A small group sat at a circular table in a darkened room, clasping hands and bowing their heads. They were waiting for someone — or something — to speak to them when suddenly, the candle in the middle of the table started to flicker. In the early 1900s, this eerie scene was not unusual.

In the years after World War I and during the 1918 flu pandemic, families who had been torn apart were longing for answers about their departed loved ones. This kind of desperation gave rise to a most bizarre movement all over the world, one that promised closure…even if it meant making a few very long distance calls.

Approximately 20 million soldiers perished in World War I, but just when families were starting to rebuild, another enemy emerged: the 1918 influenza pandemic. After two years, the pandemic had claimed 50 million lives worldwide. By this time, people were desperate.

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With so many people enduring such painful losses, it wasn’t long before they started asking those classic unanswerable questions: What happens after you die? Where do you go? And the question that kept mothers awake at night: Is my son in a better place?

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The thing about unanswerable questions is that someone will always claim to be able to answer them. In the 1900s, mediums and clairvoyants claimed not only to have the answers, but to have an open line of communication with the dead. 

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A New York Sun headline from 1920 summed it up perfectly: “Riddle of the Life Hereafter Draws World’s Attention.” The promise of communication with lost loved ones drew people from far and wide…even the most respected intellectuals of the day.

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That’s how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found himself at that table with the suspicious flickering candle. You’d expect the creator of Sherlock Holmes to be the most methodical thinker, but when it came to his son, he was willing to toss logic aside…

Doyle had actually been interested in all things supernatural for quite some time, even before he lost his son, Kingsley, who died of pneumonia brought on by the influenza during World War I. He couldn’t accept that his son was gone forever…

Though he was already a self-proclaimed Spiritualist, his son’s death motivated him to dive into supernatural investigations head-first. He believed that Spiritualism was a “New Revelation” sent by God in order to bring comfort to those grieving loved ones, much like himself.

It all came to a head during a seance, where Doyle claimed to have communicated with his son. “A large, strong hand then rested upon my head…and I felt and heard a kiss just above my brow,” he described. He even heard his son speak.

After asking Kingsley if he was happy in the afterlife, Doyle heard the words, “Yes, I am so happy.” This wasn’t the last time Doyle claimed to have spoken with his deceased son. In fact, he said that he and Kingsley had chats quite often.

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Apparently, Kingsley even described what the afterlife was like. “There is no crime, no sordidness, and it is many, many times happier,” Doyle said. How he learned this about the afterlife goes back to those all-knowing mediums.

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Mediums — people who can allegedly communicate with the dead — did so a variety of ways. They sometimes did automatic writing, in which the spirit “guides” the medium’s hand to write out messages. Still, others preferred communicating in a more physical way.

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Some mediums practiced table tilting. This technique required a group of people to hold a seance while a medium recited the alphabet. When the medium said the letter the spirit wanted, the table would tilt, turn, or sometimes levitate, seemingly of its own accord.

Most interestingly were the mediums who preferred to speak to the spirits directly. This happened when mediums would become so deeply entranced that the dead would “speak” through them. One of the world’s most respected scientists learned about the afterlife this way.

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Sir Oliver Lodge was a highly respected physicist, but in 1915, all he knew was that his son, Raymond, was dead. He was killed in World War I, and before long the physicist was doing everything he could to hear from his son one last time.

And shockingly enough, he did. He allegedly talked to Raymond via a medium, and he, too, revealed some secrets about the afterlife. Raymond said it was filled with flowers, dogs, and birds, and that he’d reconnected with other deceased family members.

Through Raymond, he was able to talk to other men killed during the war. “They have not gone out of existence. They tell me it is pretty much over there as it is on this side,” Lodge said. Not everyone believed Lodge and Doyle’s claims. 

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What is surprising is the person who opposed them the most: Harry Houdini, the escape artist. With his expert-level knowledge of magic — or, more accurately, his knowledge of trickery — Houdini knew that something about his friends’ claims was off.

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He wasn’t the only one. As Spiritualism and seances rose in popularity, an influx of “mediums” conveniently came out of the woodwork, especially those who had been outed as frauds years before. They preyed on grieving families, something Houdini just couldn’t abide by.

Harry Price/Leaves from a Psychist’s Case Book/Harvey Metcalfe/Wikimedia Commons

Houdini claimed to have attended more than 100 seances, none of which made him less of a skeptic. “Nothing has been revealed to convince me that intercommunication has been established between the spirits of the departed and those still in the flesh,” he said.

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Houdini believed in illusions that could be explained, not in mediums who spoke in funny voices, duping the most vulnerable among us. “There are millions of dollars stolen by clairvoyants and mediums every year, and I can prove it,” Houdini announced.

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And as Houdini dismantled the supposed “illusion” set forth by mediums, he also called out two men who had once been his friends. “Conan Doyle is the biggest dupe outside of Sir Oliver Lodge,” he said, and his tirade wasn’t over yet.

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Houdini was also quick to denounce one of the most popular modes of spiritual communication at the time: ouija boards. He thought ouija boards were every shrewd businessman’s dream. They made seances, which were usually only done by the upper class, marketable to everyone else.

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There was a surge of interest in ouija boards, and all because they were easy to use. Some found them to be a fun dinner party activity, but others trusted that the boards would connect them to a long dead loved one…all with varying results.

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The results varied in intensity: Some reported an increase in spiritual activity in their homes, others claimed to have had long conversations with a dead relative, and others still asserted that nothing at all happened, and that the whole thing was a sham.

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Still, another group was growing, and they were considered to be the most dangerous. There were people who were so obsessed with using ouija boards that they were committed to mental hospitals. With that, “ouija” became another word for “crazy.”

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The medical director of New Jersey State Hospital said at the time, “It would be difficult to imagine conditions more favorable for the development of psychosis than those furnished by the ouija board and other mediums.” Of course, Houdini had his own opinion.

Houdini claimed that ouija boards were “the first step towards insanity.” Whether Spiritualists were crazy or not, it makes sense that the early 1900s, characterized by loss, was also a time period characterized by the need for closure and the phrase, “What if?” 

“What if” was running through most people’s minds when the 1918 flu pandemic hit the United States, but especially in Gunnison, Colorado. In this down-to-earth town, psychics and mediums didn’t exist. All they could focus on was getting out of the pandemic intact…

On September 20th, 1918, 250 soldiers from Montana arrived in the city of Boulder, Colorado. Of the 250 men, 13 were on their deathbeds. They weren’t dying from battle wounds, however. They were shaking, sweating, and almost delirious with the flu. 

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Before long, the flu was zeroing in on Gunnison, Colorado, a farming and mining town with a population of 1,300. Gunnison was filled with tough, salt-of-the-earth people who took life day by day. Looking back, this clear-headed attitude may be what saved them.

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But back in the fall of 1918, when those 13 soldiers fought for their lives in Boulder, the situation certainly made most Coloradans panic. After all, the pandemic had been something other countries were dealing with. Suddenly, it was knocking on their own doors. 

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“The flu is after us,” the Gunnison News-Champion warned on October 10th. “It is circulating in almost every village and community around us.” This wasn’t just fear mongering. Two railroads ran through Gunnison and connected it to Denver, which was a hot-spot of flu cases.

By October 16th, governor Julius Gunter had issued an executive order banning public and private gatherings. Of all the towns in Colorado, Gunnison’s reaction is what made them stand out. Unlike others, they refused to be inactive in the face of panic.

The News-Champion published one front-page article on influenza, including steps to take for avoidance and treatment, in every weekly edition. Since this was before the time of news alerts, the people of Gunnison clung to every word.

Stephen Leonard

Back in 1918, people weren’t sanitizing their doorknobs with antibacterial wipes or soaking their hands in Purell. They weren’t able to horde face masks or toilet paper or frozen foods. Instead, they were forced to rely on something that seems completely foreign to us today.

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They were forced to trust their leaders. They depended on local newspapers for updates, doctors for guidance, and the police for authority. Dr. F.P. Hanson, the county physician, took a leading role…and made an unprecedented decision.

“I have caused a strict quarantine to be placed in Gunnison county against the world,” he announced. “Barricades and fences have been erected on all main highways near the county lines.” For the first time ever, life in Gunnison ground to a complete halt.

History Colorado

Motorists were instructed to either drive straight through Gunnison or submit to days-long quarantine. The railroads, once the lifeblood of the county, were eventually shut down. “Any person may leave the county at his will; none may return,” Hanson warned.

Gunnison, once filled with bustling businesses and friendly neighbors, was silent and still. The people looked not to politicians for comfort, but to local doctors like Hanson and J.W. Rockerfeller, who were given “entire charge” of the county…and the physicians weren’t kidding around.

Anyone who violated the rules of quarantine would be “dealt with to the fullest extent of the law,” Hanson said. “And to this we promise our personal attention.” It wasn’t long before Hanson and Rockerfeller had to put their warning to action.

Residents reported two motorists and a rail passenger who were trying to avoid being quarantined. The result? Their immediate arrest. “This little instance should show outsiders what Gunnison county’s stand is,” Rockerfeller warned. As the flu spread elsewhere, Gunnison remained on lock-down.

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At first, the success of the enforced quarantine was touch-and-go; each time it seemed safe to lift the bans, the state would be rocked by another wave of influenza. By 1919, Gunnison had been in quarantine for two full months, and its citizens were more than a little restless.

History Colorado

Still, the doctors held on to their insistence that quarantine was for the best. “It is not a pleasant or profitable undertaking, [but] when whole families have been wiped out…isn’t it worthwhile to maintain, although it entails inconvenience, hardships, and financial loss?” Rockerfeller wrote.

Underwood Archives/Holger Mollgaard

Another newspaper gave terrified citizens some — if not uplifting — tips. “You are a soldier in civil life. It is your patriotic duty to do your utmost to avoid unnecessarily exposing yourself or others to this disease…a little carelessness on your part may cost someone’s life.”

Nassau News-Record

And so the quarantine in Gunnison continued…until early February, that is. At this point, flu cases had decreased in the state. People in Gunnison started peering out of their windows for signs of life. Was it safe to go out?

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There was only one way to find out. Gunnison lifted its travel and quarantine restrictions, and people left their homes for the first time in months. But it was all for nothing: By mid-March, an unexpected wave of influenza hit Gunnison while its guard was down. 

The newspaper was filled with headlines shouting about the “Grim Reaper”, and on March 13th, one headline read simply: “Flu Gets Us At Last.” One by one, previously healthy Gunnison citizens were bedridden. The carnage was projected to be great.

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Although spring came to Gunnison, the carnage never did. Of all 1,300 residents, seven died: Two adults and five children. The rest of the flu cases were mild and left Gunnison with almost all of its families intact…and with an unlikely legacy.

Gunnison is now known as the town that narrowly avoided a pandemic. Looking back, their success comes down to three things: precautions when it seemed unnecessary, patience when it seemed impossible, and of course, plain old luck.

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Gunnison officials forced citizens to stay indoors during the 1918 flu pandemic because they thought doing so would save lives. But what if you’re told to do the opposite? The people of Celles, France, had to answer this question themselves in the 1950s.

As much as it might look like this quaint waterside village is something out of a movie, it’s actually a very real town called Celles located in Southern France’s Salagou Valley. And it’s the center of a lot of controversy.

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Because, these days, the town looks far different than it used to back in the beginning of the 1900s. If you venture out to the Salagou Valley today, you’ll find the area strewn with abandoned buildings.

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It’s a sad sight, unfortunately. What once were the homes of residents are now crumbling structures where families were raised. Some of the windows are still intact, but ruins now overtake Celles.

Sam Harrison

Celles was never a bustling city by any means, but at one point in time during the 1950s, it had about 65 residents who ensured the village ran smoothly every day.

To this day, the reservoir around Celles is tranquil and scenic, but you would never know the water was actually the reason the town was so quickly abandoned. The events that unfolded in the late 1950s were heartbreaking.

Sam Harrison

Prior to the residents fleeing Celles, nearly all of them were either farmers or winemakers, living off the land and honing agricultural methods. However, even though everyone lived simply, Celles faced a crisis.

They were experiencing what was known as a “viticulture crisis.” Basically, too many people were making wine. The market was completely saturated with product, and prices were at an all-time low.

So, in order to bring a bigger diversity of agriculture to the area, the local government figured building a reservoir would be an ideal option. But, they had to completely flood out the town of Celles to do so.

Between the years of 1959 and 1968, the people of Celles were instructed to sell their homes. Those who didn’t abide by the law were forced out by any means necessary. After an 11-year struggle, the town was deserted.

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What remained after the dictatorial government action was exactly what you’d expect. The skeletons of homes lay rotting away, and the peaceful energy that once filled the streets was nowhere to be found.

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Now that the residents were gone, the reservoir and dam were quickly completed. The water level slowly rose, but before it hit the expected level of 150 meters, it stopped 11 meters short. The water never even reached Celles.

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The town was totally deserted for absolutely no reason at all. People left their lives and abandoned everything they knew for an end result that never even happened. People were devastated by the outcome.

Sam Harrison

That wasn’t even the worst of what happened, either. After it was discovered there was an entire town up for grabs, squatters came in and began living in the skeletal remains of buildings. Looters took whatever goods were left.

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So, what was to come of this sad town that once housed hardworking Celles residents? Many would think all abandoned hope, when in fact, some people did try making a difference.

Sam Harrison

Amazingly, three families actually agreed to sign long-term leases at Celles in an attempt to revitalize the village. Of course, it will take a lot of hard work and dedication, but Celles’ mayor is confident it can happen.

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Her name is Joëlle Goudal, and she’s been fighting her entire life to help keep the idea of rebuilding Celles into what it once was alive and well. But, it’s been a struggle.

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“We wanted a lively village. A village that’s lively is a place where people work; where kids go to school, where people wake up in the morning to go to their jobs,” Goudal said.

One beacon of hope for Goudal is based on a special lease called a “bail réel solidaire.” What the lease states is whoever plans on moving in has to agree to take part in rebuilding the structural integrity.

To enforce the lease, Celles is currently only welcoming people who can bring entire businesses in to kickstart some kind of economy. “We chose people based on their project or the enterprise they will bring,” said the mayor.

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Goudal eventually wants Celles to become a functioning town again, but it’s hard to say how many people are willing to join such a stressful undertaking. Those in charge knew from past events how hard it was to really people for a cause like this.

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See, back in 1965, residents of Niagara Falls, New York, began to notice that, on their side of the falls, things were looking a bit wonky. The falls’ water levels were beginning to dwindle, and something, the locals knew, was off.

See, American Falls — one of three fall that make up Niagara — was a self-destructive mess (which is totally relatable). Its waters eroded the shape of the landmark, and talus, which is the rock that collects at the bottom of the falls, grew to over half of the height of the cliff!

Apparently this excessive deposit of talus was preventing the water from falling gracefully. People were worried that the aggressive amounts of rock affected the aesthetic allure of the American side. The Americans were worried.

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It was a concern that the American side would lose a portion of its revenue if the waterfalls’ serene magic dimmed. So, in 1965, Niagara Falls, New York, residents propelled a campaign to preserve the aesthetic wonder of the American Falls. 

In response, American and Canadian authorities were on the case, as they contacted the International Joint Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about restoration. After consideration, the refurbishment plan was a go! It wouldn’t be easy, however.

To give the American Falls a makeover, engineers had to strip Niagara Falls of its water completely to thoroughly analyze the talus rock face. The goal was to remove 280,000 cubic yards of talus, and, in June of 1969, said engineers got to work.

Engineers brought approximately 27,000 tons of earth and rock to the American Falls. We know what you’re thinking: Why would they bring more rubble to the talus-saturated falls? Well, they needed to build a cofferdam, an enclosure that pumps out water, to create a dry workspace.

By creating a cofferdam, engineers redirected the flow of water from the American Falls to the Horseshoe Falls (which borders both sides of Niagara Falls). By doing this, they could finally take a peak at the American Falls’ cryptic underbelly.

They figured the reveal would simply expose Niagara Falls’ geological features, which have been hidden for nearly 12,000 years. They were in for the shock of their lives, and it wouldn’t be a pretty one.

The American Falls held something much darker than just heaps of talus rock. Like dead bodies. Tourists spotted human remains from both a man and a woman laid out on the riverbed. Questions mounted.

No one knows the identities of these perished souls, however, it was commonly spread that the man leaped to his death from the tippy top of Niagara Falls. And how did the woman’s body end up wasting away at the bottom of the falls?

That remained a mystery. Though the engineers were disturbed by their discovery, they found it more shocking that the team didn’t discover more bodies among the eroded rocks, considering what they knew about the falls.

An estimated 5,000 bodies were found at the base of the falls between 1850 and 2011, making it odd that only two were found in 1969. Considering statistics approximate 20 to 40 suicides a year at the falls, it’s not the only explanation for this graveyard of sorts.

Thrill-seekers have taken the daring plunge from the falls’ peak since the 1820s, having built inventive barrels and casks to topple over the falls in. With fingers crossed, only a few have survived the audacious feat.

Niagara Falls Public Library

The most famous survivor is arguably Annie Edson Taylor, who took the plunge over the falls in 1901, cradled inside a wooden barrel. Reportedly, the adventurer said “No one ought ever do that again,” after her triumph. Sadly, many didn’t heed her warning, which explains some of the found remains.

Being less dreadful, but more disruptive, millions of coins were, too, found among the talus collection in 1969. That’s a whole lot of wishes. Still, coins and bodies aside, the engineers still needed to get the falls gushing with water again.

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Believe it or not, after the intense, and wildly expensive, construction at the American Falls, engineers decided to leave the eroded talus after their realization that the rock supported the cliff face behind. Though it sounds absurd, the project didn’t go without purpose.

It opened up an opportunity to give the American Falls some much needed TLC. With the help of anchors, bolts and cables, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked on stabilizing the falls so it could glisten and gleam for years to come.

The International Joint Commission concluded “man should not interfere with the natural process.” Nevertheless, recent years have spawned talks of once again dewatering the falls, this time in hopes of restoring bridges. Experts know this could reveal important details from history.

That’s what happened about 100 miles away from Portland, Oregon, where the Detroit Dam on the North Santiam River creates a reservoir known as Detroit Lake. The lake provides water for the city of Salem — and intrigue every autumn.

Sally DeSouza

Towards the end of every year, the lake runs mostly dry, exposing a cracked-and-grassy surface that brings locals out to the Marion County mountains in droves. It’s not the lake’s barren surface they want to see, however — well, not exactly.

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Rather, travelers pull off Route 22 every fall — usually between October 1 and January 1 — hoping to catch a glimpse of history: a piece of the area’s rich past jutting from the soil like a troop of two-foot soldiers.

Tree stumps pepper the landscape, vestiges of the past creating an eerie atmosphere. Touch a stump and you won’t feel the familiar bark; rather, you’ll feel a thick-and-bloated stump that belongs to the depths of Detroit Lake.

State Library of Oregon

Most thought these stumps, interesting as they are, were all the drained lake had to offer (when full, the lake’s a popular place for water sports). But in 2015, a drought drained the lake in its entirety, revealing the deepest depths of the reservoir…

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During the drought, and thanks to a lack of snowfall in the Cascades, the lake dropped 143 feet below capacity. Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Zahn saw this as an opportunity to explore the land beyond the stumps.

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“I went on a treasure hunt down along the river, figuring I’d find foundations or something like that,” Deputy Dave said. He wandered the dried-up lake bed, grazing the stumps with his fingertips until he saw something in the distance.

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In a part of the lake bed submerged underwater for over 70 years, the deputy saw what at first might’ve looked like a fat tree branch in between two stumps. But as he neared the oddity, he saw more clearly what it actually was.

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Out of the mud stuck a wagon, complete with massive spoked wheels and a spring seat. Low oxygen levels in the reservoir preserved the piece of history almost perfectly, including a metal plate with some telling details.

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The metal plate revealed the wagon was built in 1875 by the Milburn Wagon Company of Toledo, Ohio, the biggest wagon manufacturer in the U.S. at the time. A simple discovery, yes, but one that had an immeasurable impact on the local community.

The wagon discovery reopened the past. While the history of Lake Detroit wasn’t exactly a secret, it didn’t hurt for Oregonians who might not know to ask what’s the story behind this wagon and all these stumps?

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The charming history, soon consumed by locals intrigued by the wagon, went like this: in the 1880s pioneers — likely steering carts like the one Deputy Dave found — left Michigan for the Pacific Northwest. They made a settlement along a river.

They called their settlement “New Detroit,” named, of course, for their home state’s largest city. While New Detroit never matched the size of its namesake, the settlement did grow to about 200 people.

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The small community nestled in a pocket of trees first housed builders for the Oregon Pacific Railroad, but eventually, it thrived on its own merit as citizens built cafes, churches, hardware stores, and logging companies.

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For about 70 years, the small settlement grew, but then Congress devised a plan to help out farmers and downstream towns getting obliterated by a constantly-flooding North Santiam River: the construction of a dam.

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The 463-foot-high dam was for electricity, irrigation, and most importantly, flood control, and its creation, New Detroit residents knew, meant the demise of their humble settlement. In 1952, after World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers arrived.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Corps cleared over 3,000 acres of trees from what would be the dam’s reservoir, not knowing, of course, they were creating what would be a local attraction 70-some-odd years later: the tree stump garden.

David James Visuals

Residents protested the destruction of their settlement, but to no avail. Still, grim as it looked, this was not the end of New Detroit, which by then was alive with automobiles instead of horse-drawn carts!

Residents who’d grown fond of their little corner of the world simply packed up and moved to the top of a plateau about one mile away. It must’ve been haunting to watch the water turn their old settlement — including the wagon — into a ghost town!

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Thanks to Deputy Dave’s lake bed exploration, the history of New Detroit was brought into the light once more. That neat wagon, which experts supposed had never before been exposed until that 2015 drought, triggered an entire area’s interest in its colorful past!

Joseph Rose / Oregon Live