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.

California's Shasta Dam and Reservoir under construction. Copyright US Bureau of Reclamation for this picture

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.

Parts of St. Thomas residences reappear temporarily when Lake Mead recedes

8 Responses

  1. Barbara Seaton says:

    You help keep me wide-eyed.

  2. J. Ware says:

    I read with great interest your book review of Overlook. The American Landscape or rather how we as Americans have chosen to deal with it has always fascinated me. This is a little off topic, but as a civil engineer I am always amazed at the audacity that we have to make such grand interventions on the land – civil indeed. I know civil or civil works came about as contrasted to a war or defense engineer, but in our modern age our intentions and their impacts need to be constantly questioned and fully understood.

  3. Thank you for mentioning the Museum of Jurassic Technology! I was tempted to write about it, because it is next door to the CLUI in Culver City. But it has a different agenda and merits a post of its own.

    Those who don’t know about this unique public institution, may go to the Wikipedia website for a detailed history and look at other websites to read the visitors’ reviews.


  4. Thank you for mentioning the Museum of Jurassic Technology! I was tempted to write about it, because it is next door to the CLUI in Culver City. But it has a different agenda and merits a post of its own. If you want to learn more about this unique public institution, Go to its website and read the visitors’ reviews.


  5. L. Ogden says:

    Fascinating! Did you consider mentioning another “treasure trove of the little known”, CLUI’s neighbor in Los Angeles (Culver City), the Museum of Jurassic Technology?

  6. My thanks to Dan Gregory and Jay Claiborne for comments that extend the scope of my review by directing attention to other writers who have looked at our land with discerning eyes and written books worth re-reading.


  7. Great review that I almost wish I hadn’t read because I now want the book and the monk’s shelf says, so now who has to go. Don’t worry Jackson, Banham, McPhee, Pollen, Papa Lynch, you juar may have a new friend. This review made me pull a lesser known work on that shelf called Topophilia by Yi-Fu Tuan which I continue to re-read for the insights she provides on the interaction between the physical world, culture and biology. Overlook seems to illustrate what Yi-Fu Tuan explains so clearly.
    Once again, Sally, you have gotten me into trouble. I want it.

  8. Wow, Sally — this is the greatest eye-opener of a review and I can’t wait to get the book! The Overlook project brings to mind the interpretive landscape writings of J. B. Jackson, Reyner Banham, and John McPhee. Fascinating to learn about the design esthetic of “show caves”; “drowned towns”; and “sit sim villages” developed for training exercises. I love the sign that says “Absolutely Nothing Next 22 Miles”. There is everything in this subject. Bravo!

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