Woman’s historic Donner swim to be memorialized

TRUCKEE, Calif. — An interpretive sign memorializing a woman’s historic achievement on Donner Lake nearly 78 years ago will soon be coming to West End Beach.

On Aug. 18, 1935, 17-year-old Barbara Gordon braved the cool, choppy waters of Donner Lake, swimming its length of 2.7 miles in a record time of one hour and 50 minutes — 20 minutes faster than two men who completed the swim 15 years earlier.

“We were always aware that Mom was the first female to swim Donner Lake, but it wasn’t really talked about much,” said Janet Hill, Gordon’s daughter, during a recent presentation to the Truckee-Donner Recreation & Park District board of directors. “It was just something that happened in the past when she was young, and I never considered her famous — she was just Mom.”

That sentiment changed, Hill said, when Gordon’s accomplishment was revived in a 2010 Sierra Sun story commemorating the 75th anniversary of her swim.

“Seeing that story in print, I began to realize two things,” Hill said, according the Tahoe Daily Tribune. “One, it really was a big deal for the time, and two, people are interested in learning about it. So I have a new mission: to generate recognition for her as a distance swimmer and a pioneer for open water swim, particularly for women, and to establish a memorial.”

Gordon died of cancer in 1970 at age 52.

As for where the sign will be placed at West End Beach, where Gordon started her swim, a spot between the southwest end and the pavilion is being examined, said Dan O’Gorman, recreation superintendent.

“It’s an excellent idea,” said TDRPD chair Kristin York, prior to the board’s approval. “There’s history at that beach, and we should honor it.”

The goal is for it to be up when the Donner Lake Open Water Swim takes place Saturday, Aug. 17, Hill said. The top female finisher of the event this year will receive the first Barbara Gordon award.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment