Locals star in ‘Dead of Winter: The Donner Party,’ a documentary filmed in Leadville | VailDaily.com

Locals star in ‘Dead of Winter: The Donner Party,’ a documentary filmed in Leadville

A Weather Channel documentary about the Donner party stars three Vail Valley locals, Greg Webb and Sam Barry and Alex Barry. It was filmed in Leadville. That's Greg Webb in the hat. He plays William Foster.
Special to the Daily |

To watch

What: “Dead of Winter: The Donner Party,” a documentary by The Weather Channel

Where: The Weather Channel. Check you local listings for times.

More information: Vail Valley locals Samantha Barry, Alex Barry and Greg Webb star in the production, which was filmed in Leadville.

LEADVILLE — Alex Barry, Gregory Webb and Samantha Barry spent a week above Leadville last March in the snow, working as actors to film a Weather Channel documentary about the Donner Party.

While they were filming, the directors uncomplicated the acting process. Alex had to lie down in the snow.

“It was a little uncomfortable lying down in the snow without any warm clothes, although that certainly made it easier to act cold,” Alex said.

“Dead of Winter: The Donner Party,” premiered Friday on the Weather Channel and will be rebroadcast.

Local talent

Gregory Webb, 22, lives in Eagle, grew up here and graduated Eagle Valley High School.

The Vail Valley Theater Company put out a casting call for “Dead of Winter,” and Webb was giving Samantha Barry and her brother Alex a ride to Battle Mountain High School, where the auditions were being held.

Webb was hanging around, watching everything, when one of the casting people suggested he audition.

Figuring it’s better to have swung and missed than never to have swung at all, Webb stepped up. He has some acting experience and had some idea what to expect.

“They told me ‘act cold, act scared, play pretend the best you can,’” Webb said.

The next thing he knew, he was William Foster, a starring role.

Foster is the film’s protagonist, although he doesn’t start out that way.

After being stranded in the snow and cold, members of the Donner Party began to die. Other members ate the dead, until starvation inspired Foster to hatch a plan to kill and eat their two Native American guides.

“William Foster was the guy behind that plan,” Webb said.

Foster was one of the survivors.

Webb lives in Eagle and is doing as much acting as he can, dealing with agents and trying to make it.

Sam Barry played Forlorn Woman No. 3, with good reason to be forlorn. Her character was one of the Donner Party survivors, and for Sam, it was a character-building experience.

“When we filmed in Leadville, it was freezing,” Sam said.

Alex Barry played Patrick Dolan, who worked for the Donner family as one of their hired hands. Dolan died of hypothermia and then they ate him.

Alex lives in New York City and is working on a web series call “The Bromos,” along with doing stand-up comedy and going to school.

Alex also graduated Eagle Valley High School.

Filmed in Leadville

The Weather Channel filmed it in Leadville because they needed snow, and Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains didn’t have any last year. They spent a week in Leadville and filmed the rest in Nevada and Southern California.

“This tale had it all: human endeavor and failure, blunders, mistakes — all of the elements,” said writer Harold Schindler.

The Donner Party was part of a tide of immigration almost unparalleled in human history, and certainly American history.

Prior to the 1840s, fewer than 20,000 whites lived west of the Mississippi. A few years later, as Americans looked west, that number swelled to more than a half million.

“The American Dream has some nightmares attached to it, and this is one of them,” said writer Wallace Stegner.

It was no party

It was 170 years ago in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains that the Donner Party, more than 80 people strong, was traveling an untried route to California. They found themselves stranded in a spot that came to bear the name of expedition leader George Donner. Donner and the party spent the winter of 1846-47 snowbound in those mountains, in snow as deep as a two-story building.

As supplies and provisions ran out, some of the members resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.

More than 20 feet of snow fell there that winter, which happens occasionally, said the Weather Channel’s Tom Niziol. In 1952, that area saw more than 25 feet of snow.

Those storms roll in from the Gulf of Alaska and bring wet, heavy snow with them, Niziol said.

In the winter of 1846, the area was hammered by storm after storm, he said.

An October storm dumped more than six feet of snow on the Sierra Pass the Donner Party was to take. An eight-day storm followed that one. When skies cleared in early November, snow was seven feet deep. Another storm followed later in November.

“It is odd to watch the feverish ardor with which Americans pursue prosperity, ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get it, as if assured that they will never die,” the film said. “Of all the tales to come out of the American West, none has cut as deeply into the imagination as that of the Donner Party.”

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

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