Two months without rain or snow, and the water demands of a population greater than that of Canada, has caused the water levels in California’s reservoirs to drop significantly. As the water has receded, the foundations of the ghost town of Mormon Island have once again become visible within the basin of Folsom Reservoir.
While most attention has particularly been focused on that former settlement, there are several others closer to home.
All human settlement in our state has followed water sources. Native American villages in our valley and foothills were located along rivers and streams. The Gold Rush-era settlers also relied on these water sources for drinking water and for the gold that washed down them for hundreds of thousands of years.
Damming and diverting water for agriculture and flood control began in the late 1800’s. From a population of only 1.5 million in 1900, our state has grown to more than 38 million – largely possible due to these water infrastructure developments. As that happened, former settlements located along rivers were often inundated. In fact, under almost every large reservoir in the state there are remains of settlements made by both native peoples and the settlers of the 1800’s.
Closest to home, the communities of Exchequer and Bagby lie underneath Lake McClure. Exchequer was founded near the site of the original 1926 dam and will hopefully never be above water again. If it is, we are in for some hard times.
Bagby’s remains are located where Highway 49 crosses the eastern end of the reservoir. Closer to the surface, these foundations are often visible and can currently be seen. The construction of New Exchequer Dam from 1964 to 1967 buried the original dam and several miles of the Yosemite Valley Railroad’s former route.
Located near the boat ramp at McClure Point, Tunnels 3 and 4 are currently visible. Tunnel 3 runs beneath the campground. Both tunnels were being explored by a lot of visitors when I stopped by the lake last weekend. With McClure’s water level at only 22 percent of capacity, the original dam is visible, too, though access is prohibited due to safety concerns. Along with the concrete supports of the old railroad bridge, it’s best seen from a boat.
The former towns of Jacksonville and Don Pedro lay under Lake Don Pedro. The only above-water remnant is the Jacksonville Road between Jamestown and Moccasin Point. Don Pedro was covered by the first dam in 1923. Jacksonville and the first dam were covered by the new dam during 1967 through 1971.
To the north, the site of the town of Melones is below the waters of New Melones Reservoir. Petersburg lies under New Hogan Reservoir. Beneath Camanche Reservoir are the sites of Camanche, Lancha Plana and China Flat. Some of Camanche’s buildings still stand and were visible when the lake was nearly dry in 1992. Currently at 52 percent capacity, they are still well below the waterline.
To the south, Fresno County’s original county seat is beneath Millerton Reservoir. The reservoir is named for the former town. As construction of the dam began in 1941, the courthouse was disassembled and moved brick by brick to a new location on the shore of the lake where it serves as a museum today. It is open during the summer months. Also beneath the reservoir are the remains of the U.S. Army’s Fort Miller (1851-1964).
To the west, San Luis Reservoir filled a valley that had once been part of Francisco Pacheco’s El Rancho San Luis Gonzaga. The rancho’s 1843 adobe unfortunately collapsed when it was moved to Pacheco State Park during the construction of the dam. What remains can be seen today under a protective metal structure.
Hopefully we will see an end to this drought before long and these historic sites will remain submerged. I’ve listed the major ones that I know of – if you are aware of others or if you happen to have photos of the Camanche site when it was visible in 1992, I would love to hear from you.