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The Dark Side

For Professor Victor Silverman, Donner State Park mingles sublime beauty with tragedy

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Set on a clear alpine lake, surrounded by the peaks and forests of the High Sierras, Donner Memorial State Park could be nothing more than a pleasant, scenic getaway, if it weren’t for that infamous name. Just west of the town of Truckee, the park marks the site of one of the grisliest and best-known pioneer sagas of the American West. In the fall of 1846 the Donner Party, a group of would-be immigrants to California from the Midwest, found itself snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. As supplies ran out, desperation kicked in, and those who hadn’t already perished began to cannibalize the bodies of the dead. Less than half would survive.

 At the park, history buffs can explore a museum that details the Donner ordeal and its place within the larger story of California’s settlement. A sculpted monument recognizes the pioneers who made the arduous trek, standing near the spot where families took shelter in wooden cabins. The park will get a facelift with the completion of the High Sierra Crossing Museum, slated to open this coming fall. The new center will take an updated look at the tangled legacy of pioneer expansion in the region, considering its effects on local environments and Native American communities. The park’s stunning location also makes it an ideal place to spend time outdoors. There are campsites on the shores of Donner Lake, and a light hiking trail that winds around the water. The resorts and nature areas of Lake Tahoe are also a close drive away.

 History Professor Victor Silverman, who touched on the Donner story in his book California: On-the-Road Histories, says the site’s appeal may be the powerful contrasts between landscape and history. “To be in a place like Donner Park, which is spectacularly beautiful, and to also think about the tragedy that lies hidden in the past there, is really compelling,” he says. Silverman, whose work considers the political and cultural forces that have shaped California’s society, thinks the tale of the Donner Party reveals some of the complications that inform our perceptions of the Golden State. “The California myth has always had a light side and a dark side,” he says. “These people came here to make their families prosperous, taking this adventurous journey to the west, but it turned into a horrible disaster.”