Peak and the other going north further into Dog Valley and Crystal Peak. The one to your left heading up the hill most closely follows the Donner Trail over the pass and becomes California Route –S860, then down to the edge of Stampede Reservoir to CR-270 across to Prosser Reservoir and eventually along the hillside of Alder Creek to Donner Lake. There were no roads or reservoirs then of course, and the only thing the Donner Party ever cared about was moving west towards Truckee Lake (Donner Lake) to try to get over the mountains before any more winter hardship set in. They passed the little Truckee River and Prosser Creek and made camp there while the snows constantly fell to their distress.

The Donner Party only spent a few days on the route between the Truckee River and where some of the group set up camp near the present day west side of Prosser Reservoir, but the route became a turning point for many family members. Much has been written about what happened to the party between the Truckee Meadows and Sutter Fort, but the snow that began to fall heavily at Dog Valley, made the course dramatically tragic at this point. Had the group remained together at the Truckee Meadows, they could have survived the winter living on the plentiful fish and game along the river. Their thoughts were constant as demanded by the trail leaders, to stay fixated on getting to California and so, even if someone had told them not to make hope their only guide, they would probably have still gone on as far as they could. For many, that decision was a fatal one. Instead, because of the long hard drive to have finally reached this far and with the many hands and stock already weak, dying or dead, the decision to hurry over the mountains was made at one of the most inopportune times in history. The winter snows that would envelope them would be one of the most severe ever to hit the Sierra Nevada Mountains. More than 28 feet would end up on the ground around present day Donner Lake, and a foot had already fallen in Dog Valley as they moved up into the clouds below Verdi Peak into grief.

From diaries and interviews, the tale grew to become one of the most tragic of the pioneer west with unimaginable horrors at every turn for the groups that tried to snowshoe over the mountain to Sutter Fort for help, to the break up of the camps into smaller camps where people grew ever more drained of life and morality.

Two years prior (1844) to the Donner Trail stories being told by travelers and the newspapers of the day, Captain John C. Fremont, the first authentic mapmaker of the west, wrote in his journals of his second crossing of the Sierras south of Carson Pass and having a close brush with this same horrid situation with his troop and himself. The Washoe Indians had told him not to attempt to cross the mountains during the winter, but Fremont was to come close to the same consequence as the Donner Party when his group attempted the crossing anyway. Fremont would write later of his awkward attempt to hasten a path over the Sierras and in reliving the adventure for posterity, wrote of the Donner’s ill-timed event as being dreadful and reminding him of his own death march. He said it brought shivers to his soul to remember the Donner and his own winter’s crossing of the Sierra Nevada.

For years following the Donner Party’s tragedy, the route was seldom used because of the gruesome stories. Pioneers went south or north a hundred miles in either direction to try to stay away from that passageway. But soon, throughout the next couple decades, thousands of emigrants began to pass through the same canyon you can drive up into Dog Valley and over the pass into The Little Truckee (Boca and Stampede Reservoir), Prosser Creek (Prosser Reservoir), Alder Creek near the town of Truckee, Truckee Lake (Donner Lake) and eventually over the Sierra Nevada.

If you have the fortitude, you may want to hike this trail over a day or two to get the feel for what the settlers had to exert from their souls, pushing their wagons, stock and possessions up the canyon, over the hill, into the valley through several creeks and then to stand in awe of the giant white wall of Donner Summit, all this with barely any food, trudging through snow and only a straw of hope for a successful outcome.

Next month, I’m not sure where I will take you, but I know you’ll learn a little more about our amazing history in beautiful Northern Nevada.

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