Snow, Tragedy and Motor Sports at The Donner Pass

March 11, 1911 –  Just three years before 1911 a new craze had gripped the United States and Europe.  Automobile racing.

Picture from Time.com

People didn’t smile for pictures in 1911

In 1908 a race sponsored by the New York Times and a French newspaper created the “world’s most grueling race.”  This became known as the New York to Paris Road Race.  Thirteen cars were entered but only six ended up racing.

They would travel from Lincoln Square in New York City to San Francisco then to Valdez, Alaska.  From there cars were shipped to Japan then drove through the Siberia Tundra in Russia and then finally after 22,00 miles in Paris.

During the trip drivers faced bad weather, muddy roads and something we all face today:  bad drivers.

There is one really funny event that happened during the New York to Paris race.  Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, basically the guy that pushed World War I along put a car in the race.  He claimed it was superior to any other car in the field.  It was towed out of the mud by the American Thomas Flyer car driven by Schushter.

Did you think any era was immune to bad drivers?

The Donner Pass

Won't cost you a thing but your life..

Won’t cost you a thing but your life..

From the turn of the 1900s and beginning with the New York to Paris Road Race increasing numbers of people began to travel towards California.  Local hotels began seeing an economic opportunity and staged their own races where “gasoline buggies” and bikes would race.

So in the spring of 1911 the Tahoe Tavern in Tahoe City held it’s own race offering a brilliant silver trophy.  Mark McLaughlin who writes for the Tahoe Tribune writes extensively about the race and said (link):

When businesses realized future tourism dollars were going to arrive by car, not passenger train, they began to pressure the state and county governments to improve mountain roads. Years before the first highway was constructed over Donner Pass, intrepid drivers were fighting their way over this portion of the rugged Sierra, using block and tackle and tying ropes around their tires for traction.

This race would have a lengthy delay.  When the March 11th storm hit, it left 40 feet of snow drifts on the ground completely blocking the pass.  A winner of the race until June of that year.

Nature can create weather patterns of legendary proportions.  Just ask Napolean.  Or the residents of New Orleans.

Courtesty of StormKing.com

Courtesty of StormKing.com

But the racers in 1911 were lucky.  What they may have remember is another group of people who tried to get through the pass which at that time had no name.  But the story of that family and their companions gave rise to one of the most tragic episodes in the migration of humans from one place to another.

Nearly seventy years before, the Donner Family left their home to journey west in the hopes of finding riches in California.  The gold rush was one of America’s first get rich quick schemes and the Donner Party was one of its most tragic victims.  In February 1847 with no food, no hope of getting through the massive snow drifts…the Donner Party engaged in cannibalism.

Such was the mystique of this pass.  Massive movements of people, historical road races and yes…tourism.  Two things remain constant about the pass:  motorists and violent snow storms.

I can personally tell you that travelling through the Donner Pass you’re surrounded by beauty.  Even in June you can see snow capped mountains, sparkling waters and majestic pine trees.  In a place with such amazing beauty you tend to forget that much of the history in the west passed through the Donner Pass.

Here’s a question for you.  If you were to go on a winter road race in through the Donner Pass, what gear would you bring?

Here’s an idea:  12V Heated Jacket Liner with Wireless Remote:  Link

Sources:

Donner Pass Race, New York to Paris – Tahoe Daily Tribune

http://www.tahoedailytribune.com/northshore/6256548-113/tahoe-race-car-donner

New York To Paris The Hard Way

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/automobiles/10RACE.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

What the Donner Party Ate In The Final Days

http://news.discovery.com/history/us-history/donner-party-cannibalism-remains-111010.htm

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