Drowned Towns: What Lies Beneath the Reservoirs?

This is a guest blog from our intern Johannes Dreisbach.

Hoover Dam, AR, NV

Hoover Dam, AR, NV | USBR

Halloween is just a day away.  In a matter of hours, goblins and ghouls will be running amok in city streets and monsters will be haunting television screens.  With all of the spooky activities that will soon be taking place, consider the fact that drowned towns exist all over the country. 

Drowned towns are towns that have been deserted and submerged by the reservoirs created by dams.  So if you want to impress your friends with some eerie river trivia, wow them with your knowledge of these sunken ghost towns.

The Tennessee Valley Authority built Fontana Dam — the tallest dam in the east — in the early 1940s on the Little Tennessee River.  The reservoir drowned the communities of Fontana, Bushnell, Forney, and Judson, North Carolina, and cut off access by road. 

Residents were relocated, but as a result of the relocation, the people who used to live in the communities could no longer visit the graves of their departed relatives.  The Appalachian Trail crosses over the top of the dam, and you can explore the Road to Nowhere and other hikes.

In 1865, a group of Mormons settled in Nevada and founded the town of St. Thomas, which grew to a population of 500, its businesses supporting the surrounding farming community.

In 1936, the Hoover Dam was completed on the Colorado River.  Measuring 726.4 feet tall and 1,244 feet long, the dam created Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States.  The town of St. Thomas lay in the path of the filling reservoir.  The town was abandoned, with the last resident leaving on June 11, 1938, before it was submerged.  Only the shells and foundations of buildings remained.

St. Thomas post office (left) and city street (right) flooding

St. Thomas, NV post office (left) and city street (right) flooding | Nevada Historical Society, NPS

In 1935, just one year before the Hoover Dam was finished, the Norris Dam was completed in Tennessee.  The Norris Dam lies on the Clinch River and is 265 feet high and 1,860 feet long, and it created Norris Lake.  One of the casualties of the reservoir was the small town of Loyston

Founded in the early 1800s, Loyston was home to 70 residents, a post office, and a number of shops.  While Norris Dam was being constructed, the residents of Loyston were forced to relocate, as Norris Lake, which is the largest reservoir on any tributary of the Tennessee River, soon engulfed their town.

Other examples of drowned towns in the U.S. include Native American lands and settlements along the Missouri River, destroyed by the 1944 Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act, Monument City, Indiana, which was flooded in 1965, the village of Kinzua, Pennsylvania, which was submerged in the early 1960s, and Bluffton, Texas, whose original location was claimed by Buchanan Dam in 1939.

So the next time you drive along a reservoir, ask yourself what was there before the dam was built.  There just may be a sunken town beneath the surface.

Happy Halloween!