PBS to air film about region
A documentary featuring the first pioneers to walk along the Lake Tahoe Basin other than Native Americans will be aired on regional PBS stations in the coming months.
The “Forgotten Journey,” which offers a stark contrast to the Donner party’s tragic journey west to the North Shore, may be viewed 9 p.m. Aug. 31 on KVIE, Channel 6 out of Sacramento and 9 p.m. Oct. 2 and 5 p.m. Oct. 7 on KNPB, Channel 5 out of Reno.
The Stephens, Townsend and Murphy saga depicts the 2,000-mile odyssey of a wagon train of 50 people who set out from Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1844 and ended up at Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley in 1845. They crossed Wyoming’s south pass, Idaho, northern Nevada to the North Shore of the lake via the Truckee River and west in the Desolation Wilderness from Meeks Bay.
Unlike the Donner party, the three families added to their clan when two babies were born along the way. They also followed the leadership of Dr. John Townsend, farmer Martin Murphy and blacksmith Elisha Stephens with a cohesion that may have kept them alive.
“They had the kind of cohesion that they didn’t have in the Donner party,” said South Lake Tahoe historian Lyn Landauer, one of a handful of historians and authors interviewed for the documentary.
Landauer attributes this cooperation to the connections in the group. Many traveled together over the long haul and were friends and relatives.
She also applauded the preparation behind the journey.
“They planned everything well,” Landauer said. This includes the food prep that included beans, rice and dried fruit.
But the success of the journey didn’t negate the difficult conditions.
At one point in the video, Landauer said they were forced to cross the Truckee River 10 times in a one-mile stretch.
“They must have had frozen feet,” she said of the cold, harsh November winter conditions. The men made snowshoes from rawhide and hickory bows from the wagons.
Like the Donner party, the group was forced to separate. In a pivotal turn, the party parted at the intersection of the Truckee River and Donner Creek near Donner Lake. They took five of the 11 wagons over the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range that physically and psychologically sealed off California from the nation.
When the group appeared stranded upon confronting a near-insurmountable 10-foot rock wall, Stephens prayed for a passage. It’s been documented that his vision, that showed an opening with barely enough room to drive an ox through,got the pioneers through the Sierra Nevada.
The little-remembered story of the remarkable journey marked four years of work for producer and historian John Krizek of Toluca Lake. It was adapted from a historical book written by Jim Rose of Nevada City. Emmy award-winning videographer Kit Tyler and writer Miles Saunders joined Krizek on the production that cost about $150,000.
“It became a labor of love that kind of went beyond what I thought,” Krizek said from the annual trails association conference in Casper, Wyoming. “But when you go into the unknown, you know you’re going to get the unexpected, so you just plow forward.”
Still, Krizek is satisfied with the outcome and reactions from teachers.
“Teachers appreciate having the tool because all they have is the Donner party (story), which was a disaster, and the Gold Rush, which was an entirely different journey,” he said.
Betty Mitchell of the Lake Tahoe Historical Society expressed interest in putting on a local showing of the documentary, but a venue needs to be lined up. The Lake Tahoe Community College may present an option.
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