As drought shrinks reservoirs, ghosts of flooded California towns return to light


The old town of Kernville in central California was condemned, bulldozed and flooded when a nearby river was dammed to make a reservoir. Since the early 1950s, the town site has been underwater, and the old building foundations, like a freshwater Atlantis, have gathered moss on the lake bottom, catching fishing lines and providing a hiding place for bass.

But as California's drought has dragged on, and the level of Lake Isabella in the southern Sierras has continued to drop, this lost city has resurfaced.

Three years ago, the remnants of Kernville were visible beneath the murky waters. The next year, the edge of the town popped out of the mud. And last year was so dry that the entire town site is now exposed, including the old Main Street, the foundations of a number of 19th-century buildings and rock walls and concrete steps from the town's school and church.

While the drought has been a tremendous hardship for the state, it has created a rare opportunity for local historians, former residents and tourists. The remains of a number of old communities throughout the state, condemned by the federal government to make room for reservoirs, are visible again as lake levels drop to record lows.

Folsom Lake, near the state capital, Sacramento, has receded to the point that the community of Mormon Island, founded in the mid-1800s and flooded in the mid-1900s, has emerged. At Lake Berryessa -- about 35 miles north of Oakland near Napa -- vestiges of the old town of Monticello are visible again.

At other reservoirs, dropping water levels have revealed gold mining equipment from the 1850s; mule trails hand-built by miners; abandoned railroad tunnels; old swinging bridges; stolen cars, stripped and then dumped; and even skeletons of people who died in boating accidents.

But it is the old communities that attract the most interest. People who once lived there want to return for another look. Local historians sift through the rubble for clues to the past. And camera-toting tourists hike over dry lake bottoms and snap pictures of 100-year-old streets and foundations that one day may be covered with water again.

Since Kernville -- about 50 miles northeast of Bakersfield -- has resurfaced, the local historical society has passed out hundreds of old maps of the town, led tours and posted hand-lettered signs identifying streets and prominent buildings.

There are no structures left standing in the town, only sections of rock walls, scattered stone foundations, cement steps leading to nowhere and the faint grid pattern of streets. The site is covered with sand, dry thistle and freshwater clam shells.

But those who once lived there are grateful for the opportunity to study the few fragments that remain. Bob Powers, 66, who was born in Kernville, walked through the old streets, now just patches of asphalt, and stopped before the remains of the Methodist Church, built in 1898.

DTC "My wife and I were married in this church," he said. He walked to a corner of the concrete foundation. "This is where the Sunday school was." He took a few steps to the front of the church. "I gave a sermon here . . . in about 1946."

Mr. Powers walked across the dry lake bottom, toward the old Main Street. Dusty, brown hillsides, bearing high water marks from long ago, rise up around the lake, which has dropped more than 50 feet.

"This was a beautiful town, with tall cottonwood trees along the streets and the river running by."

Intermingled with the relics of the old town is the random detritus of the modern era. Faded beer cans, bottles of tanning lotion, sunglasses and plastic foam cups are scattered along the sands of the lake bed.

Kernville, founded in 1860 by gold miners, had about 300 residents when it was condemned by the federal government in the late 1940s. Merchants, who served many of the large cattle ranchers and timber companies, were reluctant to leave the valley, said Mr. Powers, who has written a history of the town. Many, like Mr. Powers, were fifth-generation residents and could not conceive of living anywhere else.

So a number of residents chipped in, bought a ranch a few miles up the Kern River, laid out the streets and created a new Kernville, now a thriving community of about 2,000. A number of the old buildings were moved to the new town site, and many of the residents were able to reopen businesses.

But most communities displaced by reservoirs had a less happy fate. In California, the federal government built 30 large dams between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, and the majority of the scenic river valley communities that were condemned to make room for the projects never were re-established.

The dams were needed to provide water for the state's burgeoning population and the expanding agricultural industry, said Phil Benge, a planner for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And since most of the condemned towns were remote rural communities, they did not have the political power to challenge the government.

But the residents of Monticello tried. In the 1940s, when the government announced it was going to condemn the town and build a dam and reservoir project, the town sent a delegation of local politicians to Washington and implored the governor to intervene and save the town.

"We were just a bunch of farmers and small-town businessmen," said Bob McKenzie, 70. "We didn't have enough clout."

Mr. McKenzie, like many young soldiers after World War II, had returned home to Monticello to discover the small town was doomed. He had planned to take over his father's general store, but suddenly, he said, he had to find another job and another home.

Mr. McKenzie moved to Napa, found work as a newspaper photographer and thought he had seen the last of Monticello. But the drought has been so severe for Lake Berryessa that it has shrunk from 26 miles long to 18 miles, and vestiges of the old town have emerged.

A cement bridge, built in 1941, appeared last summer. The 80-foot bridge has become a tourist attraction, and dozens of people a day walk down boat ramps, now hundreds of feet from shore, and hike across the dry, cracked lake bed to the bridge.

On the eastern shore of the lake, the old Monticello Road, its yellow center line still intact, has surfaced. A blue-tiled swimming pool behind an old ranch house -- where Mr. McKenzie swam as a child -- and the foundation of a large grain silo have also emerged from the lake bottom.

Returning to Monticello brings back bittersweet memories for Mr. McKenzie that he calls "ghosts in my head."

He has fond boyhood recollections, but he still is disturbed that the town and the fertile Berryessa Valley were destroyed. Water was needed, he acknowledged, but several smaller dams could have been built upriver, and the town of Monticello could have been saved.

But property owners were simply paid off by the government, he said, and buildings were either bulldozed or cables were tied around them and they were pulled down. The piles of rubble were then burned. Trees were cut down, 6 inches from the ground. The town's 100-year-old graveyard was moved to higher ground.

While the outskirts of Monticello are now visible, the small downtown is still 50 feet underwater. But few former residents, Mr. McKenzie said, are eager to see it again.

"The emergence of all these foundations and bridges is just a graphic indication of how serious this drought is," Mr. McKenzie said. "It's been interesting visiting the area again, but it doesn't bring us much joy. What we want is rain."

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