RENO, Nev. — A $20 million federal facility devoted to telling the story of the covered-wagon pioneers' overland journey during the California Gold Rush has opened in Nevada.
About 700 people gathered for a grand opening ceremony Saturday at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's California Trail Interpretative Center, located along Interstate 80 near Elko about 280 miles west of Reno.
It's the BLM's third trail center and the first federal facility devoted exclusively to the California Trail. The agency operates similar centers in Casper, Wyo., and Baker City, Ore., along the Oregon Trail.
The trail center's exhibits feature life-size dioramas, original artwork, interactive displays and multi-media presentations. They showcase a wide range of subjects, including a typical emigrant camp, the infamous Donner Party, the Gold Rush and American Indian tribes of Nevada and Utah.
"I've had some people say it's Smithsonian in quality and I truly do agree," center director David Jamiel told The Associated Press. "People are absolutely amazed when they walk through the door and see what we've done."
The trail center commemorates more than 250,000 adventurers who followed various branches of the California Trail across California, Idaho, Nevada and Utah between 1841 and 1869.
For the pioneers who turned left off the Oregon Trail for California's gold fields, the final one-third of their 2,000-mile trek marked the biggest challenge.
They were forced to cross the barren deserts of Utah and Nevada not only at the hottest time of the year but also when they were lowest on food and supplies. California's Sierra Nevada was the final obstacle before they reached the promised land.
The trail center's six galleries are organized by zones the emigrants encountered along the way: the Missouri River, the Great Plains, the Parting of the Ways (where the Oregon and California trails branched), the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah, Nevada's Forty-Mile Desert and the Sierra.
A large diorama depicting how the animals and equipment of the pioneers were breaking down by the end of the journey is featured in the Forty-Mile Desert gallery. Dead oxen and mules lined the trail in the western Nevada desert, which was the greatest scene of suffering along the entire route because of its total lack of water and forage.
The Donner Party story is told in the Sierra gallery and at listening stations throughout the trail center. Many members of the party starved to death and others resorted to cannibalism to survive when stranded in the Sierra in the winter of 1846-47.
The trail center overlooks the junction of the California Trail and Hastings Cutoff, a supposed shortcut across Utah and a portion of Nevada that was blamed for putting the Donner Party behind schedule and leading to their entrapment by snow in the Sierra.
"From here, you're seeing basically the same landscape the emigrants saw 150 years ago," Jamiel said, adding a section of trail traversed by the pioneers is located on nearby ranch property.
The Great Basin gallery tells the story of the overland journey from the perspective of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes. Based on information from tribal volunteers, it notes how the flood of pioneers changed their lives forever.
"We try to present a balanced story without judgment so people can draw their own conclusions," Jamiel said.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who secured funding for the trail center, said he has long been fascinated by the history of the California Trail and is pleased the facility will educate the public about its significance in the settlement of the West.
"I worked hard to preserve this important piece of American history," Reid said. "The trail center in Elko will become a major educational and cultural attraction in eastern Nevada that will diversify the region's economy."
Don Buck of Sunnyvale, Calif., a historian with the Oregon-California Trails Association, said the trail center is long overdue.
"People may not know a lot about it, but everybody has heard about the Gold Rush," Buck said. "There, they can go in and get a feel for it. There hasn't been anything on the California Trail of this magnitude at all. I think it will be a huge success."
Year-round operation of the trail center begins this week.