In 2015, the West Coast of the United States experienced a severe drought that greatly affected the climate of the area. For example, in Marion County, Oregon, the Detroit Lake was the lowest it had ever been on record. With the water levels so low, the reservoir slowly began to dry up, and it revealed something that hadn’t been seen in years. It was discovered that there was an old railroad town that had been hidden beneath the water for more than 60 years.
The Pacific Northwest
Marion County, Oregon lies in one of the most beautiful parts of the United States known as the Pacific Northwest.
Oregon is one of the region’s most beautiful states, known for its incredibly diverse landscapes ranging from the sandy beaches of the Pacific Ocean to the lush forests that cover much of the state. Millions of people from all over the world come to visit this gorgeous area and see it with their own eyes.
Detroit Lake Is A Hotspot In Western Oregon
In Western Oregon, one of the most popular tourist attractions is Detroit Lake, which is a reservoir on the North Santiam River that is located near the small city of Detroit in Marion County.
The lake is an impressive nine miles long and has a whopping 32 miles of coastline. Both those who live in the area, and those visiting, go to the reservoir for its beauty and to enjoy activities such as fishing swimming, boating, and more.
The Reservoir Supplies Water
Not only is the lake largely used for recreation, but it also supplies the majority of the water for neighboring communities, such as the city of Salem, 46 miles to the northwest. However, this has not always been the case and is more of a recent development.
In fact, the reservoir only came into existence back in 1953, when a dam was constructed to control flooding of the nearby Willamette River.
It Had A Purpose
Back during that time, Detroit Lake was built for strictly practical purposes. However, since then, it has become an extremely popular recreational area, especially during the warmer months when people can enjoy the sunlight and cool off in the water.
The weather can greatly affect the reservoir, despite the fact that it’s manmade. Factors such as rainfall, snowmelt, and of course, heat, can drastically affect the water levels, and they aren’t always predictable.
Lack Of Water Can Be A Major Issue
While high water levels in the reservoir can pose a problem, what really raises concern is when there is a severe lack of precipitation. This could be seen back in 2011, when Marion County, as well as many of America’s western coastal states, was endangered by a massive drought.
By the start of the summer season in 2015, Detroit Lake was incredibly 60 feet below its normal capacity. In the upcoming weeks, it would drop a further 83 feet.
One Of The Lowest Levels It’s Ever Been
At that time, the water level was only at 1,426 feet, one of the lowest that it had ever been. Such a drastic drop in water levels had only been recorded once before, which was in January of 1969.
Even though the lake’s water level had dropped to 1,427 feet three times before, this time, the lake revealed something that the reservoir had been hiding from the public for so many years.
During the fall of 2015, local residents were astounded when the dried-out lake exposed the remains of Old Detroit.
Once a small railroad town, residents abandoned the entire settlement before it disappeared under the water after the damming of the North Santiam River back in 1953. Few people remembered that the town even existed even though it had the same name as the lake that so many of the locals enjoy.
The Beginning Of Old Detroit
Old Detroit was founded in 1880, starting out as a camp that was established to house the men working on the Oregon Pacific Railroad.
The railroad was the brainchild of businessman and entrepreneur Thomas Egenton Hogg, whose idea was to connect the country through the means of a railroad. Unfortunately, the Oregon Pacific Railroad would never get to live up to its potential or the vision that Thomas Egenton Hogg had in mind.
The Formation Of The Railroad
The railroad began in the city of Salem, around 50 miles east of where Old Detroit was established. At one point, the railroad followed the path of the North Santiam River, running along the canyon floor, and it reached the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.
In Hogg’s vision, he planned to continue the railroad through the mountains and onward, eventually towards the Transcontinental Railroad. By doing this, the railroad would become huge on the West Coast.
It Never Became A Reality
Unfortunately for Hogg, he ran out of money before he could make his dream become a reality. Giving up on his vision of the railroad, he instead decided to buy a steamship as a was to connect his railroad with the city of San Francisco in California.
While this may have sounded like a good fallback plan for Hogg, nothing at the time seemed to be falling into place for the businessman, and he eventually had to give up.
The End Result
Because Hogg’s plan never came to full fruition, that doesn’t mean it was a complete failure. The Oregon Pacific Railroad eventually came to an end at Idanha, around 15 miles west of the Cascade Mountains.
This resulted in Old Detroit becoming one of the final stops on the line. Despite the fact that Old Detroit was in a bit of a remote location, the station was often busy with loggers sending timber east via the railroad.
A Thriving Community
Although Old Detroit wasn’t the most well-known town in the area, at one point, it was a booming community that had several cafes, stores, a church, a school, and even a cinema.
While life in Old Detroit may have seemed to be going well, for the farmers that lived further down the valley, things were far more difficult. This is mainly due to the North Santiam River, which would often flood their towns.
The River Was Unpredictable
Oregon historian Bob Reinhardt told the Statesman Journal in 2015, “For farmers and boosters in the Willamette Valley, the North Santiam made life hell.”
He continued, “Gathering snowmelt and rainfall in the Cascades, the river contributed to floods that washed through Salem and other valley towns, sometimes causing millions of dollars in damage.”
Solving The Problem
In 1938, Congress passed the Flood Control Act. This led to the authorization of the use of civil engineering projects in order to control flooding and prevent further disasters across the United States.
In the case of the farmers in the Willamette Valley, people realized that the construction of two dams would significantly decrease the chances of flooding. On top of that, it would also be a way to generate electricity at the same time.
Big Plans For The Dam
Much like Hogg who came before them, those who were in charge of building the Detroit Dam had really big plans for the project.
When it was finally completed, the dam was supposed to stretch 1,580 feet from end to end and stand an impressive 360 feet tall. The vision was also that the behemoth of a structure would be able to contain 455,000 acre-feet of water from the North Santiam River.
There Were Some Issues
Of course, there was going to be at least one problem when it came to these grandiose plans for the mega-dam. For starters, it would require at least 3,580 acres of space, including the area where Old Detroit once stood.
So, it was agreed upon, and the people living in Old Detroit began to pack their things and leave the area for good. It wouldn’t be long before the once-bustling town would be at the bottom of a reservoir.
Finding A New Home
In records that have been recently uncovered, those who were going to be displaced out of Old Detroit asked the government for new land to move onto to considering they were being forced out of their homes.
Unfortunately, the authorities denied their request. However, they had a saving grace when a local timber merchant decided to lend a hand. He offered for the people of Old Detroit to use one of his old logging sites. They took him up on the offer, and by June of 1952, many of the members of the old community had purchased parts of the land.
The New Detroit
Situated on a hill just above where the old town was located, the people of Old Detroit established the new town of Detroit, even keeping the same name. Some families even kept their same houses, moving them piece-by-piece by sled to the site of the new town.
Today, there are still some buildings in Detroit, meticulously maintained over the years, that once belonged on the grounds of the old town.
The Dam Is Put Into Operation
In 1953, the dam that was supposed to solve everyone’s problems, and was the fifth largest of its kind in the country, finally went into operation. Not long afterward, the river that would eventually become a reservoir began to swallow the town of Old Detroit.
However, the former town wasn’t in the direct center of the soon-to-be reservoir, so on days when the water is extremely low, it’s possible to see some of the old structures that were left behind.
Old Detroit Resurfaces
In October 2015, some people were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Old Detroit when the water levels of the reservoir were at an all-time low.
Along with the remnants of the town, there was also a 19th century-old wagon that was revealed to be beneath the water. Incredibly, thanks to the low oxygen levels in the lake, it was extremely well preserved.
It Was Over 140 Years Old
In 2015, Dave Zahn, a Marion County sheriff’s deputy, told the Statesman Journal, “I went on a treasure hunt down along the river, figuring that I’d find foundations or something like that.”
He continued: “Then I saw a piece of old history right there.” Zahn spotted the wagon, which had once been used for transporting goods, in the mud. It’s estimated that the wooden wagon is more than 140 years old.
They Knew Where It Came From
As if finding the wagon wasn’t incredible enough, there was a plaque on it that signified it was made by the Milburn Wagon Company and was produced in 1875.
The company was based out of Toledo, Ohio, and was the biggest manufacturer of wagons at the time. According to Cara Kelly, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, it’s likely that this wagon was involved in the construction of the local railroad.
Wagons Eventually Lost Their Usefulness
Although at one point wagons were one of the best and most common ways to travel and transport goods, eventually, they lost their usefulness compared to other technologies. By the time that the citizens of Old Detroit abandoned their town, wagons had almost entirely been replaced with automobiles.
So, many people chose to leave the wagons that were lying around the town when the dam was constructed and Old Detroit sank beneath the water.
The Wagon Was Especially Well Made
It’s clear that the wagons manufactured by the Milburn Wagon Company were incredibly well made, which would explain how the one in Old Detroit lasted so long beneath the water.
When talking with the Statesman Journal in February 2020, David Sneed from the vehicle archive “Wheels that Won the West” stated, “That wagon was built for the country that you’re in. With those extra spokes, the metal encased hubs, and the ‘Oregon brake,’ it’s built to engage rough terrain.”
There Was More Than The Wagon
On top of discovering the wagon, some structures, and the flattened land that was once Old Detroit, as the water receded, an octagonal-shaped pit coated with cement was also revealed.
While the pit stood out against the dry reservoir bed, experts still weren’t entirely sure what the purpose of it was. The hole could have been used for a variety of things, but it appears that it is only something for the former residents of Old Detroit to know.
There Was Concern Over Vandalism
While the locals were thrilled to be able to see the remains of Old Detroit, there was concern about what some people might do to the area. Zahn expressed his concerns that vandals might end up destroying the historical find. Cara Kelly agreed and even asked residents who knew where it was to keep the information to themselves.
She told the Statesman Journal, “I don’t think people realize that they aren’t supposed to collect items off public land […] Once someone removes something, nobody will get to see that piece of history.”
There Was No Hiding The Discovery
Unfortunately, by December 2015, the wagon discovery had gone viral. In order to prevent people coming from all over to see the exposed remains of Old Detroit, a group of local businessmen formulated a plan.
They thought about the possibility of excavating the site, allowing them to remove the wagon and put it in a museum that would ensure it wouldn’t be tampered with. However, archaeologist Cara Kelly was quick to show them several flaws in their plans.
The Wagon Was Too Fragile
In February 2020, Cara Kelly explained to the Statesman Journal, “The issue is that in trying to remove [the cart] it would just fall apart. It would just crumble. It’s also half-buried in the mud.”
Furthermore, if experts were able to remove the wagon intact from out of the mud, it would need to be placed in a special storage facility, something that doesn’t exist in the area. Moving it anywhere further would also be too risky.
The Wagon Hadn’t Seen The Light Of Day In 60 Years
Kelly believes that the wagon becoming exposed in 2015 may have been the first time that the wagon has been seen since it disappeared more than 60 years ago. However, she went on to note that the wagon may not have originated in Old Detroit.
She commented, “This might not have been its original resting place. It could’ve come from anywhere in the town of Detroit or even up the drainage. The flood of 1964 moved a lot of things; it even brought houses down.”
Being Above Water Was Detrimental To The Wagon
Kelly also believed that the wagon’s short time above the water did more damage to it than the 60 years it spent beneath it. So, many experts breathed a sigh of relief when the wagon sank beneath the water once again after months of being exposed to the elements.
Of course, after the remains of the wagon and parts of Old Detroit were discovered, it brought other issues to light about the reservoir and the dam.
The Future Of The Reservoir
In 2019, questions once again rose about the future of the lake and the historical relics that lay at the bottom of it. Furthermore, since the dams’ construction, studies have shown that the wild fish population of the Willamette River has been at a consistent and drastic decline.
It is believed that the building of the structures significantly tainted their natural habitat and unfortunately even cut off their spawning grounds from the rest of the river.
Fixing The Habitat
In response to a 2008 legal proposal made to protect fish species such as steelhead and wild salmon, the United States Army Corps of Engineers put forth a solution to the problem.
They suggested the construction of a 300-foot tower at Detroit Dam, which the engineers claimed could reverse the negative effects that the dam had on the river’s ecosystems. They also proposed a particular process of capturing migrating fish and relocating them safely downstream.
There Was A Catch
Unfortunately, these seemingly worthwhile solutions came with a pretty big catch. In order for these projects to be put into development, the engineers explained that they would need to drain the reservoir as low as 1,310 feet, even lower than the result of the drought in 2015.
Furthermore, it would most likely take place in the summer, which would drastically hurt tourism in the area. Local residents would lose one of the best parts about living in Detroit.
Criticism From Locals
At the moment, the project has yet to begin, as locals have voiced their concerns, especially those whose livelihood depends on the river. Furthermore, those who study the relics beneath the water from Old Detroit had their own concerns.
One of the biggest reasons is that the wagon was damaged from its short time being exposed to the elements, so an entire summer could prove to be disastrous for not just the wagon but all the artifacts of Old Detroit.
The Wagon Was Exposed Once Again
Four years after the wagon first reappeared, repairs to the dam caused the water levels to drastically drop, exposing the wagon once again. In December 2019, photographer Jeff Green set out to find it and was pleased when he discovered it just three days later.
He told Statesman Journal, “Oregon has few such relics. To see this history appearing in the mud was surreal. It was a moment that doesn’t happen very often – like the solar eclipse.”
The Mud Kept It Safe
After the wagon reappeared at the surface a second time, concerns arose once again that vandals might come and loot or disrupt the historical site. However, this time, authorities were much more confident that the deep mud and water would keep people away.
Zahn commented, “It’s very difficult to reach and almost always underwater. I’m happy that it happened and glad whenever someone talks about it or says that they’ve seen it.”
By January 2020, the water levels of the reservoir reached normal heights and the wagon sank beneath the water once again. However, it wasn’t long before there was another threat, and it was, yet again, another drought.
In March of the same year, experts were concerned that a potential lack of precipitation could once again cause the Detroit Lake to dry out. If this happened, they were worried that the relics wouldn’t survive another prolonged exposure to the elements.
All Is Well…For Now
Currently, everything at Detroit Lake seems to be under control, with the wagon remaining underwater. Photographer Brent McGregor spoke to the journal about the wagon to Statesman Journal saying, “The real beauty with this one is that it’s still out there, sticking out of the mud and well-preserved.”
He continued, “You can use your imagination and think about the old town. It’s great to have it there.” It’s a piece of history that’s unique to the area and will hopefully be there for years to come.