Donner Pass RoadDonner Pass Road leads directly through the town of Truckee, California to The Donner Pass, a 7,085ft narrow rocky gap in the northern Sierra Nevada. During the winter of 1846 a site beneath the pass became the location for one of the United States saddest human tragedies. A group of 87 emigrants travelling east to west had been told that the pass was a potential shortcut to California. Led by George Donner, their group consisted mostly of young families. After many months of hardship travelling on foot and by wagon train they reached the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. They tried to cut a path up the side of the mountain but soon became stranded together with their wagons, oxen and horses. Before long a snowstorm swept in producing snow depths of up to 22 feet under which they lost their animals. They decided to build makeshift houses beside what is now known as Donner Lake at the foot of the pass. Slowly the winter took its toll with various members of the group dying of malnutrition and hypothermia. Leaving their children behind some tried to make the journey to get help on foot, fashioning snowshoes out of oxbows and hide, but the going was too hard. Their food ran out and they were eventually forced to draw lots to determine who would be killed so as to provide food for the rest. The bodies were then stripped and frozen to be stored for the weeks ahead. And so started the now infamous story of cannibalism amongst the pioneers of the Donner Party. Of the 87 members of the Donner party who set off on the ill-fated journey only 48 survived to reach their new life in California.
I made theses images around the same time of the year that the Donner Party reached the foot of the pass and would have sensed, as I did, that serene beauty of the first snow quietly falling. In my case the quietness was punctuated by the sound of a car engine revving as it fought for grip in the ever deepening snow and the clanging of the level crossing bell just before the haunting scream of a freight train’s horn filled the valley as it slowly rumbled by. As the snow turned into a blizzard it wasn't hard to imagine the fear that must have gripped those brave pioneers.