At the dawn of the twentieth century, things couldn’t have looked better for Kennett, one of California’s most prosperous and successful communities. The thriving town was basking in the glow of the gold rush. What’s more, with gold and copper in the ground nearby, it was attracting the boldest and brightest of the era. All too soon, though, the town would be gone forever.
Pictures from the time show a town on the up. While the outskirts of the town included wooden shacks built by new arrivals, Kennett also had a hotel, a post office and a school, as well as dozens of saloons – and much more. Indeed, Kennett was bursting with life.
In its prime, Kennett’s growth had seemed unstoppable. Indeed, it grew from a railroad station to becoming a booming mining town in just a generation. These few images are all that’s now left of the mining town’s golden age, though. The descendants of those who helped to build Kennett no longer live there. In fact, no one does. Kennett gradually became a ghost town and then, one day, it simply vanished forever. Now, all that is left are a few grainy pictures.
The area around Kennett was originally home to the Wintu, divided into nine groups and occupying some 250 villages. European fur trappers arrived in the region in the early nineteenth century. They brought disease with them, which ravaged the local population. In fact, by 1835 it is believed that 75 percent of the Wintu people had died.
The first European to establish a settlement in the vicinity was Pearson Reading. He arrived in 1843, having received a grant of land from the Mexican government. Rather than drive the Wintu off their lands, Reading attempted to live peacefully with them.
Indeed, Reading worked to form friendly relations with the Native Americans and shared his farming skills with them. However, by 1859, the Wintoon War had all but wiped out the Wintu people. Those who remained were forced onto reservations.
Kennett’s location would first come to the world’s attention when it was reported that gold had been found in Backbone Creek. The town that would be founded there was named in honor of “Squire” Kennet, a financier and railroad stockholder. The spelling of the town’s name changed to “Kennett” some years later, perhaps, it is speculated, due to a mapmaker’s mistake.
Kennett itself was established in 1884 – a railroad town close to the Sacramento River. Close to the Southern Pacific Railroad, Kennett soon grew to be a bustling intersection, attracting railroad workers, tradesman and miners from across the region. Businesses soon sprang up, eager to serve the workers flooding the region.
By 1886, Kennett was rapidly growing and boasted a fire station, a hospital, three newspapers, a prison and even an opera house. It was more than enough entertainment for a population that had by then reached 5,000 people. And with the discovery of copper ore nearby, Kennett became one of the wealthiest towns in the region. The town even started competing for prominence with nearby Redding, as the pre-eminent settlement in the area.
One advantage that Kennett had over its rival was the legendary Diamond Bar Saloon, owned by Victor “Slim” Warren and named after Warren’s weakness for the precious stone. The 24-hour saloon had a reputation for being the best bar between San Francisco and Portland, and people journeyed from far and wide to drink there. Features included stunning Tiffany chandeliers, frescoes of practically nude women on the ceiling and a 150-foot-long redwood bar.
The saloon even served whiskey that was distilled and bottled on the premises. And if the Diamond Bar Saloon was too busy, there were no less than 40 other drinking holes to choose from in Kennett. Meanwhile, with increasing numbers of people heading for the town, they were never short of patrons.
And the good times continued to roll for Kennett. With the onset of World War I, the value of copper steadily rose, leading to a mining boom. It wasn’t to last, though.
The end of the war in 1918 meant a decline in demand for copper. The mining and railroad operations around Kennett had been significantly scaled up during the war – but when peace came, the extra capacity wasn’t needed.
The principal mine in the area was permanently shuttered in 1923, with devastating consequences for the region. Jobs were scarce and many opted to leave Kennett and, with a dwindling population, it lost its status as an incorporated city. By 1929 the nation was heading into depression following the economic crash of 1929, and Kennett was facing bleak times. Unbeknownst to them, though, the town would soon be wiped off the map entirely.
The area around Kennett had been marked as the perfect location for a dam as far back as the 1870s. Then, in 1919, the United States Geological Survey made the case for placing a dam on the Sacramento River.
When the State of California submitted the winning proposal for the dam, it put the project into action. However, this came with a condition, which was that California would cover the entire cost of the project: some $550 million. Financing problems – exacerbated by the economic crash – sidelined plans until the mid-1930s. Responsibility was then transferred to the Federal Bureau of Reclamation. Construction eventually began in 1935, and the Shasta Dam was completed ten years later.
Precisely what the population of Kennett thought about this is hard to know. There are no records of any consultation with the local people about the proposed destruction of their homes. Most residents are reported to have accepted their fate and sold their properties with little protest.
By the time that the lake began to be filled with water in 1940, Kennett was almost completely abandoned. Some did stay until the end, though, and only abandoned their homes when the waters began to rise. By the year 1944, Kennett was fully submerged. Today, it sits under 400 feet of murky water, at the bottom of Lake Shasta.
Kennett wasn’t the only town drowned by the dam, though. Neighboring communities in Copper City, Baird, Elmore, Etter, Pitt, Morley and Winthrop were also lost beneath the waters. The majority of the Wintu’s traditional land, meanwhile – including their sacred sites – was also flooded.
The town is located in the deepest part of the lake and today sits beneath its calm waters. Not everything has stayed hidden though. In recent years, drought has caused water levels in the lake to drop, exposing elements of the old town such as tunnels, railroad lines and even Wintu villages. In the meantime, Kennett lies silent beneath the waves.