A long-submerged town becomes visible

Water recedes under drought conditions and reveals a lost California community.

  • A mile from Mormon Island, visitors examine artifacts from the long-submerged town of Red Bank as Folsom Lake recedes under drought conditions in California.

    Max Whittaker/Prime

The lake was a clenched fist, its fingers forced inward by the drought. The water level had already reached a record low, falling lower each rainless day. In 1955, when Folsom Dam was built to create California's ninth-largest reservoir, the lake flooded a historic gold-mining town called Mormon Island. Now, as the lake level dropped, the remains of the old town slunk back to the surface.

Folsom Lake lay 10 miles downriver from my farm, and my father and I had driven down to see the ruins. We walked past the floating docks, settled into the dry lake bottom like bricks into mortar. Soon, the detritus of modern times began to emerge: two outboard motors, Budweiser bottles, a baseball hat. In the distance I glimpsed a first remnant of Mormon Island – a stone wall. I couldn't help but quicken my step. I searched the landscape, devouring the scene as if somewhere among the ruins of this extinct town, something important waited to be revealed. But I found only square nails and old hinges, fragments of walls, a patch of floor.

The place had become a sort of participatory archaeological dig. Artifacts sightseers plucked from the silt – authentic or not – were stacked atop rocks, ordaining the landscape like a series of altars: Here, the curl of a steel spring, one stirrup buckle, a plastic hair clip.

I ran my palm against the stone wall; each rock puzzled into the next as if manufactured to fit. A toddler lifted a nail. Mom, he asked, is this the buried treasure? Two teenagers sat on a stump. I can't believe everyone's excited about a pile of rocks, one grumbled. Mostly, people stood quiet.

Above the lake, the sun winked off the windows of mini-mansions, a ring of green circling each house. To the west, the neighborhoods of Sacramento sprawled across the flatlands where, before the dam was built, the river flooded each spring.

Clouds spread low over the lake, their reflection silvering the water, and the scene grew reminiscent of a funeral. People lingered, reverent, gazing into the open casket of the lake floor. And walking among the boneyard of this bygone time, I found it suddenly easier to admit the impermanence of our own era, much the way that the death of a friend can remind us of our own mortality.

A lady dressed like a pioneer explained the history of Mormon Island. In 1853 the town, the center of which now lay 70 feet underwater, boasted 2,500 people, seven saloons, four hotels and one of the richest mines of the gold rush.

I tried to imagine the valley as it looked then – oaks and storefronts set along a slender twist of river. I'd been to Folsom Lake many times – kayaked the water, walked the perimeter – and couldn't reconcile this new image with the one I'd always known. I asked the pioneer woman what would happen to the artifacts when the lake filled. I didn't say if the lake filled. They'll stay right where they are, she smiled. I imagined water swirling into the stone rooms and sliding over the piles of nails and broken teapots like skin over bone, covering everything – no ghost town, no river bed, no drought, only the lake as flat and wide as I remembered it.

But without rain, the lake drops further each day, the woman added. Soon, we might see downtown. For a moment she looked excited, then frowned. Don't get me wrong, no one ever wants to see that town again, not ever.

I thought of my fields, where the winter wheat was already several inches tall. That morning I'd pressed my finger down into the soil – it still felt slightly moist, though dryer than the day before.

Experts think the miners removed just 10 percent of the gold, the woman said. That means 90 percent of the richest mine in California is still under the lake. But could any amount of gold, I wondered, be as valuable as water? Perhaps the reservoir was the gold mine now.

I noticed a concrete cylinder protruding from the silt with a lid balanced across the top. Peering under the lid, I tried to ascertain the function of the structure. I didn't realize it was a well until my father walked over with a pebble in his hand. Let's see how deep it goes, he said, and dropped the stone into the shaft. A moment passed; we heard nothing. The stone seemed to fall forever.

In the distance, Folsom Dam grabbed at the horizon. With so little water to hold back, it appeared absurd and out-of-place, like a backhoe in a sandbox. A stranger could have marveled at the structure's enormity, and wondered what its purpose might once have been.

Jaclyn Moyer owns and operates a vegetable farm in the foothills of Northern California.

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