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Underwater Towns of California: A look at towns buried in watery graves

(Last Updated On: November 29, 2020)

Many of California’s lakes and reservoirs provide endless fun for visitors along with other vital resources like irrigation, hydroelectricity, and drinking water.

Yet, beneath the waters of some of these lakes and reservoirs lie remnants of towns dating back to the Gold Rush era. In fact, in a handful of lakes and reservoirs, scuba divers can head down to the murky depths and find various artifacts and structures.

In extremely rare cases, some of these towns come back to “life” during severe droughts where foundations are exposed and, for a moment, we can step back in time.

California has nearly 1,500 reservoirs that make up the state’s water grid. However, not all of them double as a liquid time capsule with towns from a bygone era.

The following is a growing list of occurrences where towns lie at the bottom of one of California’s man-made lakes.

Folsom Lake: Mormon Bar, Negro Hill and Others

By the late 1940s, plans were made to build a dam and a lake at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the American River located within three different counties: El Dorado, Sacramento and Placer.

This region was where some of the earliest Gold Rush camps and towns sprung up following the discovery of gold in January 1848 at Coloma.

Camps like Condemned Bar, Mormon Island, Negro Hill, and Salmon Falls grew into towns that were clinging on to their existence by the time the US Army Corps of Engineers began work on the Folsom Dam in 1951.

Condemned Bar was founded in 1848 and rose from a camp to a town in 1849. It was located roughly 2.5 miles northeast of the confluence. One of the county’s earliest bridges was located here as it connected El Dorado and Placer Counties.

Mormon Island was founded by members of the Mormon Battalion in the spring of 1848 after they heard about the discovery of gold at Coloma. It was located right near the confluence and became a vital stop between Sacramento and Placerville.

Within a few years, the town had more than 2,500 residents with hotels, stores, and other non-essential businesses. By the late 1940s, this town still had scattered families and surviving structures.

During severe droughts, the remains of Mormon Island come back to life in the barren lands of Folsom Lake.

Negro Hill was located across the South Fork of the American River from Mormon Island. It’s said that the Mormons originally mined that region in 1848, but moved on. In 1849, an African American minister and miners rediscovered the diggings and struck it rich.

There are two schools of thoughts on how the town got its name. One theory is that it was named after the African American miners. Another thought is that this area was named after the sediments found on the banks of the river.

One thing that can’t be disputed is how culturally diverse this town was with its 1,200 residents by 1853. However, in the 1940s, few remnants were left of the town. What had survived time, ended up at the bottom of the lake.

Salmon Falls was also originally mined by the Mormons, but didn’t become a town until 1850. It’s said to have been named after a waterfall nearby. At its peak, Salmon Falls had upwards of 3,000 residents.

By the 1940s, there were still a few structures that remained including a boarding house, building foundations, a cemetery and the old Salmon Falls Bridge.

The old bridge still exists, but like the foundations, they are beneath the waters of Folsom Lake. The town’s small cemetery was moved to the Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery along with the other towns that were buried under the waters of Folsom Lake.

Lake Berryessa: Monticello

Before Lake Berryessa was created, a thriving Napa Valley town called Monticello was the heart and soul of this region. But, by the late 1940s, talks of a dam and reservoir had gained ground. By the early 1950s, this idea became a reality.

Construction of the damn started in 1953 and was completed in 1957. At this point, the families who had been there for generations were all forced to move and the graves of hundreds of pioneers of this region were relocated.

The Putah Creek Bridge, which was first built in 1896, remains upright and under the waters of Lake Berryessa like a prominent feature inside a large aquarium. During severe droughts, the top of the bridge can still be seen.

Camanche Reservoir: Camanche, Poverty Bar, Lancha Plana

Like Folsom Lake, Camanche Reservoir was created at the intersection of three counties: Amador, Calaveras and San Joaquin. The lake filled up after a damn was completed on the Mokelumne River in 1963.

The reservoir was named after the town Camanche (spelled incorrectly by the founders), which lies at the bottom of the reservoir. This former Calaveras County settlement reached a peak of 1,500 residents during the Gold Rush. A post office was in use from 1861 to 1962.

By the early 1960s, all remaining residents and graves were removed as the East Bay Municipal Utility District constructed the dam and reservoir.

Poverty Bar was founded around the time of Camanche when settlers spread out along the Mokelumne River looking for gold. The camp grew in the early 1850s as mining became more successful. A town was thriving by the late 1850s before a fire wiped it out.

Although the townspeople rebuilt as much as they could, Poverty Bar wasn’t the same. Eventually, the population dwindled and the mines dried up. By the 1960s, the cemetery where many pioneers were buried had been relocated to Spanish Flat.

Originally called Sonora Bar, Lancha Plana, which means “flat boat” in Spanish, was first settled by Mexicans in 1848. When miners flooded the region to close out the 1840s, the town was renamed.

By the late 1850s, over 1,000 people lived in Lancha Plana. In fact, for a brief time, the town had its own newspaper. Lancha Plana was a thriving town with all the businesses that would make it an ideal location to live.

However, as residents eventually left for more prosperous opportunities, Lancha Plana was slowly being lost to time. 1932 saw California mark the town with a historical marker. But, that wasn’t enough to save this location as it would be buried in a watery grave by the 1960s.

Don Pedro Reservoir: Jacksonville

Also known as Lake Don Pedro, this reservoir was created in 1971. However, the first dam built here was in 1923 where a smaller body of water existed. This old dam is also submerged beneath Lake Don Pedro along with the old Gold Rush town of Jacksonville.

Jacksonville was founded in 1849 by Julian Smart and named after Colonel A. M. Jackson who opened the first trading post in 1849. Within a year, this camp grew into one of the most important towns along the Tuolumne River.

By the late 1960s, the residents of Jacksonville saw the writing on the wall as plans for a new dam were approved. Graves and other items were removed as townsfolk left. However, there were structures and remnants of the town that remained as the waters slowly overtook them.

New Melones Lake: Melones

The first Melones Dam was completed in 1926 and formed a small reservoir called Melones Lake. It was named after the Gold Rush town that was founded in 1848.

The town was first called Robinsons Ferry after the ferry boat service operated by John W. Robinson and Stephen Mead. It was then changed to Robinson’s in 1895 before taking on the name Melones in 1902.

A post office first opened in 1879 and ran until 1942 before being closed for good. In 1923, Paramount Pictures reportedly used Melones as a filming location for the silent film The Covered Wagon.

Unfortunately, neither history nor Hollywood could prevent the approval of the New Melones Lake and Dam which created a reservoir along the Stanislaus River and buried Melones beneath the waters in the late 1970s.

Old Whiskeytown Hotel (1959) University of California, Davis. General Library. Dept. of Special Collections

Whiskeytown Lake: Whiskeytown

Whiskeytown was one of the first mining settlements in Shasta County as a result of the Gold Rush in 1849. The town allegedly got its name from a barrel of whiskey falling from a pack mule and into a creek that the early settlers promptly named Whiskey Creek.

In fact, the mining camp was first named Whiskey Creek Diggins then Whisky Creek, Franklin, Franklin City and finally Whiskeytown.

It’s believed that the town sprung up around the same location where fur traders used to gather near the convergence of two different streams into Clear Creek. In 1852, the first woman arrived in camp. A few years later, over 1,000 people lived in the town.

Whiskeytown had many amenities that were symbolic of a town like stores and a hotel. Ironically, it took nearly 100 years after the settling of this region before the government finally allowed the post office to use the town’s name.

Construction of Whiskeytown Dam began in 1960 and the lake started filling up in 1962. President Kennedy dedicated the lake a few months prior to his death. The cemetery and a few structures were moved out of the flooding zone.

However, there were several structures that ended up at the bottom of the lake. When the water level is low and clear, you can see some of the buildings’ foundations.

Shasta Lake: Kennett and Others

Construction of the Shasta Dam along the Sacramento River began in 1935. Within the next decade, the dam was completed and waters began rising in what was now called Shasta Lake. However, there were several old mining and railroad towns still in existence when the lake was formed.

Of the nine towns that are at the bottom of Shasta Lake, none were bigger or more relevant than Kennett. By the early 1880s, the railroad had helped this town grow in population, status and size. A hotel, school, hospital and other businesses signaled that Kennett was here to stay.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Roughly 50 years after the town was founded, plans for Shasta Dam had sealed its fate with an upcoming underwater burial. At its peak, Kennett was the largest town in this region until Redding surpassed it.

Kennett (1910-1924), CA State Library E.F. Mueller Postcard Collection

Nevertheless, the town’s prominence was outweighed by the desires for a dam and reservoir. By the 1940s, Kennett was gone as the waters washed away the once prosperous town.

Baird was centered on a fish hatchery and one of the smaller settlements. Copper City grew out of the mining district of Pittsburgh, which also was its first name when the camp was founded in 1852.

By 1863, it had 14 saloons, six eating houses, two grocery stores, a blacksmith shop, a bakery, a butcher and other essential businesses. A school was established the next year. This town held the distinction of booming for gold, silver and then copper. Copper City saw a decline in population and businesses by the 1920s.

Delmar, which was a few miles above Copper City, was named after Captain Joseph Raphael De Lamar who bought the Bully Hill Mines and established this town by the turn of the century.

The town was born out of needs for the miners and their families. Delamar suffered a devastating fire in 1902, but was quickly rebuilt. Unfortunately, 40 years later, the town would end up at the bottom of the lake.

It’s unclear as to when Elmore was founded, but the town’s quiet beginnings seemed to be matched with its quiet departure into the waters of Shasta Lake. The same can be said about the communities of Etter and Morley.

Pittsburg, or Pittsburgh, was also located near Copper City and was founded in 1853. It was another town born from the mines as it became a hub for mining necessities. However, Copper City outgrew Pittsburg and many residents left for the bigger township.

It’s unclear when this town began to fade into history, but one could hazard to guess that when the mines dried up so did the town.

Winthrop was founded by the late 1800s and quickly grew into a mining town. A post office was established in 1900 and a school in 1901. In fact, the Winthrop schoolhouse was one of the surviving buildings after the town saw a sharp decline in population and commerce.

However, whatever remained of Winthrop was either removed or sent to a watery grave by the 1940s.

Lake Oroville: Bidwell’s Bar

Bidwell’s Bar, also known as Bidwell Bar or Bidwells Bar, was a gold mining camp founded by John Bidwell near the Middle Fork of the American River in 1848. Bidwell discovered gold in this region after spending time as a fur trader and also involved in other related bartering services.

Within a few years, the camp grew into a town and the population surpassed 2,000 residents. A post office, along with many other businesses, were thriving by 1853. This first suspension bridge (Bidwell Bar Bridge) west of the Mississippi was completed in 1856 after the previous one was destroyed by a flood.

As quickly as this town rose from the mining ditches, it faded into the dust of time almost as fast. By 1860, many residents had already bolted for nearby Oroville where the mines and businesses were flourishing. In the 1880s, the population of Bidwell’s Bar had fallen from 200 down to a few dozen people.

By time the 1960s came along, there were only a handful of remnants left of the town. Although, many other locations kept the Bidwell name for the region’s founding father, the town he created would not survive the desire to create a lake in this region.

In 1968, residents said goodbye to Bidwell’s Bar as Lake Oroville slowly swept over this gold rush town.  

Prattville Hotel 1910, California State University, Chico

Lake Almanor: Prattville

Lake Almanor was originally called Big Meadows as it was home to the Northern Maidu tribe. Eventually, settlers came to this region in the 1820s and 1830s. After the Gold Rush, miners fanned throughout the state looking for rivers to scour for gold and eventually made their way to the Big Meadows area.

By 1867, Dr. William Pratt established a hotel in this meadow and a town quickly followed. Residents agreed to name the new town Prattville after Dr. Pratt.

For the next few decades, life was good in Prattville with flourishing businesses and an increase in population. However, the future of this town was about to change when the Great Western Power Company began buying up land in this area around 1912.

By 1914, the dam across the North Fork of the Feather River was created and Lake Almanor began filling up. Interestingly, the lake got its name from the power company’s president Guy C. Earl who combined the names of this three daughters: Alice, Martha, and Elinore.

Today, a community by the name of Prattville exists on the southwest side of the lake. The pioneer cemetery and a few remnants of the town were moved to the modern day community. However, numerous remnants of the first Prattville met its watery fate and is buried beneath the reservoir.

Bagby (1910), San Joaquin Valley Library System

Lake McClure: Bagby

Around 1848, General John C. Fremont purchased a Mexican land grant the size of 44,000 acres in this region. By the early 1850s, the area of this land grant near the Merced River was called Ridley’s Ferry. It was named after Ridley who operated a ferry boat service.

Fremont built a large stamp ore mill and renamed the area Benton Mills after his father in-law US Senator Thomas Hart Benton. By 1859, Fremont built the first dam in this region. Unfortunately, his dam was constantly washed away by the rising river.

Fremont sold off his holdings in 1863 and a new mining company ended up constructing an improved dam made of wood and iron bolts.

By the 1890s, the town was now called Bagby as it was named after Benjamin Abner Bagby who was the first postmaster and a prominent businessman. He and his partners established a hotel, store and eventually a saloon.

The town ebbed and flowed with population in the late 19th century as the mines dried up. It would see a resurgence from 1907 to 1945 when it became a popular railroad stop for the Yosemite Valley Railroad.

Eventually, the railroad service ended and so did the town. By the 1960s, nearly 40 years after the first Exchequer Dam was built, the New Exchequer Dam was constructed in 1967 and it nearly quadrupled the size of Lake McClure, which was called Exchequer Reservoir until 1926.

Bagby had a few residents and structures that survived the loss of commerce. Unfortunately, what wasn’t moved from the region ended up being flooded and buried beneath the lake.

Lake Isabella: Old Kernville and Old Isabella

Originally called Whiskey Flat, Old Kernville was founded in 1860 as miners came to this region to work the Big Blue Gold Mine. Since alcohol wasn’t allowed at the mining site, Adam Hamilton threw a plank across two whiskey barrels and a “town was born.”

A few years later, by 1864, the town changed its name to Kernville after women and families began moving in. Townsfolk chose the name after typographer and explorer Edward M. Kern who accompanied John C. Fremont on his third expedition which took place in 1845-1846.

Fremont named a river after Kern as they camped alongside the river from December 28, 1845, until January 18th, 1846. In 1866, the state named the new county Kern County after Edward Kern. However, he had died at the age of 40 in 1863, before this honor.

By the late 1870s, Old Kernville had three hotels, a church, three saloons and other essential businesses. A post office operated from 1868 to 1951. During this time a school was constructed as well. The mine was worked until 1942.

In the 1940s, the state and federal government had agreed to create a reservoir in this region which meant Old Kernville was going to be flooded. The Isabella Dam and reservoir were completed by 1953.

The cemetery was moved a few miles away along with some buildings that still stand to this very day. Unfortunately, there were many buildings like the church and school that were demolished before the lake filled up.

Old Isabella was also created around the same time as Old Kernville. A post office was at this location from 1896 to 1853. The town was founded by Steven Barton in 1893 and named after Queen Isabella of Spain. The reservoir and dam took the name of this town.

During severe droughts, you can see the foundations of some of Old Kernville’s buildings.

Searsville Lake: Searsville

Between 1848 and 1850, Charles Brown purchased a portion of the Rancho Canada de Raymundo Mexican land grant from John Coppinger and named the new property Mountain Home Ranch.

By 1852, John Smith arrived and the following year August Eikerenkotter made his way to this settlement. They opened a store and hotel. In 1854, John Sears came to this site and eventually the town was named after him due to his postal contract.

Quickly Searsville became a booming town, but not because of gold. Instead, this town was born out of the lumber mills that were providing lumber to the nearby growing gold rush camps.

Searsville really began thriving when Dennis Martin arrived. In addition to his lumber and land ventures, Martin built the St. Dennis Catholic Church and also donated land for a cemetery. He became a wealthy man due to his time in Searsville.

By the 1860s, the town had multiple hotels, saloons, a blacksmith shop, a school, a post office and many other essential businesses. It seemed as if Searsville was going to become the central hub for San Mateo County, which became an official county in 1856.

Unfortunately, when the lumber mills dried up so did the town. The fatal blow came in the late 1880s when the Spring Valley Water Company bought up the land including the town. Their objective was to build a dam and create a reservoir.

In 1892, the Searsville Dam was completed. Most of the main structures of Searsville were moved. However, there were some foundations left behind.

It was quickly discovered that the water in Searsville Lake wasn’t drinkable. Because of this, the lake became a popular swimming hole and recreation reprieve for locals by 1922.

However, in 1975, Stanford University, which owned the region including the lake, closed down the reservoir to the public as it became part of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

For many generations, tales of the lake being haunted had become part of the lore of this location. Additionally, there were stories that when the murky waters cleared, you could see parts of the town at the bottom of the lake.

Silverwood Lake: Cedar Springs

Unlike other towns on this list, Cedar Springs wasn’t born out of gold mining or lumber mills. Instead, this town grew out of a farming community. Closing out the 1800s, there were three major ranches that resided in this area. Also around this time, an effort was made to encourage people to move into this region.

By 1910, roughly 100 families were living and farming in this area. Dr. Hewitt and his wife Ella became prominent figures and helped this community grow into more of a town in the 1920s and 1930s. Many residents of the Cedar Springs also became heavily involved in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Life was quaint and self-sufficient in Cedar Springs. Farming was a prominent source for prosperity, small businesses grew, and a school educated the children. But, that all came crashing down by the late 1950s when rumors of a reservoir became a reality.

In 1961, the state started buying up property in Cedar Springs. Although the residents fought and held out as long as possible, the Cedar Springs Dam was built and the lake was completed in 1971.

Most of the structures were removed, but some remnants of the town remain at the bottom of Silverwood Lake, which has become one of San Bernardino County’s premiere recreation areas.

Sources
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Rick

After many years of being a full time freelance writer, and a long time resident of this state, I've decided to turn my full attention toward California by exploring all that it has to offer. My goal is to inspire you to get out there and explore this amazing state. Please follow my adventures and news content by visiting Calexplornia daily or clicking on one of my Social Media accounts below.

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