It’s a weird thing to think about, but all around the world there are towns at the bottom of lakes. Many are from reservoirs and dams built to generate power or clean water for cities, but some were from insane natural disasters. Here we talk about some of the most interesting sunken towns in the world, and a potential disaster on the horizon in California called ARkStorm that could sink hundreds of towns and threaten millions of lives.
The peak population of St. Thomas was around 500 people. There was a school, post office, grocery stores, church, soda fountain, and several garages for the new invention of the automobile.
In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill authorizing the building of Boulder (Hoover) Dam. This dam would create a large lake behind it, Lake Mead, and as the waters rose, areas that had been high and dry along the Muddy and Virgin Rivers would be inundated by the lake.
The residents of St. Thomas were told they would have to relocate, and that the government would reimburse them for their property. The filling of Lake Mead started in 1935. As the waters rose, slowly the town was overtaken by Lake Mead. One of the last residents to leave was Hugh Lord, who paddled away from his home when the rising waters lapped at his front door in 1938. When the lake reached it’s high water mark, St. Thomas was sixty feet below the surface.
But it has an interesting history:
St. Thomas was founded in 1865 by Mormon settlers who mistakenly thought they were still in Utah/Arizona Territories. The location was a prime farming spot at the confluence of the Muddy and Virgin Rivers, which flowed to the Colorado River, 22 miles south.
The Mormons settled here until it was discovered that they actually settled in Nevada. Nevada officials demanded five years back taxes which the Mormons refused to pay. So after a vote they decided to abandon the town, save for one family, the Bonelli’s. The Mormons burned down their homes and abandoned their crops and moved to Salt Lake City.
here’s a great quote from the movie Inherit the Wind where the character Henry Drummond says,
For most of us, progress is a natural, inevitable force that moves at breakneck speed and leaves you just trying to keep up.
I mean, just look at all the AI news lately.
We also generally believe the progress is a good thing, and on the whole, it is. I mean, we like to complain but let’s face it, we live at a level of luxury that medieval royalty couldn’t have even dreamed of.
But all that progress has externalities and unintended consequences.
Take the interstate highway system here in the US. Yes, it made cross-country travel a lot faster and easier – and was actually funded as a national defense measure in the 1950s.
But it also killed a lot of small towns. Small towns you used to drive through on small farm to market roads – maybe stop and grab a sandwich or patronize a business – you now just bypassed completely.
I kinda grew up in one of those towns.
But a lot of small towns had it much worse. Earlier in the 20th century, there was another massive leap in progress that led to a lot of towns going underwater.
I don’t mean that financially, I mean literally underwater.
North America is covered with artificial lakes. Those lake bottoms used to be ground.
Ground that has a long history. Maybe people used to travel there. Maybe people farmed there. Maybe people lived there. Maybe A LOT of people lived there.
It’s a really weird thought that for a large number of lakes, there are towns at the bottom of them. Think about that next time you’re on a jet ski.
So, how did this happen? Well, in the early 20th century, there was a mass migration of people from rural to urban areas as industrialization lead to new jobs and higher wages in the cities.
All those new people needed clean water, and those factories needed power, so what followed was an explosion of new artificial lakes, reservoirs, and hydropower stations, all over the country.
For example, here in Dallas the city’s population more than doubled from 1900 to 1910, so the city bought land around White Rock Creek to build a reservoir.
The dam was finished in in 1911. The area was filled with water in 1914, (turn, show lake)which became White Rock Lake.
This used to be farmland. Today it’s the largest urban lake in the country. It’s twice the size of Central Park.
No towns at the bottom of it though.
The same can’t be said for many towns in Tennessee.
Starting in the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority was created to build dams and power stations along the Tennessee River.
And while, yes, it provided power, improved the economy and modernized the entire region, it also displaced 125,000 people and destroyed several towns.
It also saved George Clooney at the end of O Brother Where Art Thou.
Another standout area was New York State, where the Catskill Aqueduct was built between 1917 and 1924.
It created six reservoirs to provide water for New York City, but this required putting 25 communities under water.
If that sounds bittersweet, that’s ironic because one of the towns was called Bittersweet. Even more ironic, another town was called Neversink.
To be clear, these communities weren’t just drowned with no warning or recompense, they were acquired by eminent domain and people were paid for their land. But, still.
So sometimes towns are lost to progress, it happens a lot. And sometimes nature decides it needs to choke a bitch.
Port Royal, Jamaica
That’s exactly what happened to Port Royal Jamaica.
Port Royal has a crazy history. It was an important hub for transatlantic trade, everything from sugar cane to rum, textiles, cotton, and, of course, slaves.
By the late 1600s, it was one of the largest European cities in the new world, second only to Boston. But it was also riddled with pirates.
Yeah, like the whole Pirates of the Caribbean thing, this is where those pirates hung out. And with them came all the booze and prostitutes and debauchery one would expect.
It was once called “the most wicked and sinful city in the world,” a title that now belongs to, of course, Provo Utah.
It was so associated with pirates that the famous pirate captain Henry Morgan became the city’s Lieutenant Governor in 1675.
Yes, THAT Captain Morgan.
But the party was short-lived. Because on the morning of June 7, 1692, a massive 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit the island.
Port Royal was largely built over sand which experienced instant liquefaction. Buildings, roads, and people were literally swallowed up by the ground.
Geysers erupted, structures collapsed, and then a tsunami hit the city that basically washed anything that hadn’t already been destroyed out to sea.
By the time it ended, around 33 acres of the city had disappeared underwater, four of five forts were demolished, and 2,000 people were killed.
One gruesome detail that was recorded was that the liquefaction caused all the bodies in the cemetery to come to the surface, and then the tsunami washed those out to sea – to mingle with the newly dead.
Shī Chéng, China
One of the more interesting sunken towns is the ancient city of
Shī Chéng (Shuh-chen)literally ‘Lion City’) in China.
Shī Chéng (Shuh-chen) means ‘Lion City’ in Chinese because the city is populated by dozens of lion statues.
And this place is old. It was founded in 621 AD during the Tang Dynasty and became a major administrative hub in the Zhejiang (jey-jyen) Province.
But in 1959, as China began modernizing their infrastructure, a hydroelectric dam was built, creating Qiandao (chian-dow) Lake.
Qiandao Lake grew to cover 573 square kilometers, leaving many of the hilltops above water, creating thousands of islands.
And in the process displaced more than 300,000 people and flooded several towns and communities, much like the Tennessee Valley Authority. But way bigger, actually.
Which begs the question, is there a Chinese remake of O Brother Where Art Thou? Because I want to see that.
Shī Chéng was a prominent and ancient city. And now it’s gone, and that’s sad, but there is a silver lining. Because it was flooded before the area industrialized, it’s actually kind-of frozen in time. It’s preserved in the water, much the way it was a thousand years ago. You just need scuba gear to see it.
In fact, some have taken to calling it the Chinese Atlantis.
In that same general hemisphere of the world is Kalyazin, Russia.
This is another town that was drowned by a man-made lake, with a slight difference we’ll get to in a second.
Kalyazin was settled on the high bank of the Volga river and was separated in two by another small river named Zhabnya.
The town’s population grew over the years, eventually supporting a couple of churches, the Monastery of St. Nicholas, or the Nikolsky Cathedral on one bank and the Trinity Kalyazin Monastery on the other bank.
But in the 1920s, say it with me, several hydropower plants were built, one of which created the Uglich Reservoir, which drowned one half of the town.
And just like that, all those houses and gardens and streets went to a watery grave. Except for one thing. The bell tower of the Nikolsky Cathedral.
It was just tall enough for the top half of the bell tower to remain above water, creating a really interesting landscape.
Later on this tower would be used as a navigation point and a lighthouse. And I think I read that they would still hold services there sometimes.
By the way, it’s not the only submerged tower. There’s a whole page on Atlas Obscura of submerged towers around the world, including in Italy, Spain, and Venezuela.
But perhaps the oldest underwater city is Pavlopetri, Greece.
Now you might be thinking ‘hold on a second, that Chinese city was built in 620 AD, surely it’s not older than that?’
Well it is older than that. And don’t call me Shirley. (beat) Eh, who cares, call me that if you want.
Pavlopetri was completely lost to time until was discovered on the Peloponnese peninsula in 1967 and was mapped the following year. And it’s believed to have been inhabited as far back as 3000 BCE.
This was a Bronze Age city, and some researchers consider it Neolithic in origin based on some of the items that have been found there.
Nobody knows for sure what made this city slip into the drink but theories include earthquakes, rising sea levels, erosion, and a tsunami. And of course, the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Using digital technology, archaeologists discovered buildings courtyards, streets, tombs, and religious structures, many of which suggest they were a Mycenean society.
As Elias Spondylis, the head of Greece’s underwater antiquities department said,
“It is significant because as a submerged site it was never reoccupied. As such it represents a frozen moment of the past.”
So yeah, kinda like Shī Chéng (Shuh-chen), the fact that this town was submerged actually preserved it and offers a unique glimpse into the past of this once important city.
Or maybe it was the Port Royal of its day, who knows.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, there are hundreds more sunken towns and communities around the world, and as bigger and bigger dams have been constructed, more and more towns will continue to disappear.
I mean, the Three Gorges Dam in China drowned 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1300 villages, displaced up to 1.3 million people.
But… It also generates around 100 terawatts per year without using any fossil fuels, so… its merits are hotly debated.
The point is, as we continue to decarbonize our electrical grids into the future, we might be seeing more of these dams being built, sacrificing even more towns and villages.
Plus as more people move into cities, those cities will need more water, spurring more reservoirs that drown more towns. And then, those people in the towns will have to move into the cities. Which will need more water… It’s kind-of a vicious cycle.
Add on top of that rising sea levels and more extreme weather events due to climate change and we might be entering a new golden age of sunken towns.
That’s all very vague and nonspecific, but there is one very specific weather event that researchers are keeping an eye on that might spell doom for a lot of towns in California.
Okay, so take a look at this picture. This is K Street in Sacramento in early 1862. That year, California was hit with a massive flood that came to be known as the Great Flood of 1862.
It started as a snowstorm in the Sierras that turned into the biggest flood in modern US history. California saw one-third of all property destroyed, 800,000 cattle drowned, and 4,000 people died.
Towns in the Sierras were hit first as the rivers overflowed their banks. As the flood traveled into the valley, several towns disappeared overnight, with entire communities drowned almost instantly.
After weeks of rain, Sacramento to the San Joaquin Valley was completely underwater. That’s 483 kilometers (300 miles) long by 32 kilometers (20 miles) wide, flooded up to 9 meters (30 feet) deep.
All places that right now are dealing with a megadrought. Turns out they also get megafloods. And fairly often.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, megafloods hit California about once every 200 years.
Aaaand the last one was in 1862. Who’s doing the math?
Sedimentary analysis suggests that pattern has repeated for at least 2000 years, and these are corroborated by Native American legends in the area.
Of course, this didn’t happen exactly every 200 years, some periods were longer than others, so maybe the real takeaway is that it could happen ANYTIME.
As we were writing this episode, California’s been dealing with massive flooding and insane snow storms that have affected up to 15 million people and caused a handful of deaths.
It’s being blamed on atmospheric rivers. Which is an awesome term.
This is exactly what it sounds like, a massive flow of moisture in the atmosphere that condenses and falls as rain.
As this graphic shows, the Earth has a kind of belt of warm equatorial air masses that are saturated with water vapor from the warm ocean below. This belt is always traveling toward the east from our perspective thanks to the Earth’s rotation. This is called the Coriolis effect.
But from time to time, this swirling mass of air can fling a little piece of itself off to the north or south, creating these long tendril structures, filled with water. That’s the atmospheric river, and when it hits land and cools, it condenses and falls to the ground as floods.
The ones that hit California tend to break off and come from the direction of Hawaii, so they’re called a Pineapple Express. That sounds like a joke, but it’s not, that’s what they call it.
But from time to time, all this chaos will line up just right and fling a particularly massive chunk of itself toward California. And that’s how you get these megafloods.
But the biggest of these megafloods was in 1605.
It’s thought that this flood basically just made a lake out of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys that lasted more than a decade.
This is the doomsday scenario that keeps climate scientists up at night. It’s not a massive earthquake that could knock California into the sea. It’s this.
This is a storm that has actually happened before, and variations of it have happened regularly for at least 2000 years. It is almost certain to happen again. And the US Geological Survey already has a name for this storm. They call it ARkStorm.
“AR” stands for Atmospheric River. The “k” stands for 1,000 because the storm could bring 1-in-1,000-year rains to some places.
It’s believed that this future flood could cause up to $1 trillion in damage with a death toll in the tens of thousands.
The scenario includes overwhelming flooding in the Central Valley, Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities.
Windspeeds in some places could reach 201 kilometers per hour (125 miles per hour), and hundreds of landslides could damage roads, highways, and homes.
Major metro areas like Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego could find themselves partly or totally underwater.
It’s not complete doom and gloom though, there are things we can do to prepare for it. A recent study published in Science Advances in 2022 talked about some of the options.
As Daniel Swan, one of the researchers involved in the study, told CNN:
That same study also pointed out that, yes, I know we’re all tired of hearing about it, but climate change does play a part in this.
Warmer temperatures means warmer waters, means more water vapor in the equatorial belt, which creates larger atmospheric rivers.
And this isn’t just true in California, these atmospheric rivers occur all around the world.
So, yeah… Between the needs of modern life and the effects of modern life, we might be losing a lot of towns and communities in the coming years. Which is sad.
Going back to St. Thomas, the town I visited at the beginning of this video, apparently the last person to leave the town was a guy named Hugh Lord who literally waited until his home was halfway underwater before putting his stuff in a canoe and rowing away from his house.
And every one of these towns have a story like that I’m sure, people don’t want to leave their homes. People don’t want to have to change.
So maybe the lesson of all this is we’re going to have to be more flexible in the future. Be more willing to adapt. It’s what got us this far.