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Catching the Donner History Bug

1976 was the year that I caught the bug—the Donner History Bug. I started teaching science & math at a San Jose Junior High in 1967, and soon realized that my students liked bike riding and hiking. Gradually, local outings to county parks expanded into week long summer adventures—mostly in the Sierra Mountains. Using maps and my knowledge of Pioneer Emigration Routes, I chose selected routes over the Sierra Mountains for our hiking & biking adventures. The students came from Hoover JHS, my school, and Lincoln HS next-door. Early on, I learned that the route of the Donner Party held a fascination for me and the kids. Each fall, we would plan out a section of the famous route to cover —either by hiking or by bicycles —especially mountain bikes which rose in popularity in the 1980’s. Over the years, we covered every mile of that route from Casper WY to Johnson’s Ranch in CA, either by hike or bike. I want to state that the Donner Route was not the only destination for our summer adventures—but it was the most frequented.

In 2002, when I retired from full-time teaching, I continued to offer my services as trip leader for History Hike over Donner Pass. This was limited to all 8th grade students at Hoover School . From 2003 to 2019 we offered this 1 day adventure for about 100 students and 10 adults. We would leave San Jose at 4:30 am and arrive at Donner State Park around 10:30. After visiting the Museum, we would stroll 3 easy miles to the West end of Donner Lake for a lunch break. Then came a rigorous 3 mile hike to the top. Since the trip always happened the first Saturday in May, we could always count on snow. If the snow was light, we would follow the actual route thru the woods & boulders to China Wall next to the old railroad tracks. If the snow was heavy, we would hike Old Hiway 40 to the same place. The highlight of the trip was always a short steep hike over the snow to the entrance to Tunnel #6 —-the famous 2000’ tunnel built by the Central Pacific RR in 1868. Hiking thru the tunnel took us to the finish. After a pre-arranged dinner at a local restaurant. We took the buses back to San Jose, arriving around 9:30pm.

Over the years, I would see students who had been on this adventure, and the most interesting thing they remembered was that the trip felt like a Rite-of-Passage. What a wonderful memory. Because of Covid-19, we were not able to offer the trip in 2020 or 2021.  

Ed Hodges, retired teacher from San Jose Unified School District

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ed Hodges

    Did you find the likely place for the Infamous Camp of Death ???

  2. Renee Katches

    Loved reading this!! A really great adventure for yourself & your students!! I imagine they will all recall this as a great time in their lives!

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