The fundraiser is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20 in the Tuolumne County Museum and Historical Society courtyard, 158 Bradford St., Sonora.

Laurelin Lewis, the new co-owner at Dardanelle Resort, called Billie Lyons at the Tuolumne County Historical Society on Aug. 3 to invite Lyons to an event she was planning Aug. 18 to share history about the 95-year-old mountain river retreat, and the cabins nearby.

The Donnell Fire was not big or threatening at that point. But by the morning of Aug. 6, the Dardanelle Resort main lodge, dating to 1923, lay in ashes, along with scores of cabins and other structures that go back generations.

Lewis and her husband Jim were devastated. They’d closed escrow and taken ownership of the resort in May.

Lyons, as curator for the Tuolumne County Museum and Historical Society, was devastated, too. She’d received more than 60 messages, texts and phone calls Sunday and Monday from people concerned about the loss of Dardanelle.

“This is why they touched me,” Lyons said Wednesday, slowly blinking back tears in the museum archives off Bradford Street in Sonora. “She called me before the resort’s main building burned to the ground. The business was still standing. She asked me to be there, and I was going to take old photos of the original lodge and through the years, and some of the history to share.”

Lyons said she and her husband had set out Aug. 4 to drive Sonora Pass to get to Carson City for a meal. When they drove through the Dardanelle area they knew the Donnell Fire was getting bigger.

When they reached the east side of the pass and got down by the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center at Pickel Meadows, she got text alerts advising of evacuations of campgrounds near Dardanelle Resort. When they drove back to Sonora, Highway 108 was closed and they had take Highway 88 over Carson Pass to Jackson.

Fearing the worst

That Sunday she started getting messages from people fearing the worst for Dardanelle Resort and the cabin communities nearby.

“The entire county knows about Dardanelle,” Lyons said.

By Monday Lyons knew the historic main lodge at Dardanelle had burned. She received messages from at least 20 people that day, people saying “we have to do something” and “we have to go help clean up.”

She was so sad deep down inside, especially when her thoughts turned to Laurelin Lewis.

“I talked to that sweet woman on Friday about the event she wanted to host,” Lyons said. “And it’s all gone now.”

Lyons said she has lived through a destructive fire and its aftermath, back in 1996 in Denair. She said she had insurance, but people don’t understand, even when you have insurance, even though a structure is not there, you still have to pay the same bills, including mortgage payments, property taxes and general expenses until the rebuild. And there are delays sometimes and you don’t get your insurance check.

“I still had my business,” Lyons said. “But their business burned down.”

Fundraiser

So Lyons is planning a fundraiser for the Lewises at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 20 in the courtyard at the Tuolumne County Museum and Historical Society.

“What we’re trying to do is to help them make it through to the next steps where they can rebuild,” Lyons said. “This fundraiser is going to the Lewis family to pay personal expenses until they can rebuild, because they have no income right now. This is not to fund the rebuild. That comes later.”

Lyons has invited a local musician, Matt Thorup, who has written a song about his family’s cabin about a mile west of Dardanelle, in what’s known as Riverside Summer Home Tract. Thorup said Wednesday he’s been told the cabin has survived. He’s composed a song about it called “Lucky Number Seven.”

“My great-grandparents built the place in 1929-1930,” Thorup said. “We’ve been going up every summer and fall all my life. We’re very fortunate. The fire went right around it.”

Thorup posted the song to YouTube on Aug. 17 and asked people to buy it for $1 a download, with all the proceeds going to help cabin people and other families rebuild whatever they lost in the Donnell Fire. By Wednesday afternoon, Thorup’s song had more than 965 views on YouTube. The song can be downloaded from multiple platforms, including Google Play, Amazon and CD Baby.

“We’re lucky but we’re very sad for our neighbors,” said Thorup, who lives in Lincoln, outside Sacramento. “Families are just getting started on clean up so it’s a long road ahead. We hope momentum builds and maintains.”

Feeling the losses

The Lewises are trying to stay upbeat but it’s hard to keep positive all the time when a business nearly a century old burns to the ground.

“We keep reflecting on it,” Laurelin Lewis said. “The resort stood for 95 years and we had it three months. It was really shocking. And devastating.”

Jim Lewis met with people Wednesday to talk about getting cleanup started next week. He’s hiring a crew and vehicles and heavy equipment.

Laurelin Lewis said she and her husband are grateful the four-room Dardanelle motel survived the fire, because it was her favorite building and it will give them a base of operations they can stay in. Jim Lewis is planning to put a water system in next week.

The Lewises are also glad the gas station is still standing. Before they bought the place, the gas pumps at Dardanelle weren’t running. When there’s no gas at Dardanelle the nearest gas is Cold Springs, 25 miles west, or Bridgeport, 45 miles east.

“We re-opened the gas station when we took over,” Laurelin Lewis said. “Sometimes we’d get customers telling us they were so glad we’re there because they just coasted in on empty.”

The Lewises, are both native to Tuolumne County. Jim grew up in Jamestown and Laurelin in Soulsbyville. They live most of the time in a town called Monte Rio on the Russian River in Sonoma County. The deadly, destructive Wine Country fires a year ago came within 25 miles of their place. Right now, Jim is staying with family in the Sonora area, to be closer to Dardanelle.

Laurelin Lewis said she feels blessed by the outpouring of support she and her husband and their three young children have received since early August.

“She’s so generous,” Lewis said of Lyons. “She has been one of our strongest supporters. She was willing to share history about the place before we lost it, and now since the place did burn. We’re so overwhelmed and excited to collaborate with her going forward. She’s offered to provide photographs and old building plans for the main lodge when we rebuild.”

Lewis and her husband are looking forward to connecting with Thorup and other cabin owners at the fundraiser. She emphasized that when she says “mountain community” she means anyone who has a connection to the Sonora Pass area.

“I mean anyone who goes up there, anyone who has a connection with the area up there,” Lewis said. “That’s what motivated us to get involved at Dardanelle in the first place. We grew up visiting the Dardanelle area, too.”

A keepsake

Lyons said she hasn’t been back up Highway 108 since early August. She said she can’t handle it yet because she knows the smells and scenes of devastation will take her to something she’s not emotionally ready to see.

She knows what everybody up there is going to go through when they confront destroyed memories, and it’s going to be hard. But she knows people are going to rally and positive dreams are going to rise from the ashes.

“When bad things happen it brings out the best in people,” Lyons said. “It makes me cry how many calls I got from people who want to help out.”

To raise more money at the Sept. 20 event, Lyons is putting together photo DVDs with 40 or so historic images from Dardanelle Resort and the Dardanelle area. She plans to sell them for a minimum $25 donation and she hopes people will find them valuable.

“It’s never going to be the same at Dardanelle,” Lyons said. “So much has been lost. But this is going to be a keepsake. So people can remember what was up there.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Donnell Fire had burned 36,349 acres, more than 56.7 square miles, and it was estimated to be 85 percent contained.

The Donnell Fire has destroyed 54 cabins, homes and commercial buildings and 81 other structures, according to the Forest Service. It also destroyed the old Dardanelles Bridge, which dated to the 1930s.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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