Have you ever dreamed about unearthing hidden treasure or discovering remnants of centuries gone by? In 2015, a group of researchers did exactly that in Marion County, Oregon. The area's severe drought receded Detroit Lake to a record low, and as the reservoir dried up, something incredible came to the surface. Hidden deep beneath the surface in a watery grave were the remains of an abandoned ghost town. How did it get there? And why? This enticing discovery opened eyes to life during days gone by.
With 32 miles of pristine shoreline, Detroit Lake is one of Western Oregon's premier attractions. This reservoir borders the nearby town of the same name, with majestic views and abundant opportunities to fish, swim, boat, tube, hunt, and so much more. Beyond recreation, however, the lake is a vital community resource, supplying water to neighboring cities and towns up to 50 miles away. It wasn't always that way, however, as the area's past tells quite the tale.
While humans have inhabited the region for centuries, the reservoir itself is relatively new — it didn't exist until 1953 when a dam was built to control flooding. Used to hold back the raging waters of the Willamette River, this man-made structure faces difficulties to this day, including intense rainfall, snow, heat, and, most of all, low water levels. This is a major cause of concern for the area, as low precipitation levels result in severe drought for miles, endangering not only Detroit but residents in surrounding communities as well. In 2015, those water levels reached a record low, receding to 83 feet below their normal capacity.
Those record-setting lows revealed something the reservoir had been hiding for decades — the remains of Old Detroit, a railroad town that was abandoned back in 1953. While it was once a bustling hotspot for weary travelers, cowboys, and miners, at the time of discovery, in 2015, few locals even knew of its existence! Left behind to dry up and wither, few residents from the era remained. Now, they could explore it in-depth, unearthing hidden secrets of decades past. Little did they know, some researchers in the area would unearth treasures dating back to the 1800s.
Founded in 1880, Old Detroit began as a railroad camp. Here, local workers for the Oregon Pacific Railroad finally had a place to call home. While the community started to thrive, however, the railroad wasn't so successful. The lifetime dream of entrepreneur Thomas Egenton Hogg, it was supposed to connect the western U.S. with the East. It eventually reached the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, but it stopped there. Since this new railroad would have to traverse through harsh terrain, it became extensive and impractical, with Hogg running out of funds and eventually abandoning his goal.
For locals, however, the railroad was far from a failure. Detroit was in a remote location, but the railroad helped connect it with neighboring cities and towns, quickly attracting new residents from all walks of life. It was one of the line's final stops, so people from far and wide could finally reach it. To generate income, a lively logging industry sprung up along the line, with locals sending timber eastward.
The railroad's construction transformed Old Detroit from a small encampment to a booming oasis. Residents experienced a vivacious community brimming with homes, eateries, shops, cafes, a church, a school, and even a theater for nighttime entertainment. Life was good, and locals thrived. Further down the valley, however, a different picture emerged. Away from the security of the town, farmers faced frequent flooding from area waterways, specifically the North Santiam River. Its unpredictable path wreaked havoc, washing through surrounding towns with abandon and causing millions of dollars in damage.
Congress sprang into action to resolve the issue, passing the Flood Control Act in 1938. At this time, inhabitants had been residing in Old Detroit for nearly 60 years, and the area was brimming with life. Multiple civil engineering projects within close proximity were designed to control flooding, but they also transformed the lifestyle that locals were accustomed to. Two dams were being built within the Willamette Valley alone, and they would transform the area as it was known. Not only would flooding come to a halt, but dams would generate valuable electricity for surrounding areas where it was previously impossible.
These plans were at a massive scale. Once completed, the dam would stretch 1,580 long and reach 360 feet in height. What's more? It would contain 455,000 acres of the North Santiam River's water. Needless to say, these grand plans didn't go off without issue. 3,580 acres were required to begin construction, and that spelled trouble for Old Detroit residents, as the town stood directly in the line of fire. Rather than putting up a fight, residents made an agreement with the government. They would pack their things and relocate forever, leaving the town's buzzing shops, eateries, and homes abandoned for good. Now, the town would lie at the reservoir's base, overflowing with water for centuries into the future. No one thought it would ever resurface... until it did.
Since they were essentially forced from their homes, residents required new land to move onto. The government declined, but a timber merchant was willing to fill the void, offering up a former logging site for these river refugees to call home. Thankfully, some families were able to move their homes piece-by-piece to this new location, and many of those structures stand strong to this day. The majority, however, started from scratch, and New Detroit started to take shape.
Fast-forward to the future. When water levels reached a new low, 2015's residents got a glimpse of their ancestors' former homes. Buried beneath nearly 2,000 feet of water were the remnants of Old Detroit, preserved the same way it had been left over 60 years prior. Within the town, one pivotal discovery was a wagon dating back to 1875. It was built by the day's biggest manufacturer and had likely carried travelers to their new home along the lake. An octagonal pit was revealed too, but its purpose remains a mystery. It was a treasure hunt for locals and tourists alike, as they unearthed structures and artifacts dating back decades, if not centuries.