The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Immersed Remains: Towns Submerged In America

634 The Shasta Dam rises and houses sink. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation

ELBOWOODS, NORTH DAKOTA; KENNETT, CALIFORNIA; ENFIELD, Massachusetts; Neversink, New York; Butler, Tennessee; St. Thomas, Nevada. Each of these towns represents a different element of America’s development. Yet they all share the same fate: they, and hundreds of other communities like them, were vacated, demolished and flooded to make way for dams and reservoirs. Their remnants persist, preserved underwater, and sometimes emerge, as reminders of what was not allowed to be.

635 Elbowoods, North Dakota, is seen for the last time in this image, one of a series of photographs taken as the floodwaters of newly formed Lake Sakakawea approach the center of the evacuated town. Photo by Alan Woolworth, July 7, 1953, courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota

Elbowoods, ND - The Flooded Plain
Elbowoods was one of several Native American towns along the Missouri River which were permanently flooded following the completion of the Garrison Dam in North Dakota in 1953. The town was established in 1891, to be the local Indian headquarters for the region’s Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara tribes. By the 1950’s, many of the natives in town had become Christians, and operated the gas stations, stores, post office, and other businesses typical of a rural town of a few hundred people, as well as the reservation’s main school and hospital, also located at Elbowoods. The reservoir that formed behind the Army Corps of Engineers’ Garrison Dam was named after Sacajawea, the legendary Shoshone Indian woman who guided Lewis and Clark through the mountains of Montana. 200 mile long Lake Sakakawea, the third largest reservoir in the country, flooded a quarter of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, forcing the relocation of 325 families, nearly 80% of the population on the reservation at that time. Many moved to a newly established community called New Town, where now 1,500 members of the Three Affiliated Tribes live a modern life with a large casino.

636 Lake Shasta rises to flood downtown Kennett, California. Photo by P. E. Norine, January 8, 1944, courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation

Kennett, CA - Boomtown Sunk
Though the old mining town of Kennett was a faded relic of its boomtown self by the time it was flooded by Lake Shasta in 1944, it was still home to a hundred people. Like other “gold rush” towns in northern California, it was established for mining and prospecting in the region in the 1850s, though it wasn’t until a railroad camp was built in 1883, with over a thousand Chinese laborers, that the population began to rise substantially. Gold was discovered nearby the next year, and a post office came in 1886. The largest copper smelter on the west coast opened in 1905, and by 1911, 3,000 people lived in town. The hills around the town were exfoliated and denuded by the acid fumes from the smelter, and farmers in the valley 15 miles away began a suit against the company that operated the smelter, for destruction of their crops. The mines closed after the end of WWI, the smelter soon followed, and Kennett’s population fell over the next two decades. The town now rests beneath 400 feet of water, along with many of the region’s smelters, paint factories, and mines, and their surrounding despoiled soils.

CLUI photo

CLUI photo
View of the town of Neversink, obstructed by the water of the Neversink Reservoir. CLUI photo

Neversink, NY - Gotham's Thirsty Reach
Neversink (whose fateful name is said to be derived from the Indian word “ne-wa-sink,” meaning “continuously flowing”) was the larger of two communities that were removed from the reservoir site in 1942. The other town was called Bittersweet. A total of 340 people were evicted from the valley and 6,149 acres condemned. Some buildings were relocated to nearby towns, though most were bulldozed and burned in a “final harvest.” Trees were removed, cellars were filled in, privies disinfected, and even barnyard manure was said to have been dug up, to maintain New York City’s reputation for having the finest quality drinking water possible. The Neversink Reservoir began to flood the land on June 4, 1953, and took two years to fill.

638 A public viewpoint with a plaque showing the view of Enfield before the waters of the Quabbin Resevoir. CLUI photo

Enfield, MA - Valley of the Dammed
The scenic New England villages of Dana, Prescott, Greenwich and Enfield were disincorporated on the same day, April 28, 1938. Over the next year the valley was demolished and deforested by over a thousand “woodpeckers,” immigrant workers from Boston, who at times ran amok in the doomed landscape, living in the vacated houses along the Main Streets, burning churches without authorization. Some of the old buildings were moved to other towns, but most were bulldozed into piles and burned, as was 30 square miles of forest. The valley was on fire for months. In all 2,500 people were relocated. 7,000 bodies from local cemeteries were reinterred on higher ground. The Quabbin finished filling in 1946. It has no flood control, electrical generation, or navigation functions. It was built for one purpose only, to serve the drinking water needs of Boston, sixty miles away. Still called the largest single purpose reservoir in the nation, it is the city’s primary water source.

Butler, TN - The Deep South
Butler was the largest single community, and the only incorporated town, removed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) throughout that entire massive, depression-era public works project to modernize and electrify the rural parts of seven southeastern United States. Butler was the commercial center for the Watauga Valley, in eastern Tennessee, and the only real town in the region, with a population of around 600. It was a typical southern town, with two barbershops, two beauty parlors, markets, the Blue Bird Cafe, hardware store, drug store, a few service stations, a few hotels, three churches, a rail station, Masonic lodge, a brick City Hall, bank, and doctors and dentists offices. Located in the forested hills of Appalachia, local industries were mostly wood related, and included a lumber company, a crating company, a furniture company, and a casket company. In 1948, when the floodgates were closed, the Watauga Dam and Reservoir began flooding 458 square miles along the Watauga River. 735 families had been displaced. Around 175 buildings, including shops, barns, churches and homes, were moved to higher ground, to a new town site named New Butler. Most buildings were demolished on site, and 1,200 bodies were moved from the graveyards. Some families opted to leave the graves of their ancestors undisturbed, so they are still there, along with a reported slave graveyard that TVA crews never found. When “Old Butler” was exposed in the 1983 drawdown conducted to service the dam, Don Stout’s shoe store, made of stone, and the one room jail house, made of concrete, stood out from the other foundations and building pads along the muddy streets, still lined with trees, long dead but preserved by the water.

CLUI photo

CLUI photo
Foundations from the town of St. Thomas, Nevada. The townsite, normally up to 60 feet under Lake Mead, has appeared and disappeared five times since it was abandoned 65 years ago, according to the extreme and uncertain fluctuations of Southwestern reservoirs responding to regional drought. Each time it emerges, more of it is gone. CLUI photo

St. Thomas, Nevada - Draught and Drought
Like most of the early settlements in the desert southwest, St. Thomas was established in an area of available water, in this case the comparatively lush Moapa Valley, fifty miles northeast of where Las Vegas is now. The town started as a Mormon outpost in 1865, and was later part of a chain of agricultural communities in the valley following the Muddy River, including Moapa, Logandale, and Overton, that were otherwise surrounded by arid desert. St. Thomas had a peak population of around 500 people, and for a while was known for producing cantaloupes and asparagus. A railway spur served the valley, and US 91, the main highway to Los Angeles before Interstate 15, went through town, making it a stop for motorists. In 1938, however, as Lake Mead crept northward, filling in behind the Boulder Dam, St. Thomas, located at a lower elevation at the southern end of the valley, was flooded. At the moment, due to regional drought conditions, portions of forty buildings are visible at the exposed remains of St. Thomas, including the old school and the Hannig Ice Cream parlor. Also visible is the foundation of the Gentry Hotel, where former president Herbert Hoover stayed in 1932, while inspecting the nearby construction project he had helped to create. The Boulder Dam, which flooded the town, was later renamed in his honor.