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Donner Party.

Donner Party Monument: Cannibals!

Field review by the editors.

Truckee, California

The bronze figures of a pioneer family peering westward are scaled large, topping a tall stone pedestal in a pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Donner State Park. Today I-80 effortlessly gets you there, and onto the Pacific coast in a few hours. Back in 1846 it wasn't so easy, as the group of pioneers known as the Donner Party discovered.

They didn't plan well for what turned out to be the World's Worst Road Trip. The families, some 87 emigrants, embarked in their wagon train into the mountains too close to winter, and stalled out near Donner Lake, with snow 22 feet deep in places. Only 48 were rescued the following Spring. Survivors provided accounts of starvation and of some of the group resorting to cannibalism.

The Donner camp site became an unofficial tourist attraction within a few years (during milder seasons). The memorial statue of the pioneer family was unveiled on the spot on June 6, 1918, its figures standing atop a stone pedestal 22 feet high, the same depth as the Donner Party's snow. Three elderly survivors attended its dedication. An early Lincoln Highway travel guide noted that souvenirs sold at the monument included candies, postcards, and "5,000 vials of wood" cannibalized from one of the Party's ramshackle cabins.

Museum scene of Donner Party.

In 1927 a state park was created at the site with a museum named the Donner Party Museum. But times changed. California became less interested in embracing its unsavory past, and rebranded the museum as the more optimistic and inclusive "Emigrant Trail Museum." It in turn was closed and replaced in 2015 with the further diluted Donner Visitor Center. Although one display admits that the Donner Party "ate the bodies of dead companions," the stranded pioneers now vie for attention with exhibits about Chinese railroad workers, the Lincoln Highway, and the indigenous Washoe people.

Donner Memorial.

The plaque on the front of the statue, which used to mention the human dining horror, is now a vaguely worded bromide to the "pioneer spirit." Tourists ravenous for tales of cannibalism won't find it here, but they can walk a half-mile along the nature trail to a ten-foot-high rock, which has the names of the survivors on one side, and the names of the (possible) human entrees on the other. It's the only true memorial to the Donner Party.

Donner Party Monument: Cannibals!

Donner Memorial State Park

12593 Donner Pass Rd, Truckee, CA
At Donner Memorial State Park. I-80 exit 184. Turn west onto Donner Pass Rd. The Park entrance will be on the left. Bear left to the Museum and Monument.
Gates open dawn-dusk (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Parking fee $10.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Balanced Rocking StoneBalanced Rocking Stone, Truckee, CA - 2 mi.
Abandoned Historic Railroad TunnelsAbandoned Historic Railroad Tunnels, Truckee, CA - 5 mi.
Grizzly Bear made of PenniesGrizzly Bear made of Pennies, Tahoe City, CA - 12 mi.
In the region:
Mine Under the Ponderosa Saloon, Virginia City, NV - 31 mi.

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