Inundated Underwater Cities

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By Jonathan Haeber

Downtown Kennett, California
Downtown Kennett, California. Notice the “Meat Market” sign in the center building. photo courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Shasta DamIn 1944, the Bureau of Reclamation closed the gates at Shasta Dam and began inundating the vast network of valleys in the Shasta National Forest. In the valleys resided three unique cities, a fish hatchery, and thousands of residents.

It may not compare to the estimated 1.9 million people displaced by China’s Three Gorges Dam project — a project that is five times as large as the Hoover Dam. However, it was an important location in the West’s history. Some of the largest copper mines resided in the mountains around Shasta. The largest of which was not consumed by the waters of Shasta Lake: The Iron Mountain mine, between Shasta and Whiskeytown. Effluence coming from Iron Mountain has been professed to have a negative pH (the only known natural negative pH). It is more acidic than battery acid.

Not only was there sulfuric acid, there were also smelters, used in the copper refining process. The process of refining copper released toxic smoke into the air. The hills were denuded within a 15-mile radius. The mountains looked like vast victims of a nuclear blast (but that’s a whole other story).

The point of this post was to talk about these inundated towns of Shasta (Baird, Copper City, Elmore, Etter, Morley, Pitt, Winthrop and the largest: Kennett). Kennett boasted a population of 10,000 — it had an opera house, trade stores, hospital, school, as many as 40 saloons, and more.

Townsite of Kennett now Inundated by Shasta
Kennett was a copper city that boomed in the early 1900s, especially during WWI. Slim Warren’s “Diamond Saloon” was known all across the state as an ornate and dazzling place to imbibe in alcoholic beverages. photo courtesy Shasta Lake Heritage & HIstorical Society.

Before the town was flooded, one of the workers on the dam, Archie Lefler, was interviewed by the Shasta Lake Heritage & Historical Society, saying:

“After our shifts were over, I used to go up to Kennett with a friend and roam around the deserted town. We were just looking around in the deserted, old buildings and saloons, when we found gold coins — some fallen through floors, some hidden in fireplaces and behind walls. We found enough coins during those days that I bought my first two lots in Anderson with the money.”

What does the story of Kennett tell us about Geography? I’ll let you decide for yourself. But one thing I find is that inundated towns tell something about the very real influence we as human beings have on the landscape. However much we may downplay our effects — positing that we are mere ants in the universe — we still have the ability to turn mountains into islands; cities into reefs. And as easily as we can submerge townsites, we can submerge history, never to look back. In the case of Kennett, we buried a place that became barren due to five copper smelters around the town — perhaps because we, as human beings, like to hide our ugly past.

24 comments on “Inundated Underwater Cities

  1. Robert Halpin on said:

    I’m looking for info on Copper City. I am researching a murder that happened in Red Bluff on June 1, 1863. The accussed was a James “Poker Jim” Lacey. It was said that he ran a restaurant in Copper City about that time. Are there any photo’s from that time period of Copper City that you may know of?

    Thanks,

    Bob

  2. Robert
    I did a little research and there are photos out there. I have a photo post card from Kennett. In my research i found a book on Pioneer Photographers and one Grove K Godfrey took photos of Copper City. Here is a link to the information on Godfrey. Good luck finding what your looking for…
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Nne4L9h27RsC&pg=PA262&lpg=PA262&dq=%22copper+city%22+california+1863&source=web&ots=a-HXdnEo31&sig=DHNuwGZcfEgFCMagOqxGJSXWbGE&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result

  3. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thank You So much Carol! I love seeing things like this!

  4. hubert on said:

    i live in shasta lake city california, and would like see kennett city. the lake, i have have heard, is low enough to do so, but i dont know the location. is ther any way you could find out the location for me. i have been looking, but tis is the closest i have gotten. i thank you for the photos, and hope to hear from you soon

    hubert

  5. andrew_bisset on said:

    There’s at least one of these in Colorado. The town of Montgomery was flooded by the creation of the aptly named Montgomery Reservoir. The reservoir now provides water to the city of Colorado Springs, and all that’s left of the town is its mill, high up enough to be safe from the water.

    We’ll take you up next time you’re in CO.

  6. Steve Anderson on said:

    Jon, great post and nice re-design on the website. Do you think Kennett would be visible now that the lake is so low?

  7. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks Steve, Kennett is not visible now. The low point of Shasta Lake is about 400 feet underwater, so the lake would probably have to be literally emptied out in order to see the old city. However, I recently read a news story that indicated there are a few other mining towns recently revealed due to the low levels. Might be worth investigation. I know at the bottom of Whiskeytown Reservoir there was an entire steam engine discovered.

  8. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Hey Andrew, would love to see the mill some day. I’m planning on a trip to Detroit for Memorial day this year, so I’m not sure when my next opportunity will arrive, but when it does I’d definitely love to see the mill. By the way is there any insight you have for me in regards to Gary, etc. Is there anyone i should be in contact with to give me tips for local sites?

  9. Larry Jackson on said:

    I was fortunate to publish Kennett: The Short, Colorful Life of a California Copper Town and Its Founding Family by Jane Schuldberg (Stansbury Publishing, Chico, CA, 2005, 224 pp., 51 illustations). I have a professional interest in the book, however even if I didn’t I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Kennett, its surroundings, founders, and some of those who lived there.

  10. ben morley on said:

    does anyone have any stores or pictuers of the town of morley? the founder was my great great great grandfather. thanks ben morley

  11. Rob Prichard on said:

    I am interested in the history of the Shasta area because my grandfather, father and uncle lived and worked in that area from about the 1860s until about 1900.

    My grandfather, Elias Prichard, came over from Wales and mined gold in the Wiskeytown area in the 1860s. He married and had a son, John Elias Prichard, who was born in Whiskeytown. My father, Robert F. Prichard (from Elias Prichard’s second marriage) worked at the Kennett copper mine or smelter in the late 1890s or early 1900s.

    So are there any records from Kennett or Whiskeytown regarding weddings, births, lists of the workers in the mines, census’, etc. If so, where might I find them?

    Thanks for any help. Regards, Rob

  12. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Hi Rob,
    I’m sure you’ve seen this page? : http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/p/r/i/Rob-Prichard/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-0040.html

    Other than that, I can’t help, but I wish you luck in your search!

  13. barbara wilsey on said:

    my grandfather was born in kennett ca i’m having a problem locating his birth records he was born thomas albert wheeler but was later adopted and his name was changed to thomas albert wilsey. can you please point me in the right direction.

  14. Peg Ballentine on said:

    This is a fascinating story (and website). This particular story reminds me of the history of Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts. Five or six towns thriving towns were “removed” and the area flooded to create this massive reservoir. A few years back, a beautiful children’s book was writen about it. And back when I was in college, I visted the reservoir visitor center where once a week elderly former citizens would talk to guests about the experience of having ones town disappear. Fascinating stuff. Thank you for sharing all of this. Take care.

  15. Anita S. on said:

    I live next to a state park lake in Pennsylvania that was created as a flood management project. Marsh Creek State Park Lake is the site of the town of Milford Mills, PA. It was flooded in 1972. The covered bridge that was saved from destruction has been restored at the entrance of a new subdivision. It would be an interesting topic for your website! I know there are plenty of folks still around here who lived there. This topic is also timely due to the fact that some of the Midwest flooding may create more permanent underwater towns – they may be abandoning several towns up and down the Mississippi this year. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milford_Mills,_Pennsylvania

  16. Sean P. Stevens on said:

    I ran across your site while researching the titan silos here in chico, ca. and got stuck..you and your crew are very crazy…and fascinating. i have been here for hours reading of your adventures, admiring the great photography, and getting to know each of these places through some excellent commentary. i had the opportunity to enter the “missle silos” here in chico back in the ’80s..and that experience, actually seeing the ominous enormity, and sheer waste, left an impact upon me that will never fade. so hard to put into words. your documentation of the titan I base documented here is the next best thing to actually experiencing it. how about some of the subterranean tunnels and caverns that exist from the forgotten past in our cities and some towns? i understand the chinese, escaping extreme prejudice, and general mistreatment in the mid to late 1800s had a network of them under several cities here in northern ca.
    great work! great site! well done.

  17. Will Doolittle on said:

    I’m working on a documentary that includes the effects of the dam. Is there an estimate of the total number of people removed for Shasta Lake reservoir? Any source links would be helpful. Thank you.

  18. we have a plate from the town of kennett – if u could help with some of the history it would be great -

  19. Cathy Brown on said:

    This is in response to Barbara Wilseys post on Sept. 7th, 2010 regarding Thomas Wilsey…If his Mothers name was Rose I may have some information for you since my Mother, Georgia, and Thomas were cousins.
    Waiting to hear from you.

  20. audrey newell on said:

    I would like to know the towns name way down on the bottom of Shasta Dam.. my dad worked on the dam as a oiler to operator &Cliff Grey. I got to ride down there just before the town was flooded, in fact they were getting ready to take the bar out of the tavern, name I don’t remember but it had silver dollar coins all over the top. then when we left the tiny town ,dad drove us up out of it on the old stage rout road.. oh my what a experience.. we mother & us three girls being from Illinois to Mts and all it was some to remember.. we lived in Boom town. would love to hear any inf on this also would love to hear about th stage coach road. I do drive teams of horses with covered wagons and did your senscintenial celerbration.
    would love to hear from you or any one on this waiting to hear from you. thanks.

  21. Matty on said:

    I’m curious: has anyone ever dived down with scuba gear and explored what’s left of the town? Also, do you know what happened to the graveyards? Did they relocate the bodies to other graveyards before flooding the town? Or did they just leave all the graveyards in place?

  22. Mike Giraudo on said:

    Very cool. My grandmother was born there in 1915. Thanks for the pictures.

  23. Marie L.Peterson on said:

    My Mother and her German Grunberg Family lived there. It was around 1909 to 1915. Would like to have any copies of pictures of Kennett, CA. Please respond to my request if you will share your pictures. I hope to hear from someone. MP

  24. Thanks for such an interesting article. I’m curious about the history of dislocation in the US due to dams and reservoirs, are there any books besides the Schuldberg listed above?
    Thanks!

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