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Style Magazine

Submerged in Time

Jul 09, 2013 08:42AM ● By Style

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army; photo by Chris Gray-Garcia.

Summertime is upon us, along with sunscreen, swimming, wakeboarding and rafting.

For thousands of Sacramento area locals and visitors that means a trip to the cooling waters of Folsom Lake. But before you don that life vest and jump into the 11,450-acre surface area and 300 billion gallons of water, you might want to know what was formerly there: at least 11 known towns and settlements founded during the Gold Rush of 1848—some of California’s oldest—all underneath its murky waters.

Members of the Mormon Battalion—who arrived in California from Utah in 1846 and played a vital role in the Mexican-American War—were the first known non-Native American settlers. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo restored peace, many members of the Mormon Battalion chose to stay and settle in the Sierra Nevada foothills. When gold was discovered in Coloma, a few enterprising Mormons began searching for gold along the American River and founded Mormon Island. More emigrating Latter Day Saints (LDS) members, as well as people from other faiths, later joined them. By 1850, Mormon Island had a school, hotel, post office and more than 2,000 residents.

Southwest of Mormon Island, under Folsom Lake, are the remains of Negro Hill or Bar. In 1848, two men of African descent, August Newhall and a Methodist preacher by the name of Kelsey, settled in the area and founded Negro Hill, which boasted a population of 1,200 at its height of production.

As years passed, the region turned from gold to agriculture, becoming home to multiple dairy farms, orchards, little clapboard houses and red barns. The Davies family sold milk door-to-door during the Great Depression; the Darringtons were ranchers; and the McDowells operated a ranch and winery. In 1951, the last residents of the area, whose homes were purchased by the U.S. government, packed their wagons and vehicles and moved on—leaving behind the memories, buildings, orchards, mine tailings, aqueducts, bridges and tools that were a part of life in the area for more than 100 years.  

By 1955, the reservoir was filled—a sad farewell to many. Probably not to Negro Hill resident Mary Ballou, however, whose detailed diary describes her heartfelt homesickness for “the states” and “hogs in [her] kitchen” disturbing the pots and kettles. Like many women, Ballou traveled to California with her gold prospecting husband but made more money running a small business, which included a kitchen, laundering service, sewing and childcare.   

In 1954, the remains in the cemeteries and isolated graves that were found were moved to the Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery; in all, 289 individuals from Mormon Island and hundreds more from other towns, most resting in “unknown” markers.

At low water, remnants of Mormon Island and a bridge in Salmon Falls may be seen, including foundations, irrigation, tools, glass and earthenware. Forever lost are 11 pastoral towns and rowdy mining camps—all a watery tribute to the men and women who pioneered California.