What is the Donner pass, the treacherous California mountain route notorious for cannibalism incident

California highway hit by historic blizzard over the weekend was the scene of a notorious 19th century disaster that led to cannibalism

Michelle Del Rey
Monday 04 March 2024 21:48 GMT
Northern California blizzard brings 10ft of snow and 100mph winds

Donner Pass, a stretch of road 7,088 feet above sea level in Nevada County, California, was hit with over 80 inches of snow over the weekend as the state battled one of its most historic snowstorms.

The highway is part of old US Highway 40 located in the Sierra Nevada region. Officials in the area advised residents not to get onto the road as it was hit with whiteout conditions over the weekend. The blizzard even left some vehicles stuck in the snow.

Eventually, a part of the highway was closed in both directions. By Monday, semitrucks were seen travelling on the road without issue, despite hundreds of cars getting stuck on the highway over the weekend, with some drivers needing to be rescued from their vehicles.

At one point, a 70-mile stretch of I-80, the highway Donner Pass is part of, had to be closed in both directions. Making matters worse, winds in the area also reached highs of 190 mph.

Residents of Truckee, California, one of the closest towns to Donner Pass, reported having inches of snow in front of their houses making it difficult to get out, according to local reports. Nearby ski resorts also shut down during the storm.

It’s not the first time the area has seen such weather. Donner Pass is considered to be “the most important historical square mile in California and maybe the entire Western United States,” according to the Donner Summit Historical Society.

In 1896, a group of about 80 travellers got stuck in the area during a snowstorm. Approximately 41 members of the group died from starvation and disease as a result. More than half of the people travelling were younger than 18 years old.

According to History.com, some of the members of the group had to resort to cannibalism in order to save their lives. At one point, two members of the group were reportedly shot and used as food. It took two months to rescue the remaining survivors.

The event is considered to be one of the worst tragedies of American western migration and has been dubbed the “Donner Party”. Several landmarks in the area, including the pass, were renamed after the man leading the group, George Donner.

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