Every day, many people pass by a large white cross on Donner Pass Road without even noticing it. Other people see it, but do not know why it is there. Located on the south side of the road between Truckee Elementary School and the Citizens Bank Plaza, toward the west end of the commercial portion of Truckee, the 16-foot-high cross is a sight to see.
A memorial cross honoring the victims and survivors of the emigrant Donner Party of 1846-47 has stood in Truckee since1887, when the first cross marked the site of the cabin used by the Graves and Reed families during that infamous winter. A contemporaneous account in the Truckee Republican newspaper states, "The Cross is 24' high and is painted white. It can be seen from the road to Donner Lake." There were plans to erect three more crosses as soon as funds could be raised, but that did not occur.
By 1906 the wood of the original Donner Cross was rotting through. The land owners of the site, the Donner Ice Company, replaced it with a new 20-foot cross.
In the 1920s, Captain Charles E. Davis set out to locate and identify 19th-Century emigrant trails, one of which he recognized as the one blazed by the Donner Party. Upon finding the Donner Cross in 1927, Captain Davis saw that the cross had been burned away at the base from a campfire. Davis condemned the desecration of the landmark and vowed to restore the cross.
In 1958, construction of Interstate 80 through Truckee began, and the Donner Cross was moved from the historic site marking the Graves-Reed Cabin to make room for the freeway. The Truckee Agricultural Inspection Station was built on the site where the cross had been located since 1887. Motorists passing through on I-80 could still see the cross from their vehicles, but this location for the cross would prove not to be permanent.
In 1988 the cross was moved again because of construction of the Factory Outlet Stores (now referred to as Citizens Bank Plaza). At that time, the Donner Cross and a bronze plaque that had marked the Graves-Reed Cabin site were moved to a piece of land between Truckee Elementary School and the Outlet Stores, and an easement was granted to the Truckee Donner Historical Society for the property on which rest the Donner Cross and Graves Cabin memorial plaque.
As the 2010 spring snow gave way to the ground underneath, it was discovered that the Donner Cross once again had fallen victim to years of severe Sierra weather, rotting through and falling down. Several local businesses and individuals stepped forward to help the Truckee Donner Historical Society replace the cross, ensuring that residents and visitors would continue to remember the story of the Donner Party. The Truckee Donner Historical Society would like to thank everyone who helped us to preserve the tradition of honoring the members of the Donner Party, victims and survivors alike, for their courage, their fortitude, and their perseverence in the face of overwhelming adversity.
The Donner Cross and Graves Cabin plaque are free to view, and it takes only a few moments to read this magnificent landmark tribute to the Donner Party. To see more Donner Party sites and to learn more about the hardships endured by the emigrants, travel farther west on Donner Pass Road, crossing over I-80, to the Donner Memorial State Park.