Knock the dust off your photo albums and turn to any page, and you’ll find a photo that reminds you of a moment you’ve forgotten about: a first birthday party, an awkwardly posed prom pic, or a smile from a family member long ago passed on. This inevitably begins the proverbial walk down memory lane.
In 2015, an Oregon deputy experienced something similar — but on a much larger scale — when he explored a lake bed sucked dry by a devastating drought. There, he made a startling discovery that encouraged the local community to revisit and cherish the history of its one-of-a-kind lot of land.
About 100 miles away from Portland, Oregon, 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.
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.
Bicycle Times Mag
Rather, travelers pull off Route 22 every fallt — 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…
Jamie Hale / Oregon Live
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.
“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.
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.
James Hale / Oregon Live
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.
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?
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.
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.
Joseph Rose / Oregon Live
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.
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!
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