The TWENTY MILE MUSEUM: A “Linear Museum” at Donner Summit

There’s a legendary story about museum design that comes from Grand Canyon National Park.  The designer apparently did a wonderful job putting together a state-of-the-art museum design.  But when he showed it to the park’s superintendent, he got a rebuff. The superintendent said something like this:  “The Grand Canyon is out there.  Your museum keeps visitors inside and away from it. Open the museum up and let it lead them out into the Canyon.”

That’s also the philosophy of the Donner Summit Historical Society.  The Society operates a small visitor center near the summit and publishes a fine newsletter.  But the bulk of its energy seems to be site-focused.  It sponsors a series of hikes into the area which help interested people learn about the place in the best way, perspiring as they are inspired. But it is the Society’s unique linear museum, placed along the historic route of U.S. 40 (and the Lincoln Highway) which educates the bulk of visitors about Donner Summit and the surrounding country.

The Twenty-Mile Museum is a fine collection of interpretive signs placed along old US 40. Visitors to the country made famous by George R. Stewart in Storm, Ordeal By Hunger, and other books can thus learn about its history on site.  The panels interpret human connections with the area from ancient petroglyph-making eras through the Overland Migration period, the work done by Chinese Americans on the transcontinental railroad,  and early highway eras.   Here’s an example:

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If you’re planning a trip over Donner Pass to Lake Tahoe or Reno, allow time to stop by some of those interpretive signs.  They encourage exploration; so plan enough time for a short hike or two as well.  You can prepare for the adventure by downloading the text version of the Twenty-Mile Museum Brochure here.

George R. Stewart educated the world about Donner Summit country, in the more than 20 languages in which his books were published.  The Twenty Mile Museum adds the critical field experience to that GRS education.  It’s a great concept and a highly recommended experience.

A Decade of Western History

After his foray to Gettysburg, Stewart returned to the country he loved, and knew best – Donner Pass, the Central Sierra Nevada, and the Bay Area.  During the 1960s he would write one short book and one long book about the Westward Movement:  Donner Pass And Those Who Crossed It; and The California Trail.

Donner Pass, like his short book about Thomes, was a special limited-run book.  Printed by Bill Lane of Sunset Magazine for the California Historical Society, it was a kind of a Stewart potpourri about Donner Pass.  There were chapters about the first wagon train to get over the Pass – the Stevens Party – and the Donner Party.  Those chapters were a re-write of what he’d already put into his children’s book about Moses Schallenberger and his ground-breaking book Ordeal By Hunger.  There were chapters about the building and operating history of the transcontinental railroad, a new subject for GRS.  He included a short history of highways over the Pass.  At the end, there were brief essays about place names, geology, and local plants and animals.  The place name essay was classic GRS.  The natural history essays were atypical for him – he usually wove that information into his longer works – but they were much in keeping with the time.  1960 brought the beginning of the Environmental Movement, with its focus on protecting other species; and  California travelers on Highways like US 40 were beginning to carry guidebooks that described the natural and human history of what they were passing through.

That’s really what Donner Pass seems to be – a guidebook for the auto traveler.  It’s short enough so that the “navigator” in a vehicle can read the sections aloud for the driver and other passengers; and in the best environmental sense it is designed to increase awareness of history and the natural world.  The hardbound edition might not be carried along in a car, but the paper-back edition, with its eye-catching use of color on the cover, surely would be.

You can buy either version at a very reasonable price, and they’re still good guides if you drive old U.S. 40 over Donner Pass.  The old highway, when it’s open in spring, summer, and fall, is a pleasant alternative to I 80.

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For decades, Stewart had been fascinated by the westward movement to California.  His research for Ordeal By Hunger took him to many of the sites connected with the Donner Party’s trip from Michigan to California.  In the west, at least, he drove or even hiked many rough, isolated miles of the Trail. (One of those explorations, in the late 30’s, first brought him to the place he would immortalize in Sheep Rock.)  The Anna Evenson Stewart Family Photo Collection includes a color photo of Stewart and a colleague, miles from nowhere on an old section of wagon road, with Stewart leaning on his luxurious Citroen sedan – which he probably bought since a driver could easily adjust the ground clearance on the car.

Stewart also did literary research and interviews.  The Bancroft has one of the finest – if not the finest – collection of diaries and journals from those who made the overland trip before the railroads.  Stewart made good use of that resource.  He even had the chance to interview some of the elderly who had made the trip – notably, the legendary Ina Coolbrith.  Coolbrith was the first Poet Laureate of California, guided Jack London through the books of the Oakland Library, and otherwise helped create a literature of California.  The story of her entry into California, in the arms of Wagon Train Scout James Beckwourth, is one of the enduring and endearing stories of the Westward Movement.  Stewart interviewed her just before her death.

When all was said and done, George Stewart put his decades of research into a book.  The California Trail:  An Epic With Many Heroes  In its several hundred well-illustrated pages, Stewart presents a detailed but interesting history of that great American story, from the first crossings by foot, through the last year with good statistics, 1857. The California Trail is still considered the best book on the emigrant movement into California by overland wagon train.

He worked on his book at the same time his old friend and fellow author Wallace Stegner was writing a book about the Mormon Trail for the same series.  In a wonderful letter, Stegner, who was teaching at Stanford, suggested that since the two men were writing books about the trails on two sides of the Platte River (The Mormon Trail was on one side, the California Trail on the other) they should get together and discuss the books (presumably over drinks and  barbequed burgers).

The book has been reprinted, and is still widely-available.  I’d recommend you look for a first edition – sometimes cheaper than the paperback reprint.  The cover illustrated is for the paperback.

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