Episode 2: Beneath California’s Reservoirs

Hey there! My name is Alli, and welcome to A Noble Earthquake, a podcast about California history…

This is the sound of the Los Gatos Creek, a 24 mile stream running from the Santa Cruz Mountains through to the Guadalupe River in downtown San Jose. But along the way, the stream is impounded by the Lenihan Dam, where it forms the Lexington Reservoir. This manmade lake, which at capacity holds 19,044 acre feet (don’t ask me to convert that to gallons – just know that it’s A LOT OF WATER), is the second largest reservoir in the Santa Clara Valley water district, and beneath its waves lie the remains of two towns that were flooded by the need for more water in the valley.

I used to volunteer and work at the Waterworks Museum in Boston; I ran the social media for the museum and did research on the collections. This required that I learn a thing or two about reservoirs, water storage and systems, and the like. So I went down the rabbit hole that was learning as much as I could about the water storage systems in Massachusetts, how Boston gets its water, etc. And then that interest grew as I learned about other areas, and particularly when I started researching the drought here in California.

Learning about the drought got me a little obsessed with checking the reservoir levels on the California Department of Water Resources reservoirs pages, and that eventually got me interested in learning more about the reservoirs themselves. Back in Massachusetts, we only have 2 reservoirs: the Wachusett and the Quabbin, and the Quabbin has 4 towns buried underneath it (Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott). I became obsessed with these towns, guys. I went so far as to drag my dad out to Petersham, along the northeast shore of the Quabbin Reservoir, so we could go hiking to find the remains of Dana Town Common.

So of course, when researching the reservoirs here in California, I knew there had to be towns that had been disincorporated and flooded in the interest of providing sources of fresh water to towns and farms nearby (or not so nearby). There are 1300 named reservoirs in California, so you can only imagine how many towns might have been disincorporated or relocated in order to create those reservoirs.

I just want to point out, when I say that towns were flooded, I don’t mean that people woke up one morning to see their houses slowly starting to fill with water. Water management authorities would let residents know ahead of time that their town was in the perfect spot for a reservoir, and would buy their land (usually way below market value). Some people chose to stay until the very last minute, but in general, people were given time to pack up and restart their lives somewhere else.

If you drive on highway 17 through Los Gatos, you can see the Lexington Reservoir on either side of the highway. Before the highway, the reservoirs, and even the railroad, there were two towns in this area – Lexington, and Alma. Starting out as a sawmill built in 1848, Lexington became an actual town when it was purchased by Zachariah Jones, and called the area “Jones Mill.” In 1860, the town was renamed to Lexington, after a property owner’s hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. The sawmill, which took advantage of the booming lumber business in the Santa Cruz Mountains, was the first in Santa Clara County. The town eventually became a stop of the stagecoach route between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz; and with stagecoaches eventually came booze. Alcohol was illegal in Los Gatos in the late 1800s, but not in Lexington, so there were plenty of saloons in town for both visitors and residents alike to quench their thirst.

23 years after Lexington was first founded, the town of Alma was established. It was considered a counterpart to Lexington, and was also a rest stop along the stage coach route. When the railroad was built in 1880, it bypassed Lexington (perhaps what some would call a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”) in favor of the less scandalous Alma. On top of this snub by the railroad, the lumber industry had begun to decline, forcing the mines to move out of Lexington. It was at this point that the town of Lexington began to decline – eventually its post office was even transferred to Alma.

Alma didn’t survive much longer, though. There were major storms in the 1940s that damaged the railroad tracks leading into town, forcing people to begin using highway 17, which completely bypassed Alma. Eventually, both towns faded away, leaving behind traces of their existence; in what used to be Alma, there is a bridge that once crossed the Los Gatos Creek, stamped “1926”.

Eventually, the expansion of the orchard industry in Santa Clara necessitated additional water supplies, and the site of Lexington and Alma was chosen as the perfect place to create a reservoir. The Los Gatos Creek ran right through the little valley, allowing for the impounding of the stream to create a manmade lake that would sustain the agricultural business. The construction of the Lexington Dam started in 1952; but in times of extreme drought (like the most recent one over the last few years), you can still see traces of Lexington and Alma at the bottom of the reservoir.

Like I said, there are dozens of disincorporated towns that now lie at the bottom of reservoirs throughout California. If I were to tell you about all of them, you’d fall asleep before this episode ended. For now, I want to tell you about the towns underneath the two largest reservoirs in the state, Shasta and Oroville.

Shasta Lake actually has EIGHT towns beneath its waves. EIGHT. I guess that makes sense considering it is the largest reservoir in the state, holding a massive 4,552,000 acre-feet of water (someone with real math skills can do the conversion to gallons on that for me). Beneath Shasta are the remains of the towns of Kennett, Morley, Baird, Copper City, Elmore, Etter, Pitt, and Winthrop (heyyo Massachusetts!). I did quite a lot of noodling around online to learn more about these towns, but could only really find information about Kennett, the largest town flooded by the reservoir.

The area around Kennett was originally home to several groups of Wintu Native Americans before being settled by European-Americans. The town was first built as a mining town in the 1850s when gold was discovered nearby, and eventually grew to mine copper ore as the railroad brought more people to town. Like many small mining towns, the economy of Kennett prospered during World War I, when the price of metals went up. Unfortunately the end of the war meant the beginning of a depression, as the peacetime economy couldn’t support the wartime levels of workers. The largest mine in town closed in 1923, killing Kennett’s economy and forcing many people to leave for good.

Kennett was disincorporated in 1931, and in 1935, construction on Shasta Dam began. According to every source I looked at, there are no records that anyone in the federal or state government discussed the matter of building a reservoir with the remaining residents of Kennett, which is unsurprising giving the period in which the dam was being built. Most people sold their homes quickly, though some stayed until the water from the impounded Sacramento River began to creep into their homes. By 1944, the town was completely flooded; what remains now lies under roughly 400 ft of water (give or take, depending on the levels of the lake).

If you want to see some photos of Kennett during its heyday, I’d recommend checking out the collection of digitized photographs held by CSU Chico; they’ve got a great collection online that I’ll link to on Twitter (since I just found out I can’t link to things on Soundcloud!).

The last reservoir I want to talk about is Oroville. If you’ve been paying attention to local news the past few months, you’ll know about the spillway break at the Oroville reservoir; but for those of you that don’t know, I’ll give you a very quick refresher.

This past winter was a very wet one for California, which is good because the state has been suffering through a drought for the past few years; it’s been recorded as the wettest winter in Northern California in over 100 years. Because of all of the rain and snowmelt, the spillway at Lake Oroville needed to be opened to relieve pressure on the dam wall. But after even more rain, the rate of the flow along the spillway went up to 50,000 cubic feet of water per second, and a hole started opening up in the concrete spillway. And of course, because of how much water was still pouring in to the lake, there was no choice but to keep using the damaged spillway, which only made the hole worse. A few days later, the emergency spillway gets activated, but that’s literally just an earthen spillway, it isn’t concrete and hasn’t been used since the dam was finished in the late 1960s; and between the use of the two spillways, all of the debris and dirt is causing issues in the Feather River. And of course, during all of this, almost 200,000 people had to be evacuated from the area in case the dam broke.

Y’all, you know I was following this like most people follow their soap opera dramas. OBSESSED. So, of course, now there’s a big investigation into what happened with the primary spillway, and meanwhile it’s like, completely destroyed, so the state is working overtime to fix it before next winter. If you want to know more about it, I’m going to share a link to KQED’s timeline of events, because they did a bang-up job of keeping track of everything that happened.

But before Oroville even existed, there was a town called Bidwell’s Bar, once a gold mining camp in Butte County, northeast of Sacramento, at the end of one of the legs of the California Trail. It was founded by John Bidwell, who led the first emigrant party (the Bidwell-Bartleson Party) west to California and established the California Trail (if you listened to the first episode, you know that!). At its peak, the town had a population of around 2000, but quickly declined as gold in the area disappeared. And, as is the story with so many towns flooded by reservoirs, it was eventually abandoned for greener pastures, and flooded with the construction of the Oroville Dam in 1968. The town is actually designated as a California National Landmark, and I would assume there is a marker of some sort around the reservoir. Now the second-largest reservoir in the state, Oroville holds 3,537,577 acre-feet of water at capacity (which is why the spillway emergency was SUCH A BIG DEAL).

I would also recommend (and I will share on twitter) checking out videos of the Oroville Spillway from the California dept of water resources, they’re really interesting.

As I said, there are dozens and dozens of towns that suffered the same fate as Lexington and Alma, Kennett and Bidwell’s Bar; buried beneath trillions of gallons of water to supply this massive state with hydration and irrigation for crops. So again, check out the links I’ll share to twitter (or just google stuff from this episode) and feel free to tweet me if you have questions because seriously I know more about this shit than a normal human should.

That’s gonna do it for this episode of A Noble Earthquake, thank you so much for joining me! If you have questions or feedback, you can get in touch by tweeting @nobleearthquake, or you can send an email to anobleearthquake@gmail.com. Thanks again to Utopia, Ohio for letting me use their track “Coyote California” as the intro and outro of the podcast, and stay tuned for the next episode!

– KQED, The California Report: Oroville Update
– California DWR: Oroville Spillway Videos
– CSU Chico: Kennett Digitized Photographs
– SF Gate: Underwater Towns of Northern California
– California State Parks: Bidwell’s Bar Marker
– Mercury News: Los Gatos History, Ghost Town Remnants Resurface as Lexington Reservoir Levels Fall
– Mobile Ranger: Ghost Towns of Lexington Reservoir, Lexington and Alma

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