ELKO — Step into a little theater at the California Trail Center and hear the story of the Donner-Reed party’s disastrous months stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains during winter.
The interactive video that recounts the Donner story is one of the new features at the California Trail Center that visitors can see and hear after a ribbon cutting Saturday, when the center opens full time.
The grand opening ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. in conjunction with California Trail Days, which will be held 10-4 both Saturday and Sunday at the center, featuring outdoor activities for all ages.
Doors to the center eight miles west of Elko at the Hunter exit of Interstate 80 will open after an 11 a.m. ribbon cutting Saturday, according to U.S. Bureau of Land Management park ranger Gary Koy.
California Trail Days drew roughly 1,000 people last year, and he said he expects more this year because of the grand opening.
He isn’t sure how many visitors the trail center will attract when it is open full time and fully marketed. The center opened to the public in the summers of 2010 and 2011, even though displays weren’t completed.
“Last summer, we had about 8,000 visitors with minimal marketing,” Koy said.
The grand opening is a long time coming since the late Paul Sawyer, the late Dale Porter and other California Trail enthusiasts broached the idea of a trail center.
It also has been a dozen years since Congress passed a bill authorizing the center and $12 million in funding toward the $18 million construction costs.
“I couldn’t get all the money at one time,” U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a telephone interview.
He said he used earmarks to obtain the money, back when earmarks were allowed, and he would challenge anyone to say the money wasn’t well spent. Earmarks are special appropriations attached to bills.
“This will be a major educational and western cultural attraction to everybody who will travel that route. They have all these life-size dioramas, original art, video productions and hiking trails. And it offers great views of one of my favorite places, the Ruby Mountains,” he said.
The Senate majority leader said he is sorry he can’t be in Elko for the grand opening of the trail center.
Along with the federal dollars, the Nevada Legislature provided $3 million, the City of Elko $2 million and Elko County $1 million for the $18 million center. Additional private donations and special grants, such as $210,000 in federal stimulus funds to finish the landscaping and hiking trails, helped with projects.
“It’s important people know this was a locally developed idea and the state, county and city supported it,” Koy said. “The staff here is very aware of it, and we will do our part to support sustainable tourism.”
Construction of the center building was completed in 2008, and the BLM has been working on the exhibits since that time.
“The vast majority of exhibits will be done, but we will always be doing fine-tuning. Also, the Great Basin Room dedicated to the native people of the region will be done over this coming winter,” Koy said.
“One of the things we’ve added I’m most excited about is the listening stations,” he said.
Visitors can listen to actors reading excerpts from diaries, “the actual words of the pioneers themselves as they were traveling through,” Koy said. “They can follow the Bidwell-Bartleson party and the Donner-Reed party through the whole trail.”
Nevada State BLM Director Amy Lueders will be first among guest speakers at the ceremony, which Western Shoshone elder Katherine Blossom will open with a traditional Western Shoshone blessing.
The other speakers will include Carl Roundtree, assistant director of the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System and Community Partnership; Matthew Tuma, regional representative for Reid; state Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora; former longtime Assemblyman John Carpenter of Elko; Claudia Vecchio, director of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs; Elko County Commission Chairman Jeff Williams; Elko Mayor Chris Johnson; and David Stanton, president of the California Trail Center Foundation.
Once the ribbon is cut, the doors will open. Visitors will start at the beginning of the California Trail in Missouri, where there are replica storefronts and the first of five audio stations. The Bidwell-Bartleson party “talks” about their successful trip that started in 1841. Emigrants continued using the California Trail until 1869, when railroads linked to provide cross-country travel.
Visitors then enter the Wyoming part of the trail, where dioramas featuring life-like mannequins show what life must have been like traveling this part of the trail.
The visitors move on to see an exhibit that shows the California Trail routes — the main trail and the Hastings Cutoff that the ill-fated Donner-Reed party took. The main trail came down from Idaho to Wells. The cutoff joined the main trail at the end of the South Fork Canyon, across from the trail center.
From there visitors enter the Great Basin Room, where there are exhibits and a map until the diorama is installed.
“We want to show the impacts of emigration on the native people and how it changed their lives,” Koy said.
Visitors then go to the Forty Mile Desert exhibit, see original videos on American Indians, wetlands near Fallon, see the Donner-Reed exhibit that tells the story of desperate, starving people who resorted to cannibalism, and the newest diorama of miners panning for gold at the end of the trail.
Trail Days events
Along with the chance to see the exhibits inside the center, there will be plenty of things to do out of doors during California Trail Days.
The theme for this year is “Commerce Along the Trail.”
California Trail Days presentations will include black powder demonstrations; a program on “Seeing the Elephant: Songs and Lore” by Chris Bayer, a musical historian; Pony Express demonstrations; “The Language of the Trade: Indian Sign Language by John Luzader, a nationally recognized historical interpreter; presentations of “A New Life at the End of the Trail” by Steve Beck from Sutter’s Fort State Historical Park in California; and “The World in a Trunk: Trade Goods of the West” by Luzader.
Outdoor activities will include a wagon encampment, wagon rides, an old-time medicine show featuring Dr. Quackinbush, gold panning, a Western Shoshone camp, a traders camp, Dutch oven cooking and samples, and oxen.
Children will be able to try on pioneer clothing, play with historic toys and do trail chores, according to the list of activities.
Live music for the ceremony will be performed by the Elko Overland Stage Theatre Company.
The center will be open 10-4 during California Trail Days, then close for a couple of days to give the staff a break before reopening.
Koy said the trail center hours this summer will be 10-6 seven days a week through Labor Day, but they will be adjusted to 10-5 Wednesdays through Sundays in the fall and winter. There is no entry fee, but there is a donation box.
Volunteers are still needed for the center’s full-time operations. Koy can be reached at 934-2467.