Imagine learning that your home, your school, and indeed your whole town needed to move or be covered by 100 feet of water. That is exactly what happened in the early 1940s to the town of Dorena. The construction of Dorena dam, which began in 1942, was intended to provide flood control for the towns and communities downstream of the Row River. However, it meant that the whole community of Dorena (population approximately 450), plus the railroad tracks for the “Old Slow and Easy,” needed to be moved out of the way. Because of World War II the completion of the dam was delayed, but by 1949 the dam was done and the houses and buildings had been moved, sold and dismantled, or burned down. Plus, the rail line was relocated to the present location of the Row River Trail.
Each winter the Army Corps of Engineers does a “draw down” on the reservoir from its summer level to its winter flood-control level. I’ve heard that you can see a part of the old rail line during the draw down, and I’ve wondered if anything from old Dorena was visible during this time as well.
First, I had to find out where Dorena and the rail line used to be. In Golden Was the Past Dorothy Bond writes about the “Galloping Goose,” a gasoline powered passenger car that traversed the rail line for many years. Dorothy writes that:
“… the Cerro-Gordo ‘station’ … stood near to where the spillway of the Dorena Dam is now located. From Cerro-Gordo the old Goose ‘galloped’ up the track, following close to the north banks of the twisting river, past lovely farms and wooded areas to the original town of Dorena which now lies covered by the water of Dorena Lake. The little town which was built near Rat Creek boasted the first of three covered railway platforms on the line.” (pg. 124)
A visit to the Cottage Grove Historical Society confirmed this location with maps, and a visit to the Cottage Grove Museum netted me a photo of Dorena and the tracks before they were moved. In the photo, Cerro Gordo is clearly visible in the background.
Dry winter days are the perfect time to walk down into the mud flats of the reservoir, look around, and try to get a feel for what it might have been like before the dam was constructed. And it was on this kind of day that we walked down there with the picture of old Dorena in hand, to see if we could get a sense of where the town had been and what it had been like.
Beyond getting a sense of where Dorena used to be, we also found a cache of pottery shards, perhaps from the town or washed down from other areas in the valley. We did not find any structural remains of the town, and in fact, I’ve never heard that any exist. (If you know of some please leave a comment and let me know.) Our search for the old rail line will happen on another day.
For more pictures of Dorena before the move, visit the web site of the Dorena Historical Society (especially this page: http://dorenahistoricalsociety.com/tag/old-dorena/)