The History of Donner Trail Ranch

The history of the Donner Trail Ranch at Verdi, 10 miles west of Reno, at the junction of the Truckee River, Dog Creek, and the historic Donner Trail Road, is intimately bound with the history of Western Nevada, as well as that of the gold camps of California and the earliest wagon trains and stage coach routes across the High Sierra.

The background history of the Donner Trail Ranch reaches far back to the first wagon train migrations across the High Sierra. On a route first marked out by the Washo and Paiute Indian parties, the old “mountain man” Caleb Greenwood in 1844, the Steven’ party in 1845 and the tragically-fated Reed-Donner party in 1846, the Emigrant Trail or the Donner Trail really began on the banks of Dog Creek and the Truckee River with a simple log structure built in 1849 that was used as a tavern and stage stop called Bull and Pepper’s Station. That structure burned down and it was on the evening of March 5, 1864 that the main Ranch House was formally opened as Merrill’s Inn, a stage coach and toll road stop on what had become the Henness Pass and the Dutch Flat Toll Roads from Reno to the gold camps of California. The route up Dog Valley Summit and thence southwest to Donner Lake carried much of the freight wagons between Virginia City and Reno on the Nevada side and the booming towns of Dutch Flat, Auburn and Sacramento on the California side. Completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1867 through the Truckee River Canyon at Verdi took much of the freight traffic off of the toll roads, but with the coming of automobile traffic in the early 1900’s and the designation of the Donner Trail Road as the Lincoln Highway, once again this route became a major transcontinental link for the growing West. As the Victory Highway, the road up what is now Old Dog Valley Road from the Donner Trail Ranch became the main auto and truck route between California and Reno until finally in 1927, U. S. Highway 40 was completed through the Truckee River Canyon.

The Donner Trail Ranch of 2800 acres was the result of gradual assembly and acquisition by many owners over the past 100 + years. It included the original Merrill, Fox, Hill and Holstrom ranches in whole or in part, as well as parts of the old Verdi Lumber Company holdings. Names well know in Verdi and in Western Nevada has been associated with the ranch over the years—the Waltz Brothers, the Kanes, Rankins, Canepas and Mosconis.

In 1945 the ranch came under the ownership of John “Jack” Fugitt. He moved the ranch building back from the Truckee River banks, remodeled and expanded it and developed it into an exclusive guest ranch. Fugitt sold the ranch in 1956 to a group of promoters who renamed it the Truckee River Country Club. In 1959, Harry and Joan Drackert leased the property from Baxton Realty Company of Los Angeles and New York and renamed it the Donner Trail Guest Ranch. The Drackerts offered their guests, many of whom were “six weekers”, a gracious introduction to “The West.” “Six weekers” was a term given to those that were looking for a quick divorce as it took six weeks to become a resident of Nevada. The ranch offered opportunities for horseback riding, hiking, hunting, excursions to Lake Tahoe and Reno or simply quiet rest as the guests preferred.

The Drackerts and their dude ranch operations were the subject of articles in national publications, both newspapers and magazines such as the New Yorker. These articles often mentioned the famous guests of the ranch. Among the rich and famous who stayed at Donner Trail were Saul Bellow, Evelyn Funt (Mrs. Allen Funt), Mary Rockefeller (Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller), Katherine Place (later, Mrs. Jackie Jensen), Margaret and Andreas Papandreou, Ernest Du Pont, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Alvino Rey and family (the King Family singers), and Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller. It was not unusual for a wedding to take place immediately following the divorce of one or both of the newlyweds. While the ranch was well known for it’s guests waiting for a divorce, there were many guests that visited for just pleasure.

The Donner Ranch… Recent & Present-Day History

Drackert’s lease was abruptly terminated in 1970 when the owners decided to subdivide the property. The main ranch house became the Donner Trail Dinner House in 1979, owned by Filiberto and Karen Ferroni. The restaurant was operated for seven years before closing in January, 1986.

The property was sold to Eldorado Hotel Association and is currently owned by Pioneer Inn Associates Ltd Partnership. In 1991 the guest buildings were demolished and the main ranch house was demolished in 1994. Today, the only structures are a pump house and cold storage at the location. An historical marker on the property points out that the ranch site was the last natural crossing of the river before the Henness Pass Road began its climb over the Sierra in 1866.