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Iconic Donner Party statue on tap for $1.5M upgrade

Kaleb M. Roedel
The Union News Service
An iconic statue representing the Donner party is up for a potential renovation.
Submitted photo |

TRUCKEE — For 98 years, the Donner Pioneer Monument, a designated California Historic Landmark, has stood at Donner Memorial State Park.

In an effort to ensure the bronze sculpture — which honors pioneer families in the 1800s who crossed the Sierra Nevada in search of a better life — will stand another 98 more, the Sierra State Parks Foundation, in partnership with the Native Sons of the Golden West and California State Parks, is embarking on an ambitious project to restore the historic statue.

“It’s a significant landmark not only to California State Parks and Truckee, but for people throughout California,” said Heidi Doyle, executive director of Sierra State Parks Foundation. “It stands at the gateway to California, and it speaks to the pioneers of yesterday — and even today — who come to California seeking a better life.”

Perched atop a rock pedestal standing 22 feet tall (representing how high the snow was in the winter of 1846-47), the Donner Pioneer Monument depicts members of the ill-fated Donner Party.

The Donner Party is largely considered the most famous tragedy in the history of the westward migration, as the families spent the winter of 1846-47 snowbound near Donner Lake. Their food supplies ran low, and some of the pioneers resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The memorial was originally an undertaking of local community representatives who formed the Donner Monument Committee.

Contributions from the California Legislature and fundraising efforts by Native Sons of the Golden West brought the monument, which is located on the same soil where some of the emigrant families had their cabins, to fruition.

The Sierra State Parks Foundation has commissioned an updated assessment report; a study in 2006 suggested the statue’s pedestal base and sculpture are in poor condition.

Nevertheless, Doyle said structural engineer John Griswold, who recently examined the monument, was “pleasantly surprised” at the condition of the statue after 98 years.

“Normally he assesses monuments in large cities, and the affect of pollution is very detrimental to the statue,” Doyle continued. “But because of the clean air of Truckee, it’s in remarkably good shape for its age. So that was very good preliminary good news for us.”

Doyle said Sierra State Parks Foundation is anticipating that it will receive the assessment report in early October. In terms of the project cost, which will be revealed in the report, she said a rough estimate is $1.5 million.

Plans for the project include implementing sustainable landscaping around the monument and building an outdoor pavilion (with a capacity of 50-75 people) to host education and community events.

“We’re still at the conception stage of what the full utilization will be,” Doyle said of the outdoor pavilion. “But it will be a huge benefit, because there is no such gathering space right now.”

While there is no concrete timeline for the project, Doyle said the parks foundation is planning to have a ribbon cutting to kick off the restoration process of the monument on the 100th anniversary of the dedication — June 6, 2018.

Until then, Doyle said, Sierra State Parks Foundation, in collaboration with Native Sons of the Golden West, will be embarking on a “significant” statewide fundraising campaign.

What’s more, the foundation is working with the California State Legislature in an effort to get the project earmarked for funding through a state parks bond act brought forth by Assembly Bill 2444.

While officials initially wanted to AB 2444 to be put on the November 2016 ballot as a measure, instead, it will up for approval by California voters in the June 5, 2018, statewide primary election.

Roedel is a reporter for the Sierra Sun.

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