Tahoe Nugget #44:
Donner Party Tree Stumps
One of the challenges in my weather analysis of the winter of 1847 was trying to determine the maximum snowdepth at the two Donner encampment sites. Historians have used photographs of cut tree stumps located at
the two camps as evidence that the snow was from 12 to 22 feet deep, a substantial range. However, it's hard to know for sure if the cut trees actually represent the peak of the snowpack during that winter.
Photograph #1 shows two of the tree stump relics at the Alder Creek location. These stumps look to be about 12 feet high. In the Sierra, conifers protect themselves from the weight of heavy snow by allowing
the snow to cover the tree with a cone-like mantle that is later shed after the storm. This results in a deep pit around the trunk of the tree and a ring of deeper, deposited snow under the outer branches around the
perimeter. At the symposium I speculated that this allowed the pioneers to stand on the shed snow zone in a position higher than the natural snowpack while they cut the trees. But new evidence from the recent
analysis of wood in the Alder Creek hearth indicate that all wood burned was already dead and not green. The examined wood was dry pine from the surrounding forest and seasoned oak from the wagons.
monument at Donner Memorial State Park was dedicated in 1918. The pedestal is 22.5 feet in height, representing what historians believed was the maximum snowdepth at the Donner Lake encampment. There are no images
of a tree stump of that height among the half dozen or so photos taken when the stumps were still standing. So why 22.5 feet? Some historians claim one stump was definitely measured at that height, but there is no
compelling evidence in the records of by whom or when. Definitely one of the ongoing Donner Party mysteries. I tell people that whether the snow was 15 or 22 feet deep is splitting hairs. When you compare the scale
of the kids scrambling around the base of the towering monument in this photo, it's easy to predict that the pioneers (46% of whom were children under age 16) would have been snowbound and virtually helpless