Book Review: Overlook
Chapter 4 focuses on “Intentionally Drowned Towns,” population centers that lie buried on the bottoms of artificial lakes and reservoirs in the United States. Before the waters come measures are taken to clear the land of structures and other components of human settlement such as cemeteries. Still, the removal of evidence is never complete. Sometimes the remains reappear to haunt the beholders. These are the ultimate ghost towns, forgotten perhaps, but not really gone.
The six towns discussed in this chapter span the history of this country from native settlements of the Great Plains through those of the west’s mining era to the preeminence of New York City, the rise of the New England mill towns, the industrialization of the south, and the growth of the southwest.
The town with the most ironic name, Neversink, is shown above in a painterly postcard. It was one of two New York towns removed from a valley in 1942 to make way for a reservoir that would allow New York City to continue its growth. The population of 340 people was evicted, and 6149 acres were condemned. While some buildings were moved to nearby towns, most were razed and burned. Trees were cut down, cellars were filled in, privies were disinfected, and it is asserted that manure was hauled away to maintain New York City’s reputation for high quality drinking water. Flooding of the completed reservoir began in 1953, and two years later Neversink was more than 100 feet below its surface. The Delaware system, which includes the Neversink reservoir, was completed in 1965 and has nearly 200 miles of underground tunnels.
As the number of New York’s water systems grew, the city’s watershed extended 120 miles upstate. In all, thirty-six towns and over 10,000 people have been displaced to quench Gotham’s thirst.
Out west, the former town of St. Thomas, Nevada, which usually lies beneath the surface of Lake Mead, has appeared and disappeared five times. Established in the Moapa Valley, fifty miles northeast of the present site of Las Vegas, St. Thomas was well supplied with water and had an agricultural economy. But by the late 1930s the town had been reduced to a motorist’s stop on the route to Los Angeles. As Lake Mead expanded northward and filled in behind Boulder Dam, St. Thomas, situated at a lower elevation at the southern end of the valley, was flooded and finally abandoned about sixty-five years ago.
But during droughts when the water level lowers, portions of St. Thomas are revealed with some forty buildings, including the foundations of the Gentry Hotel where President Herbert Hoover stayed in 1932 while inspecting construction at Boulder dam, later renamed for him.