When the Rogue River raged over its banks during the 1964 Christmas week flood, it wiped out bridges and more than 200 homes in its upper reaches — and doomed what was left standing in the small communities of Laurelhurst and McLeod.
The devastating flood pushed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a dam north of Shady Cove in the 1970s. The Rogue River's trapped waters rose, covering Laurelhurst along the east bank and McLeod on the west side beneath the newly formed Lost Creek Lake.
While most people can make a pilgrimage back to their hometowns, residents of the inundated communities don't have that option.
"The whole town where you grew up doesn't exist anymore — and no one knows it was there," says Kit Ellingson, who is researching the lost history of the communities with her husband, Dennis Ellingson.
Dennis is writing a book about their discoveries titled, "The Lost Villages of Lost Creek Lake." Due out early next year and packed with photographs, maps and stories, the book will bring the communities back to life for readers.
"They'll basically get to take a tour of what was there at the time," he says.
Dennis Ellingson will give a sneak peek of the book's contents during a presentation with images at 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, at the Eagle Point library, 239 W. Main St.
The couple live in Shady Cove, but didn't grow up in the area. However, Dennis, who grew up in The Dalles along the Columbia River, can relate to the experience of the Laurelhurst and McLeod residents.
He witnessed tribal members fishing at Celilo Falls on the Columbia for the last time. When the floodgates of the newly constructed Dalles Dam were closed in 1957, the traditional fishing spot that had been used for thousands of years was submerged within hours by what would be called Celilo Lake. The Native American villages of Wyam on the Oregon side of the Columbia and S'kin on the Washington side also disappeared into the reservoir.
While going on hikes around Lost Creek Lake, the Ellingsons began seeing hints of what had existed before.
"When the lake was low, we would find things that intrigued us," Kit says.
They researched a few books that have been penned about the lost communities, including the 1979 memoir "The Rogue I Remember," by Wallace Ohrt, who recounts life along the upper Rogue River during the Great Depression. Ohrt recalls farms, boyhood haunts and the one-room school he attended that were erased by Lost Creek Lake.
Using the books as a jumping-off point, the couple have been interviewing people, visiting sites and gathering photos and documents. They have uncovered tales both touching and odd.
The site for Uncanny Canyon lies beneath the lake's waters near the Takelma boat ramp on the west shore. Marked by a towering painted totem pole, Uncanny Canyon was an attraction modeled after the more famous Oregon Vortex outside Gold Hill. People could visit tilted buildings designed to create unsettling optical illusions.
Rumor has it that the people who ran the Oregon Vortex accused the creator of Uncanny Canyon of copying them. After each side threatened to expose the other as a fraud, the squabble died down, Dennis says.
During the 1920s, auto campgrounds sprang up around the nation as more people were able to buy vehicles and go on driving tours. Casey's Auto Camp, which was located below where William L. Jess Dam stands today, distinguished itself by keeping a captive black bear.
"Jerry the Bear's talent was he would hold a soda bottle or milk bottle and drink it down. It was an attraction and people wanted to stop," Dennis says.
A small, picturesque covered bridge called Peyton Bridge was located near where today's massive Peyton Bridge crosses the lake. Built in 1899 and then redone in 1900, the covered bridge was likely lost to the 1964 flood and was replaced with a concrete bridge nearby. That concrete bridge was itself swallowed by Lost Creek Lake, Dennis says.
Farther down the river and below the dam, the McLeod Bridge was washed out by the flood — one of several upper Rogue bridges lost to the rampaging waters.
A hunting lodge near the river called Rogue's Roost was another casualty of the flood. The retreat owned by a wealthy California woman was destroyed — except for its swimming pool. That pool still exists under the waters of Lost Creek Lake, Dennis says.
The devastation in 1964 was proof enough for most people that a flood-controlling dam was necessary.
"There were some protests, but most people seemed to be resigned to the fact that that was just the way it was going to be," Dennis says.
To make way for the dam and reservoir, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over a broad swath of land that included more than just the lake area itself. Pear orchards, a fruit-packing facility, strawberry and pig farms, houses and more were in the way. Trees were logged for the reservoir and its shoreline.
Not far from the dam, the Ellingsons found a row of irises. Their research revealed the perennial flowers marked what was once the home site for Hobart and Clair Ditsworth. Hobart worked for an electric company and would go out with mules to check power lines and poles.
"It's touching," Kit says. "You realize this was their home. Most people welcomed the dam because of the flooding. But that was someone's home. All that's left is a couple of fence posts and irises."
A research project that started out of curiosity has now morphed into a mission as the couple race to record people's fading memories. Dennis says he always chokes up when he recalls one particular conversation.
"One of the people said to me, 'Thank you for writing this. Thank you for not forgetting about us,' " he says.
To reach the couple, email email@example.com.
— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.