Donner Summit is the site of the first transcontinental railroad, the first transcontinental highway (the Lincoln Highway), the first transcontinental air route, and the first transcontinental telephone line. It has been a core site for many different industries: agriculture, sawmills, forestry, mink farming, ice harvesting, dairy cattle, railroading, highway maintenance, tourism, and the ski industry.
It was a physical and symbolic obstacle to America's western expansion during the nineteenth century. The legendary struggles of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-47, along with an enterprising drive to surmount the summit via railroad, fueled a young nation's ''Manifest Destiny'' to stretch its boundary from coast to coast.
Artists depicted Donner Lake, the closest body of water to Donner Summit, more frequently than any other in the Sierra range. Unlike the flat, picturesque expanse of Lake Tahoe's surface, the view of Donner Lake from the summit offered a dramatic, sublime vista layered with historical and symbolic significance.