The US, like most other places in the world, has found its population steadily increasing since its inception. With this continued population growth comes the need to supply people with two key resources: power and water. Dams provide an efficient solution for both of these indispensable needs; a single hydroelectric dam can sustain hundreds of thousands of homeowners while simultaneously creating an easily accessible reservoir of drinking water. Therefore, it’s no surprise that there are tens of thousands of dams throughout the country.
Hoover Dam. Photo by Lauri Väin on Flickr (cc)
The construction of a dam, however, comes at a price. When a dammed river cannot flow freely along its original course, it floods formerly inhabitable areas to create its accompanying reservoir. This can result in a loss of habitat for local animals, as well as other ecological problems. It can also lead to entire towns being submerged for the greater good. These drowned towns are typically notified of their impending doom as construction on the dam begins, forced to abandon or relocate to a dry area, and then flooded as the dam is completed.
There are more than 1,000 drowned towns from various eras all over America. Many have been completely washed away by the force of their reservoirs, left indistinguishable from the surrounding lakebed. Other towns remain submerged, the husks of their buildings lurking just below the surface. Here, I’ll take a look at some of the most interesting cases.
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St. Thomas, Nevada
The pioneer town of St. Thomas (see map) was originally settled by Mormons in 1865. Led by Thomas Smith (who gave the town its name), this group of settlers fled to what was then the Utah Territory to escape a wave of religious persecution. St. Thomas flourished, growing to nearly 500 residents and even becoming a county seat. Then, disaster struck. A survey was conducted for the newly formed state of Nevada, and the residents of St. Thomas found themselves on the wrong side of the state line. This led to renewed persecution and years of back taxes owed. Most of the Mormon residents left, burning their homes on the way out and leaving St. Thomas as a ghost town.
St. Thomas, however, would not be neglected for long. New railroads ran straight through the area, leading to the town’s repopulation in the 1880s and 1890s. It once again grew to 500 residents, and became a stopping point for people traveling by rail and car between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Then, in 1928, President Herbert Hoover called for the creation of a massive dam to supply desperately needed water for the area. This dam (originally called the Boulder Dam, but renamed the Hoover Dam in its creator’s honor) would create Lake Mead and doom St. Thomas for good. The railroads and roads were rerouted, the town’s economy dried up, and residents were forced to leave. St. Thomas was flooded in 1938. As the story goes, the final resident of St. Thomas was Hugh Lord, who woke up to find Lake Mead lapping at his bed and paddled away from his home.
Ruins of St. Thomas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
At one point St. Thomas was submerged by over 60 feet of water. However, extreme drought conditions have drastically lowered Lake Mead and exposed the ruins of the town. While it is above the water line, the National Park Service allows hikers to see the remnants of this storied western settlement.
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Monte Ne, Arkansas
The next drowned town was quite a bit more lavish than St. Thomas in its heyday. Monte Ne, situated in the northwestern corner of Arkansas (see map) was the brainchild of William “Coin” Harvey. Harvey had made his riches riding the coattails of unsuccessful presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. He planned to use his money to build a no-expenses-spared health resort worthy of the entire nation’s attention. In 1900, he bought land for his venture and named it “Monte Ne,” using the Spanish word for mountain and the Omaha Indian word for water.
By 1907, Harvey had built 3 log cabin-style luxury hotels (the longest log buildings in the world at that time), a series of promenades, and a lagoon. He also commissioned a railway leading from cities to the north directly to Monte Ne, where a 50-foot gondola imported from Venice would take vacationers to their hotels. The resort was a roaring success for several years, and a small town popped up around it.
Postcard from Monte Ne Showing One of its Hotels, Circa 1910. Via Wikimedia Commons.
However, by 1910 Harvey’s fortunes were turning. The railroad failed, Harvey’s family abandoned him, and the resort found itself running low on money. Harvey, nearing bankruptcy and alone, became disillusioned and reasoned that the end of civilization was near. He decided to build a massive pyramid and amphitheater as a monument to his legacy should humanity collapse. Harvey built the amphitheater and the base of the pyramid, but the financial collapse of 1929 finally put an end to his plans. Harvey died in 1936 with $138 to his name.
The resort was sold and went through many name and ownership changes until 1960. At that time, the government decided to dam the nearby White River, flooding Monte Ne and drowning Harvey’s legacy. Today, several buildings from the resort, as well as Harvey’s tomb, remain above water. The rest is lost to Beaver Lake. However, when the water gets low evidence of the pyramid and amphitheater can still be seen.
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Quabbin Towns, Massachusetts
The creation of the Quabbin Reservoir (see map) actually drowned 4 towns: Greenwich, Enfield, Dana, and Prescott. Unlike the other entries on this list, these 4 towns didn’t have abandonment or money issues; In fact, they were flourishing. Still, there were rumblings of the tragedy to come. The rapidly growing city of Boston needed water – and the state of Massachusetts needed somewhere to put it. Tucked between hills, the Quabbin valley seemed to be the perfect place. By 1926, the decision was made to relocate the nearly 3,000 residents of the valley and create a reservoir, erasing more than 200 years of history. Flooding was officially scheduled to begin in 1936.
Overlooking Old Enfield. Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr (cc)
What makes the story of the Quabbin Valley unique is the manner in which it was evacuated. The Great Depression ushered in a slew of new work opportunities through organizations such as the CCC. The entire area of the future Quabbin Reservoir had to be clear cut and deconstructed; a perfect task for these workers. As could be expected, residents and workers (or “woodpeckers”, as the residents derogatorily called them), did not get along well. There are reports of residents waking up to find that woodpeckers had begun tearing their roofs off as they slept. By all accounts, the devastation of the area was profound – the easiest way to clear trees and buildings was to gather them into piles and burn them, and fires in the valley raged for months.
In 1938, a final farewell dance was held at the Enfield Town Hall. Thousands gathered to dance and mourn the loss of their hometowns. By the 1940s, all four towns had been completely swallowed. Today, only a few remains of Dana can be found above water, including the old town common and several cellars. While most former residents of the four towns have passed, a few still live in the area, and have been unafraid to express their bitterness at the loss of their childhood homes.
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