Jeff Jardine

Lake-level watching is new tourism fad

San Luis Reservoir low water levels were at 19.3 percent or 160 feet down on Oct. 30, 2014.
San Luis Reservoir low water levels were at 19.3 percent or 160 feet down on Oct. 30, 2014.

It started last winter, when some area TV stations began showing the foundation from the stamp mill of the old Eagle-Shawmut mine as it emerged from Lake Don Pedro.

Most years, the upper part of the relic becomes visible as the lake level drops during the irrigation season. But this time, into the third year of drought, much more appeared. So did the tourists.

“When it came out, there were hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Bob Hemphill, who has lived along Shawmut Road for decades. “There was a car going by our place every five seconds for a while there. One day, there were more than 100 people down there picnicking, and they left all kinds of trash. It brought a different level of people.”

Including a few who tagged the roadway where it ends near the lake’s high-water mark.

“And there’s nothing really to see,” Hemphill said.

He remembers much worse conditions in 1977, when he visited the old town of Jacksonville and saw remnants of the old 120 bridge.

“I was the only one down there (that day),” he said. “I went down to the (Highway) 120 bridge and I stepped across the river. Now that was a drought.”

Point taken. Still, lake-level watching has become the new low-budget tourism fad. With a tank of gas and a sack lunch, people are going to the lakes not to fish or boat, but to look. Granted, they don’t contribute much to the local tourism economy. But for those who do their homework, history is drip-drying before their very eyes.

All along the foothills, the reservoir water levels are dropping. New Melones, on the Stanislaus River, is at 21 percent of capacity. Lake Don Pedro, on the Tuolumne, is at 37 percent. McClure, on the Merced River, is little more than a riverbed and puddle at only 8 percent full (or, to a pessimist, 92 percent empty). San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos is 20 percent full.

These places offer barren hillsides and stark reminders that if it doesn’t snow seriously hard over the next few winters, we are in serious, serious trouble. Even so, empty reservoirs pique curiosity about what usually rests beneath: old town sites, building foundations and mining remnants inundated when the dams rose.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates the New Melones Visitor Center just off Highway 49 on the Tuolumne County side. “What do the vast majority of recent visitors want to know?” I asked.

“When the (landmarks) are going to be visible,” said an employee, who isn’t allowed to be quoted in the media. The boots on the ground at the local level are instructed to direct media inquiries to a public affairs officer somewhere else. The flack will then call the visitor center to get the information needed to answer the media inquiry.

Like when, for example, will the old Highway 49 bridge come out of the water again? It’s still more than 100 feet submerged, I overheard someone say.

When, for example, will the old Melones dam poke through the surface? Around the same time the bridge emerges, I eavesdropped.

When, for example, will the foundations of the old town of Melones, on the Calaveras County side of the river, be visible? Some old concrete ruins are out of the water already, but those from the town itself will precede the emergence of the bridge and the dam. Don’t ask me where I got that.

In fact, many people are taking the 20- to 25-minute walk down old 49 from the north side to poke around, receiving an escort from the horses pastured there. Some visitors, and I overheard this as well, are using metal detectors, which is a no-no.

“No metal detectors are allowed.” Hey, a voice travels in a small room. “You can see where they’ve been digging and leaving holes, which is dangerous. They been digging up nails, piling them up and not taking them.”

We’re still at least a few months from seeing the old 49 bridge, which came completely out of the water during the drought of 1992.

Within the Lake McClure footprint, the old Yosemite Railway tunnels are now probably a half-mile or more above the lake level, which, for the most part, is down to the original riverbed. They’ve been out of the water now for several months. When the lake is at normal levels, those tunnels are submerged.

The trains carried passengers from El Portal to Yosemite National Park from 1907 until 1945. The railroad originally came up the Merced River Canyon and carried materials used to build Exchequer Dam in the 1920s. In fact, trains passed right through the dam until it basically was completed. Relocated well up on the hillside, the grade went underwater again when New Exchequer was built in the 1960s.

Also exposed are the concrete pillars of the railroad’s old Barrett Bridge and some of the foundations from the old town and rail stop of Bagby.

So there are plenty of places that rise from their watery graves when water levels fall during droughts. By all means, gas up the car, pack a sack lunch and go lake-level watching.

Just take your trash when you go, and leave the aerosol spray paint can at home.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.