But Donner Lake
also brings to mind an 1844 party of 46 emigrants, including 23 women and
children, that had set off from Council Bluffs in Iowa Territory in wagons.
They were mostly Missourians and 22 of them were in one way or another related
to a farmer named Martin Murphy Sr. More or less without mishap the Murphy
party crossed the plains, cut down along the North Fork of the Platte River and
then up the Humboldt. In the late fall they stopped for a time in the meadows
around what is now Reno and then pressed on due westward into the Sierra. When
they met snow, they quickly moved the bulk of the party down the westward
slopes on horseback or in light wagons. They reached the Sutter's Fort area in
good order and spent the winter. One 17-year-old boy, Moses Schallenberger, was
left behind up in the snow-choked pass to tend the heavy equipment and
supplies. Moses remained at a cabin by the lake, trapped small game for food
and did a lot of reading, having found in a wagon the library of a Dr. John
Townsend, who had gone ahead. Schallenberger spent a cold, hungry and always
lonely winter, but he came through it in good shape. In the spring the other
men came back for him, collected the gear and trundled down the mountain to
settle in California.
All of which
seems routine in the retelling—but the Murphy party had in fact accomplished an
enormous and historic feat. They were the first to bring wagons into
California. In a sense they were the first Americans to complete the
transcontinental trek in wheeled vehicles. They opened the Great Road, which
had been started so long before and so far away and over which so many millions
of us have traveled since.
The lake where
Moses Schallenberger camped during the winter of 1844 was Dormer Lake—but it
was not so named until after the Donner party showed up two years later.
Certainly the Donners had bad luck, but much of it was self-manufactured. They
bickered their way across the continent and refused to help each other when in
trouble. They struggled into the Sierra following the Murphy route, then
panicked when they were caught by the snows. It became an every-man-for-himself
situation that degenerated into starvation, murder and cannibalism. Of the 87
members of the party, 40 died, most of them unnecessarily and pointlessly.
historically, the Murphy party accomplished much more than the Donner group.
All of which makes it curious that we should now have a Donner rather than
Murphy Lake; a Donner rather than Schallenberger Memorial State Park.
Even though it is
the successor to Route 40, Interstate 80 does not inspire any special
allegiance. If one should decide to leave it and wander down from the high
Sierra along the Yuba River on back roads, the result is a slower and more
pleasant drive. Among those doing this is Scott Prall, his wife and two young
children. Prall is a vacationing used-car salesman from the San Diego area. He
is a big, easygoing man who is driving very slowly along the Yuba, a boulder-
and cascade-filled, bright, white and green stream. When he spots a promising
pool he stops, gets out his fly rod and favorite flies, takes his son Scotty by
the hand and walks down to fish for a while.
fishing when I was a kid in North Carolina," he says. "My family moved
to California when I was in high school and on vacations I'd take my rod and a
sleeping bag and hitchhike around the mountains for two or three weeks at a
time, fishing as I went."
How much does he
enough, but if I don't get in 20 or 30 days a year I'm in trouble with myself.
Fly fishing is totally relaxing for me. I hunt a little but that is a
production. Fishing is just pure pleasure. This stream isn't like one in the
East. I like trout, but I guess what I really like is where the trout are. Lots
of times I just find a good spot, sit down and listen to the water, smell the
air, maybe take a little nap."