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Armchair Hiking: Know Some Background Before You Go

Kristofer B. WakefieldThe highrise outhouse is accessible during heavy snow.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Some of the most important historical events that shaped California occurred in the area south of Donner Summit.

Sugar Bowl ski resort is one of the oldest in the West. In 1935, Austrian ski champ Hannes Schroll came to California after competing in Washington state. He founded the Badger Pass ski lodge near Yosemite, and, after its success, convinced investors to give him a shot at a Donner-area lodge. In 1938, Schroll purchased 696 acres for $6,750.

In 1939, Walt Disney became the resort’s first substantial investor. In gratitude, Schroll named a mountain after him. In 1941, Disney Studios made “The Art of Skiing” cartoon, the climax of which shows Goofy careening out of control down Sugar Bowl’s slopes.



Also in 1939, a Bavarian-style lodge sturdy enough to withstand the weight of 20 feet of snow was built. Rooms with a bath were $3.50 a night, a dorm bed cost $2, and three meals in the dining hall were $3.

That same year, ore mine tram engineer Henry Howard designed the first chair lift in California for Sugar Bowl – for which an all-day lift ticket cost $2.50.




Sugar Bowl’s gala opening was Dec.15, 1939 – in a sea of frozen mud, as there had been no snow. On Jan. 4, 1940, a massive storm set in. By April, the snow reached higher than 20 feet, threatening to crush the new lift.

The Disney connection drew 1930s-’40s entertainment figures, including Lowell Thomas, Margaret Sullivan, Leyland Hayward, Claudette Colbert and Walt Disney himself, who once stood in for the lodge bartender. Errol Flynn “appeared to enjoy not only the seclusion but most of all the lady skiers who all but swooned the moment they recognized the handsome fellow sunning himself on the Lodge porch,” according to the book “Sugar Bowl, 1940 to 1980” by John Wiley and Sherman Chickering.

The snow scenes for Greta Garbo’s last film, “The Two-Faced Woman,” with co-star Melvin Douglas, were shot at Sugar Bowl in 1941.

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Mount Judah to the south is named for Theodore K. Judah, a young engineer brought from New York by transcontinental railroad promoters. Judah began intense lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., and persuaded Sacramento and San Francisco merchants to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad in 1861. Judah surveyed a route over Donner Summit, hitherto considered impossible because of its steep grade.

In 1863, Judah contracted yellow fever while crossing Panama en route to New York during another attempt to finance his dream. He died at age 37 – less than a month after the Governor Stanford locomotive arrived in Sacramento over his trans-Sierra engineering marvel.

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Above the Donner Summit bridge is Mount Stephens, honoring Elisha Stephens, leader of 1844’s 50-member Stephens-Townsend-Murphy emigrant party, the first to make it over the Sierra. The party received directions from a Paiute Indian named Tro-kee; Donner Lake was originally named Truckee Lake in his honor. Stephens’ accomplishment was eclipsed by the sensationalistic Donner Party events of 1846-47. But his cause was championed by the Nevada County Historical Society, and Mount Elisha Stephens was designated on Sept. 24, 1995.

Schallenberger Ridge looms to the south of the lake. Missourian Moses Schallenberger, age 17, came West with Stephens. When six wagons became stuck beyond the lake, Schallenberger and two men volunteered to stay behind. They built a crude cabin in mid-November 1844; in two weeks, it was buried by snow. The starving men slaughtered and ate their livestock, then found hunting almost impossible. The trio tried to escape on crude snowshoes, but the men sent the exhausted youth back to the cabin and continued on.

Schallenberger was alone in the cabin for three months until his rescue in February 1845. His cabin was used by Donner Party members a year later.


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