The hemp ropes were tied with climber’s knots and hooked to rudimentary safety harnesses; they audibly creaked when too much weight strained the fibers. The 44-pound jackhammers were lowered to the men below, who were dangling along the sheer cliff face. Holes were drilled, and dynamite was set. The stink of explosives hung in the air high above the Colorado River. Rocks and boulders would shower down into the chasm below. The year was 1932. The men dangling on ropes before the craggy red face of the Black Canyon walls were former sailors, circus performers, and Native Americans who embodied a certain skill working with ropes high above what would eventually become the Hoover Dam. They were called the “High Scalers.”
The High Scaler with Lightning Quick Reflexes
The Great Depression was still in full swing, so the men who worked there came from all across the country looking for jobs. Building an engineering marvel like the Hoover Dam offered a promise of good pay for their hard labor, even though the rising waters would eventually inundate small towns like the very ones they had left behind. The fate of places like Saint Thomas, Nevada, was easy to ignore if you weren’t from there.
Hoover Dam is rather famously known for the number of men who died during its construction, several of which were high scalers. They worked like daredevils, literally drawing crowds who watched in awe of their death-defying jobs. The mission was to clear loose rock and create a solid rock surface to interface with the future dam structure. It was dangerous and confusing work—the site was described as an anthill of activity by one onlooker. Air hoses, electrical lines, dynamite blasts, falling rocks (and sometimes tools), mixed with dozens of men all created hazards that the high scalers had to learn to navigate with skill or pay the consequences. The high scalers were specifically prone to being hit in the head by falling rock, so they took to wearing cloth hats coated in coal tar as a homemade hard hat. The hats were a significant improvement, and true hardhats became required wear for everyone on site.
One day in particular involved the type of danger that could befall anyone if they weren’t careful. On 21 November 1932, engineer Burl Rutledge lost his footing and fell over the edge, plunging to what he thought was sure to be his death. Oliver Cowan, a high scaler who had been working below Rutledge, noticed the man lose his footing and immediately swung out, catching the falling man in midair by his leg. Within seconds, Arthur Parks, an untethered foreman of the scalers jumped down to a narrow ledge and caught the two men swinging toward the wall. This feat of heroism landed young Oliver Cowan in the spotlight of the nation.
Oliver Cowan was originally from Spokane, Washington, and was a member of the Colville tribe. On the Colville reservation, the tribe was known for its salmon fishing skills that sometimes involved using ropes or cables to cross tricky rapids and to get closer to the plentiful migrating steelhead and sockeye salmon. His familiarity with ropework may be one reason Cowan was an exceptional high scaler, but his quick thinking and brute strength made him a hero.
Cowan was surprised by the attention he received from the nation, but also since he was just 22 years old, he surely enjoyed some of the accolades he received. Not only was he featured with Arthur Parks in newspapers across the country, but he was invited to Los Angeles, where he attended parties in his honor, and apparently was offered a movie contract, although it does not seem to have come to fruition. The citizens of Las Vegas, Nevada, also lobbied for Cowan and Parks to receive Carnegie medals of honor.
But, as ever, his fame was fleeting. It’s unclear what Cowan did after the high scaling job at Hoover Dam was over, but it appears that he continued life as a contractor, moving around as work required, but always calling the Spokane area his home base. He didn’t get married until 1953, after his father had passed away, possibly due to the nomadic nature of his work.
As fate would have it, “progress” arrived in Cowan’s backyard when construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam in the Columbia River Valley. One record suggests that he indeed worked on its construction, too, as implied by an industrial accident notice in a Grand Coulee newsletter. His brother, Harry, may have also worked there during construction.
While the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam provided an economic benefit to the residents of the area in some ways, the impact on the Colville tribal lands was steep. The rising waters behind the dam, now known as Lake Roosevelt, flooded 11 towns or settlements, including Kettle Falls which had once been a waterfall well known to fishermen and visitors to the region. The bountiful fishing that had once been a hallmark of the Columbia River was severely impacted by the Grand Coulee dam, and with another dam further downriver (the Chief Joseph Dam), the salmon runs were blocked, leaving the area upriver without any salmon to fish. Only recently have efforts been successful in moving salmon back into the region.
The high scalers of Hoover Dam have been commemorated by a monument in Boulder City, Nevada, in memory of those who risked life and limb to create Lake Mead. They may have been seen as just common men in need of a job, but they proved themselves to be spectacular in skill, efficiency, strength, and courage. And in the case of Oliver Cowan, he was a man with lightning quick reflexes fast enough to save a life.
The lore of the “ghost town” is part of the culture of the American West that represents a sliver of failed “civilization.” Churches and schools, homes and offices, streets and cemeteries were abandoned to be reclaimed by the wilderness and haunted by the ghosts of spirits left behind. You might imagine these abandoned spaces, populated by wildlife, tumbleweeds, and maybe a few folks who are on the run from the law, but the reality is that ghost towns are often hidden in plain sight, far away from tumbleweeds or even the light of day.
If any of us have the unfortunate luck of genealogy lines that trace to ghost towns that no longer exist, the questions of “what happened?” and “where was it?” and “where did everyone go?” can create quite the impasse in our research. The answer is not always obvious, and sometimes what might have actually happened becomes lost to time.
Unlike the logical abandonment of a mining town that ran out of gold or a small town that was economically decimated by a highway bypass, some towns were sacrificed in the name of progress. Sometimes that progress looked like building dams and reservoirs that would intentionally flood large sections of land with the purpose of providing drinking water to larger cities, hydropower electricity, and flood control.
In most cases, every effort was made to move buildings and graves to higher ground, essentially creating new towns with the same population. This was the case with Butler, Tennessee, which briefly became “New Butler” in 1948, when the Tennessee Valley Authority finalized the construction of Watauga Lake. The town soon dropped the “new” and is now known as Butler, while the underwater ghost town is referred to as “Old Butler.”
Similarly, Elbowoods, North Dakota, a community of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes (also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes or MHA Nation) along the Missouri River was relocated to become New Town, North Dakota, with the construction of Garrison Dam. Elbowoods had been known for its thriving little town of over 325 families. Many families were moved reluctantly by the Corps of Engineers, and people outside of the tribe had to be hired to remove the graves. By one account, no one local or native would take the grave removal work because there is nothing more evil than disturbing a burial site in their culture. The final move was made in 1954, and New Town is still home to the MHA Nation today.
Things went a little awry in Massachusetts’ Swift River Valley when the Quabbin reservoir construction began in the 1930s. The intent of the reservoir was to serve as the primary drinking water supply for the city of Boston. This was made possible by the Swift River Act of 1927. Four towns were lost to the Quabbin reservoir: Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott. Since these towns had been established for well over 100 years, the populace was devastated, especially older generations who had never known another home.
The clearing portion of the project got underway around 1936, which led to a large influx of men and boys coming to the region to pick up work. The effects of the Great Depression were still being felt, so the draw of short-term government contract work was too good for many men to pass up. Since the entire reservoir area was set to have all trees, brush, buildings, and graves cleared, the arrival of so many new outsiders prompted the still existing communities to respond. A new police station was established to handle the increase in population, and one local doctor noted an extreme uptick in automobile accidents. These contract workers were soon dubbed “woodpeckers” rather disparagingly. They were accused of lawlessness and intentional laziness stemming from hourly wages with no daily quota to meet. The locals regarded woodpeckers with disdain, especially after a church was set on fire well before it was slated for demolition, although who started the fire was never determined.
Rather famously, the city of Enfield embodied the last hurrah and sentimental sadness of Quabbin Valley residents by having one last party in the last municipal building standing, the Enfield town hall. Built to hold 300 people, the place was packed with over a thousand on the evening of 27 April 1938. Some reports said the overflow of people had them dancing on the grounds outside into the wee hours of the night, clinging together in their last goodbyes. On 28 April 1938, the cities of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott ceased to exist. Most of the residents had already moved on to other towns, but an extension was granted to some families who either needed more time to secure a new home or who were working on the continued dam construction, which of course was destined to create the eventual demise of their own homes.
In Nevada, the Hoover Dam created Lake Mead, which flooded its own share of settlements, including the often-above-water Saint Thomas, Calville, and various historical Anasazi tribal sites. Saint Thomas is notable for having a resident, Hugh Lord, who refused to leave town until the water reached the foundation of his home. He finally left by boat that very day, rowing away after lighting his house on fire in his final defiant act.
Another notable “big dam,” the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington’s Columbia River Valley, consumed eleven towns: Keller, Lincoln, Gifford, Daisy, Kettle Falls, Marcus, Boyds, Inchelium (which was on the Colville Reservation), Rice, Peach, and Jerome. All but Peach and Jerome were relocated. An addition to the Grand Coulee was built during the 1970s, and an additional 200 homes were bought out and demolished as a result. Also note that Kettle Falls was not just a town, but also a geological waterfall that is wholly under the resulting lake, Lake Roosevelt.
All across the country, similar stories can be told of flooded towns under reservoirs and behind dams. Some are said to be haunted by spirits, perhaps because some historical graves and cemeteries were never located, while some graves were reportedly left intact due to familial wishes. Not only are former residents rumored to haunt these underwater ghost towns, but also the numerous people who died during construction accidents or incidental happenstance of working under such demanding circumstances.
If you believe that your ancestor may have resided in what is now a ghost town, you should first conduct in-depth research on the history of the area and, therefore, determine where records may be held—often transferred to a local historical society, county government or to the town which absorbed the population. Begin by searching for the historical details of the geographic name in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System, which not only provides you details about the history of the location, but also the exact location on a modern map. There are also many books which detail the bygone communities, towns or villages. One such book is “The Ghost Towns of Texas,” by Dick King, which provides histories on a few of the many places lost to time. Newspapers are another example of published works which may provide rich detail that might not otherwise be recorded about the changes that impacted a community, eventually leading to its demise.
Although we can see the fruits of their sacrifices in the beauty of the expansive lakes, and in a glass of clean drinking water, the history of what came before is important to remember, lest we be faced with the same call for sacrifice in our own time.
Bureau of Reclamation (https://www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/history/essays/hscaler.html : accessed 26 October 2021), “The Story of Hoover Dam - Essays: High Scalers.”
Consolidated Builders, Inc., “Hospital News, Industrial,” The Columbian (Grand Coulee Dam newsletter), (13 July 1939), p. 7; e-journal, (https://dc.ewu.edu/mwak_columbian/98 : accessed 27 October 2021).
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 27 October 2021), digital image from original b&w photographic print, photographer Ben D. Glaha (1899-1970), “[High scalers drilling on canyon walls],” 1934, Digital ID: LC-DIG-ds-00634.
"Plucked the Falling Engineer Right Out of Mid-Air" The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 15 January 1933], digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 27 October 2021), citing print edition, p. 1, cols. 1-6.
“Spokane Youth Boulder’s Hero” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), 2 December 1932, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 27 October 2021), citing print edition, p. 6, col. 1.
1933 United States Indian census rolls, Colville Tribe, population schedule, Colville Indian Reservation, p. 50 (penned), entry 551, Oliver Cowan, database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 27 October 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication M595, roll 56.
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“Enfield Sadly Greets Spring As Quabbin Flooding Nears,” The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 April 1938, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 24 October 2021), citing print edition p.1, col. 3, and p.3, cols. 1 – 4.
“Lake Mead Is Victor Over Lord,” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), 12 June 1938, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 27 October 2021), citing print edition p.1, col. 4.
Bureau of Reclamation (https://www.usbr.gov/pn/grandcoulee/about/faq.html: accessed 27 October 2021), “Columbia – Pacific Northwest Region, Frequently Asked Questions.”
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Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St._Thomas_Evacuation_(20153809491).jpg : accessed 27 October 2021), digital image digital image of original b&w photo, 1938, “File:St._Thomas_Evacuation_(20153809491).jpg;” image uploaded by user Howcheng.
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