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Dam drainage reveals historic landmarks (VIDEO)

History is often hidden in the most unexpected places, waiting to be uncovered. In the recent winter months, Shaver Lake, located in the Sierra National Forest of Fresno County, CA, has been drained, revealing old remnants of the dam from the 1920s. Along with the viewing of recently submerged items, the facts and stories behind them provide a better understanding of the area.

Settling, saw mills, Shaver and Swift

The Museum of the Central Sierra and Educational Center, located near the lake, offers historical information, pictures and artifacts to assist in understanding the history of Shaver Lake. Though the museum is closed due to the snow during winter, foresters are available to give information and answer questions to tourists.

When the government made land available for homesteading in the West, people began to move to California in the 1880s. About this time, Charles B. Shaver and Luis Swift arrived in Fresno from Michigan near time when the Stevenson Creek Dam was washed out.

Chief Forester Patrick E. Emmert shares the facts of the founding and building of Shaver Lake. Most people are unaware that the Shaver Dam was built because of the flume and saw mill industries in the surrounding areas, he says.

“People were moving, cities and railroads were being built,” Emmert said. “In about 1890 a group of locals started a saw mill and built an earthing dam across Stevenson Creek. Their dam washed out and about that time CB Shaver from Michigan and a friend, Luis Swift arrived in Fresno looking for timber opportunities.”

These two men partnered to create the Fresno Flume and Irrigation Company. They built a flume 41 miles long that ran all the way from Shaver area down to the Clovis Rodeo Grounds. The flume was used to transport lumber down to town, where it could then be sold.

“It took about six hours for a board to float the length of the flume, at some points it reached 30 miles per hour because of the slope,” Emmert said. “At times, 400 [people] were employed out in the woods and in the sawmill, but other times it would be slow because they started in the spring time.”

This business boomed, allowing for Shaver and Swift to become successful. Their business created a residential area which is now known as Shaver, but, ironically, Shaver spent most of his time doing business in Fresno while Swift spent his time up at the mill and flume.

The winter of 1913-14 brought snow fall that damaged parts of the flume. By this time, both Shaver and Swift passed away, leaving their family to continue the business.

Site’s water-holding capacity molds its future

With the help of the Big Creek Project, in 1919, Shaver Lake was being considered for its water holding capacity. The same year, the sawmill was purchased as well as the surrounding 32,000 acres to complete the project.

Train lines were transferred to help in building the dam. Additionally, a new track was built to allow a train to carry cement and materials straight to the dam sight.

“The trains were transferred for the Big Creek Project and they ran the saw mill to cut lumber for the hydro-project,” Emmert said. “They decided to build a new dam in Shaver. They built another railroad that came to the dam sight to deliver concrete to the dam. It ended up being built between 1927-29.”

Due to the increase in water volume after the completion of the new dam in 1929, the old dam was submerged completely. The old dam controlled the water level.

“The old dam houses the drain pipe of the mill pond,” Emmert said. “There are valves that open and close, the saw mill used that to control the water level on the flume. When they built the new dam, there was a note to leave the valve open.”

The dam was last seen in 1927, before the completion of the new dam. The new dam would allow an increase in water capacity to help with the Big Creek Project.

Remnants discovered during drainage

In order to protect the new dam for another 100 or so years, the Hydro Company drained Shaver Lake. They will be applying a membrane to the front surface of the dam to preserve it for a longer period of time.

As the lake was drained, pieces of the old dam became visible once again. Finally uncovered from 1927, the low oxygen level and cold temperatures have kept the old dam’s condition well.

From the water line, spectators are able to view the lake bottom. They are able to see many of the smoke stacks, boilers, water wheels and the building that still houses the valves that remain of the old dam.

“That building has been underwater since 1927,” Emmert said. “Surprisingly it has not disintegrated. You can still see rock over the top of boilers, and four boilers that are encased in that rock. There is a big wheel which up close it is attached to a steam engine.”

Though there was some worry about the exposure of these items to oxygen, specialists agree that only minimal damage could be inflicted. For more information on the drainage at Shaver Lake, check out The Fresno Bee’s Feb. 16 article, Historical Perspective: Old Shaver Dam.

The lake is scheduled to be refilled sometime in March, when these old remnants will once again be submerged in water. The next time this scene will be revealed could be after the membrane wears of the dam, which could be over 100 years.

For more features on Fresno County, read the April 6, 2011 article,
Pastoral surroundings distinguish Sanger recreations.

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