The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Immersed Towns Surface For Exhibit At CLUI

exhibit in gallery
Immersed Remains exhibit at CLUI Los Angeles. CLUI photo

OVER THE PAST CENTURY, HUNDREDS of towns have been drowned in the nation, primarily for reservoir construction. Collectively, these lost places offer an alternate version of the history of America. An exhibit at CLUI Los Angeles from January 21 through March 27, 2005 explored the phenomenon of these intentionally submerged communities.

The exhibit was the result of three years of periodic research on the subject, conducted by CLUI researcher Angela Loughry, assisted by Carrie Lincourt, Mike Asbill, and Matthew Coolidge. Research included communicating with many local historic organizations, town offices, museums, municipalities, and archivists, as well as government agencies like the TVA, the Bureau of Reclamation, state parks departments, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Individuals from the Submerged Cultural Resources of the National Parks Service were helpful, though the majority of work conducted by this government entity focuses on Native American artifacts, lost to the likes of the waters of Lake Powell, or historic offshore shipwrecks. Similarly, obscure books with promising titles like 50 Dives in 50 States offered just a few pieces of this submerged history. No nationwide survey of the cultural resources these sacrificed towns represent seems to exist.

The methodology originally developed for the exhibit included presenting contemporary views of some of these underwater communities, if at all possible. An inventory of possible sites from across the country was assembled in a database. Diving shops and clubs in the vicinity of the townsites were contacted to determine if anybody had direct experience with the towns. Few did, and even fewer had any photographs. In areas that were more densely populated, like the northeast, reservoirs are often part of a municipal drinking water supply, and recreational use restrictions prevent divers from having easy access. Remarkably, one exception was found in the largest manmade body of water in New England, the Quabbin Reservoir. A biologist named Ed Klekowski from the University of Massachusetts had accompanied a state police Underwater Recovery Team on a rare exercise on Quabbin, and had taken video equipment explicitly to document the communities of the Swift River Valley that were lost when the Quabbin was built in the late 1930s.

Vivid video like this of other drowned towns proved illusive. Many of the towns were located along river valleys now so deep under water that no diver could easily visit, and no light would penetrate to those depths. Attempts to troll for deep remains were made by the CLUI using a submersible infrared camera, with an attached light source. In all cases the murky, silty water proved impenetrable, and the imagery unsatisfactory.

As the list narrowed down, visits were made to over a dozen reservoirs to capture images, follow up leads, meet with knowledgeable locals, and examine archives.

Over time, as patterns for the stories of the subjects emerged, and the types of documentation available stabilized, the final structure for the exhibit formed. Three curatorial threads would bind it together. The first would be a timeline following the settlement and development of the United States; the second would show a transformation of documentary forms (from intentional black and white photographic recordings, to video, to fresh digital pictures); and the third would evolve from the beginnings of disappearance, through total loss, to a rediscovery, a revisitation, and a reemergence.

Finally, six towns under six reservoirs were selected to portray this multifaceted phenomenon, through a variety of media. In each case, an image of downtown would show the community as it looked soon before the flood, and a map would show where the town was, and where, now, the water is.