Take away the lakeside mansions, public piers and motorized boats, and Donner Lake looked much the same on Aug. 18, 1935 as it does today.
On that historic date, however — exactly 75 years ago to the day — there was a sight in the middle of the lake that was clearly out of the norm during the Great Depression era.
It was a teenage girl, flanked by two wooden rowboats as her light-colored swim cap undulated in the chop. And she was swimming from the west end of Donner Lake clear to the other side.
“Miss Barbara Gordon,” reads one of the many newspaper accounts of the day, which were saved by the Gordon family, “a pretty Placer Union High School senior, Sunday won her battle with the cold waters and choppy waves of Donner Lake, when she swam a distance of three miles in the excellent time of one hour and fifty minutes, to become the record holder for the course, as well as the first woman to complete the distance.”
For that historic athletic achievement, Aug. 18, 1935 remains a proud day for the Gordon family, which hails from Auburn and owns a cabin on a private lake near Soda Springs.
“I still run into classmates of mine who say their parents talked about it a lot,” Janet Hill, Gordon's daughter, said of the swim. “A guy I ran into recently said every time his family drove by Donner Lake, his father said, ‘I knew Barbara Gordon, who swam Donner Lake.' … So it's talked about a lot.”
According to the newspaper reports, Gordon's time of just under 2 hours eclipsed the marks previously set by Dr. Walter Anderson of Monterey and Captain Levy of the San Francisco Police Department, both of whom finished in 2 hours and 10 minutes when they completed the swim 15 years earlier.
As a testament to how far swimming technology has come since then, media accounts also noted that, “Instead of wearing grease and swimming in the nude, as most long distance performers do, Miss Gordon will wear a regulation bathing suit.”
But then again, open-water swimming in the 1930s isn't what it is today — an age when hundreds of swimmers race across the 2.7-mile length of the lake each summer as part of the Donner Lake Open Water Swim, and many people have now made the considerably more demanding, 22-mile swim across Lake Tahoe (including several this summer).
Nevertheless, at the time Gordon also was urged to swim across Donner's much larger neighbor — “efforts will no doubt be made to have her attempt the swim across Lake Tahoe,” reads a newspaper clipping from her Donner swim — but she wasn't interested, Hill said. Taking on Donner Lake was plenty ambitious for the teen, who trained for a month leading up to the swim at the private lake where her family owned a home.
Childhood friend June Siegner, now 93, still remembers helping Gordon train by rowing a boat alongside her as she swam laps across the lake. She also said she remembers with clarity the moment her friend emerged from the water at the east end of Donner Lake.
“I remember her walking out of that water. I'll never forget it,” said Siegner, who now lives in Lincoln. “She had a smile a mile wide.”
Siegner said it was a momentous event for the time, drawing many spectators to the shore of the lake to watch.
“There were a lot of people there. There were strangers. I didn't even know most of them,” she said.
Gordon died of cancer in 1970 at age 52.
“We've wondered what made her do that, and I have no idea,” Hill said of her mother's desire to become the first woman to swim across Donner Lake. “I'm not sure why she wanted to do it, other than she was just athletic.”