Low water exposes Emigrant Lake’s past

Low water exposes Emigrant Lake’s past
By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune

October 6, 2014

ASHLAND — As Jeff LaLande picks through the old spark plugs, brakes and other debris where Klamath Junction used to be, he thinks about those who worked at this highway service station inundated 54 years ago by Emigrant Lake.

Travelers stopping by for a nickel Coke might’ve also gotten some work done on their Edsel at this intersection of what was then Highway 66 and the Siskiyou Highway, long since abandoned to accommodate the Rogue Valley’s thirsty farmlands.

Then LaLande’s eyes turn toward a curious stone, perhaps one used by native people chipping arrowheads along the banks of Emigrant Creek.
Two chunks of Ashland history sharing the same spot.

“They built right on top of where the natives spent time knocking on rocks to create arrows,” says LaLande, a retired Forest Service archaeologist from Ashland. “It’s from way back when to not-so-back when.”

Water levels diminished by drought are airing out some pieces of lake bed not seen in decades and exposing ghosts of Emigrant Lake’s past.

The reservoir seven miles southeast of Ashland is now sitting at 10 percent of its capacity, the lowest it’s been since the 1994 drought, says Jim Pendleton, manager of the Talent Irrigation District, the main distributor of Emigrant Lake water.

The current level makes 2014 one of the five driest seasons seen at the reservoir since it was built to its current capacity of 40,570 acre-feet.

The exposed lake bed is yielding many visual treasures for history hounds, but people are banned from driving in the lake bed and likely should leave what they find in place for fear of running afoul of federal historic preservation laws.

What visitors are seeing is part of the lake’s two-tiered history.

It was created in 1924 when TID erected a 110-foot concrete arched dam to impound upper Bear Creek Basin water and provide a modicum of flood-control capacity. It was nearly doubled to 204 feet tall in 1960, when the federal Bureau of Reclamation built the earthen dam that remains today.

The bureau had to buy out homesteads in what would become the 806-acre lake bed, according to the bureau. Also, the graves and tombstones of the old Hill Cemetery had to be moved to higher ground.

But there was no saving Klamath Junction.

The gas station and small store aided travelers heading east, west, north or south. Though the station was dismantled before the dam’s completion, the foundation and apparent retaining wall remain and are above the muddy moonscape there today.

Remnants of old pipe protrude from the mud. What appears to be some sort of petroleum is gurgling out of the muck, creating a rusty stain on the mud and puddles.

“Maybe there’s an old gas tank under there,” LaLande says.

A large, thick green bottle rests on the old concrete, trying to tell LaLande its own story.

“This is some sort of sparkling wine bottle, so somebody probably had a party here, maybe on New Year’s Eve,” LaLande says.

A quick scan reveals a bar code, meaning it was more likely the Bush years than the Eisenhower era.

An old Capri tire rests in the exposed mud while nearby an eroded straw hat — probably blown off an angler’s head — lies quietly on caked and cracked dirt.
Bolts. Washers. Old Owen Illinois glass. Metal tubing. Two brass door latches.

“Hey, here’s an old cold-cream jar,” LaLande says. “There were some pretty fastidious mechanics here.”

It’s a trip through time that LaLande heretofore had not taken.

“In my 45 years here, I’ve never seen it that low,” he says.

If TID’s Pendleton gets his wish, Klamath Junction will remain under water in future years when drought doesn’t draw the lake so low.

So history buffs may see the watery window closing on their look back at Klamath Junction.

“It’s pretty amazing to see this,” LaLande says.