Monday, September 12, 2011

Anger lingers over towns flooded by Trinity Dam

Anger lingers over towns flooded by Trinity Dam
Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, September 12, 2011

The closest Mary Hamilton can get to her hometown is on a boat in the
middle of a lake.
There, beneath the watery depths of Trinity Lake, lies old Trinity
Center - its homes and hotels, saloons and schools, ranches and
resorts - all now a murky underwater ghost town.

In its day, Trinity Center was a lively hub of commerce, a major stop
on the only road from San Francisco to Portland. But all that washed
away when the government built Trinity Dam and flooded the valley.

"My parents fought it, but it didn't do any good," said Hamilton, 79,
whose family lived in and around Trinity Center for generations. "It
was terrible. Just awful. So much pioneer work went into building that
town, it was like losing a part of yourself."

It's been 50 years since the Bureau of Reclamation built Trinity Lake,
flooding Trinity Center, Stringtown and Minersville into oblivion. As
dwindling numbers of former residents gather for reunions, emotions
remain raw over the loss of their towns and the struggle to keep the
memories alive.

'Nobody wanted this'
"It's like a death," said Hamilton, who was in her early 20s when the
order came to evacuate. "The lake is beautiful, but so much was lost.
Nobody wanted this. We were just devastated."

Trinity Lake isn't the only Northern California reservoir with ghost
towns scattered along its bottom. Lake Shasta, built in the late 1930s
and early 1940s, contains the remnants of Kennett, which in its heyday
had 10,000 residents, an opera house, three-story hotels, a hospital,
a cemetery and the famed Diamond Bar Saloon, reputedly the most
opulent bar between Sacramento and Portland.

Kennett residents were so mad about the dam that some refused to
leave, said Jay Thompson, a historian at the Shasta Historical Society
in Redding.

"They were pioneers," he said. "There was a lot of hard labor that
went into building this town, and they weren't just going to go."

But as the water crept up over doors, windows and eventually rooftops,
go they did. Now Kennett is 400 feet underwater.

With the loss of these towns, a slice of Western history vanished as
well, historians said. Most of these towns dated from California's
earliest days and were microcosms of the California story: First came
mining, then logging, with a little ranching, tourism and partying
thrown in.

"These little towns were boom-bust-boom-bust for generations," said
Howard May, historian at the Trinity County Historical Society in
Weaverville. "They were all highly local, self-sufficient places. It
was life on a very small scale - socially, economically, culturally."

Before the railroads, the main wagon road to Oregon and points north
went through the rugged, picturesque Trinity Alps, bypassing the
Shasta area because of hostile relations with the local American
Indians, historians said.

In its day, Trinity County was among the most populated areas in the
state. It's now among the least populated, with only 14,000 residents
spread over 2 million acres.

Precious memories
Mark Groves, 82, has great memories of Stringtown, where his family
had lived on and off for decades. There was a bar, a store and a
school, with a few dozen houses strung along the road, hence the name.

Everyone got together for baseball games against Trinity Center and
Lewiston, he said.

And the fishing, everyone agrees, was incredible. Before the dam,
salmon migrated freely up the Trinity River in great numbers and were
a staple of the local diet.

"When the government engineers came, we had a lot of town meetings.
They were packed," Groves said. "Virtually everyone was opposed to the
dam. But it was a fait accompli. The government came in, and that was

The government paid property owners for their land, but residents had
no recourse if they didn't want to leave.

"These days, people's first stop would be the Sierra Club in San
Francisco," May said. "But back then, these places were very isolated.
You weren't within 10 feet of the levers of power."

Some moved to nearby towns, and others left the area entirely.
Residents of Trinity Center actually moved some of the buildings,
including the Odd Fellows hall, uphill to form a new Trinity Center,
which is now along Highway 3.

For decades, residents were so bitter about the dam that they tore
down signs and misdirected tourists for what the government dubbed
Clair Engle Lake, named after a Democratic U.S. senator who was active
in water policy. It wasn't until 10 years ago that the government
changed the name to Trinity Lake.

A boon for some
But for some residents, the dam was good news, May said.

The towns were suffering economically as mining dried up, and some
welcomed a payout from the government, he said.

"Like in the recession today, some people were economically marooned,"
he said. "If you were stuck with no money in, say, Stringtown, it felt
like the lowest nether regions of the world."

But for those with jobs and homes and a wide social network, "this was
like Armageddon," he said.

Groves and his family moved to the Coffee Creek area, where they
started a winery. His son, Keith, the last baby born in Stringtown,
said that in some ways, Trinity Lake didn't just swallow three towns,
it also stripped residents of much of their prized self-sufficiency.

With the dam, the fisheries are greatly diminished, and lake levels -
which affect tourism - fluctuate widely based on the state's water

"There's a lot of frustration because these policies are still out of
our hands," he said. "But this all happened in 1955. People back then
didn't really argue with the federal government."

E-mail Carolyn Jones at

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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