TRUCKEE, Calif. — The keys to a newly constructed Donner Memorial State Park visitor center are days away from being turned over to California State Parks, but more work is needed before the building and its new museum will open to the public.
“Now, we’re starting the process of all the exhibit work,” explained Scott Elliott, supervising ranger of the Sierra District Campgrounds for California State Parks, standing in the bare room Tuesday where the new museum will be housed.
The museum at the state park located just east of Donner Lake will feature exhibits on the Donner Party, regional Native American history, history of railroad development through Donner Pass, and the construction of Interstate 80 and how transportation has played a role in state development. A long working title for the museum was the High Sierra Crossing Museum.
The target opening date for the museum is early 2014. It was previously slated to open this fall, but weather and design challenges pushed back the opening date, Elliot said.
In the meantime, visitors will continue to have access to the existing Emigrant Trail Museum, which depicts the history of the area along with the Donner Party, local Native Americans and builders of the transcontinental railroad.
“The feeling was the old exhibits were getting very stale, they’re very static, and to try to bring to life a little bit more of the amazing history we have here,” Elliott said.
Due to the Emigrant Trail Museum’s small size, along with it having structural deficiencies, not being fully accessible under ADA and maintaining high energy costs, it was found to be more cost effective to build a new museum rather than remodel the existing building, according to state parks.
Construction began mid May 2011, coming at a time when the California State Parks system was in the middle of its well-documented run of financial struggles.
“The juxtaposition, if you will, of having this (visitor) building being constructed while we’re closing parks, we expected some awkwardness there, but people come in and they’re just excited to see the new building,” said Elliott, adding that the new 10,000 square-foot building will also house a theater/multi-purpose room, a gift shop and restrooms.
Project costs, along with other park improvements such as a visitor center walkway, area landscaping, underground infrastructure improvements and a newly completed parking lot, is expected to be slightly more than $6 million, said Bill Johnson, construction manger for California State Parks.
Funding is provided by the Federal Highway Administration under the Intermodel Surfaces Transportation Enhancement Act grant administered by Caltrans, among other sources.
“This is not the same pot of money that we pay for, say, everything from seasonal employees and a kiosk,” Elliott said.
Upon project completion, the Emigrant Trail Museum building also will be used for archival storage, training, office space and meeting room space, Elliott said.
Among other amenities, Donner Memorial State Park features the Pioneer Monument, 2.5 miles of hiking trails, campgrounds, a picnic area, fishing along Donner Lake and Donner Creek and kayaking and canoeing opportunities.
“The feeling was the old exhibits were getting very stale, they’re very static, and to try to bring to life a little bit more of the amazing history we have here.”
Supervising ranger of the Sierra District Campgrounds
for California State Parks