Sixty years ago, boaters coming down the Columbia River from Canada would portage around the falls and drift under a wooden bridge just upstream from the town of Kettle Falls.
They could stop at the town along the east bank for a beer, a meal or a room. Or, they could beach on the west bank and climb to the top of the hill, where a house of ill repute operated out of a trailer.
The falls are submerged now and the brothel is long gone. The wooden bridge was replaced by a green steel span for U.S. Highway 395. And Kettle Falls, the largest town along Lake Roosevelt, is three miles off the river.
Boaters who beach at “Old Kettle,” as locals call the abandoned town at the edge of the Columbia, will see little more than a pretty park and a few foundations.
In the high grass near the water’s edge, they may see the delicate white irises that still bloom in what used to be Sid Buckley’s front yard.
“They’re not wild, but they’re wild now,” said the retired judge, who was raised in Old Kettle and lives in its replacement. “Nature takes over pretty thoroughly.”
In 1939, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation told residents to move from Kettle Falls and nine other Columbia River towns. Grand Coulee Dam would start backing up water in 1941, and the government wanted time to strip debris from the basin of the reservoir.
The dividing line between what could stay and what had to go was 1,310 feet above sea level. The reservoir would come slightly short of that mark, leaving some neighborhoods, like the Buckleys’, dry but abandoned.
Lake Roosevelt, which spreads 130 miles from the dam nearly to Canada, flooded about 100,000 acres and drove 3,000 people to higher ground. In all, 10 communities were flooded or forced to relocate.
The move killed some towns and caused hard feelings in places like Kettle Falls, which moved next to, and then swallowed, another community.
Federal assessors surveyed every building, lot and fruit tree with detached efficiency. The government spent $10 million acquiring right-ofway, paying $3,000 for an average house and lot, according to newspaper accounts.
Owners could buy back their homes by offering the highest bid, then pay to have them moved. If no one bid, Works Progress Administration crews burned the buildings as they cleared away the trees.
“Some people didn’t get enough for their houses to pay to move them, and that’s a fact,” said Ed Frostad, a resident of Marcus, five miles north of Kettle Falls.
“Today, they (the government) would have to replace their homes. Back then, they didn’t give a damn.”
Not that Frostad did poorly. He and his bride, Emma, were paying $5 a month rent when the bureau bought up Marcus. Their landlord didn’t want the place, so they bought it for $125 and paid $300 to move it, saving $50 by dismantling the fireplace themselves.
In Daisy, 20 miles south of Kettle Falls, George Cranston accepted a $1,400 check for the house he built in 1934. He bought it back, moved it 200 yards, and figures he broke even. He still lives in the house.
Buy-back prices may have been cheapest in Kettle Falls.
“Everyone in town agreed you’d buy your own house and no one would bid against you,” said Buckley, whose parents paid $37.50 for their two-story cottage. The house no longer is in the family.
There wasn’t a day went by without another building rumbling out of Kettle Falls. And not just houses: townspeople moved hotels, garages, stores and the brick Baptist church. Volunteers moved the high school after Buckley’s class of 1939 graduated.
At Ralph’s Tavern, the regulars didn’t leave the bar when the pool balls started rolling and beer sloshed from their mugs. The building was lifted on screw jacks, outfitted with wheels and towed to its new foundation.
Most buildings went four miles, to a flat spot beside Meyers Falls, a community with about a third as many people as Kettle Falls’ 300 residents.
There are different versions of the legal maneuvering that came next. In the end, Meyers Falls became part of Kettle Falls, despite the objections of many of its residents.
The rift between those who opposed the merger and those who did not split the Meyers Falls Presbyterian Church. Today, the white chapel is a senior citizens center.
Buckley knows two brothers-in-law who stopped talking because one didn’t think the merger was so bad. The Meyers Falls postmaster lost his job because one town didn’t need two post offices.
“People who had homes across the street (from the Kettle Falls school) would not send their children there,” said Chris Sanders, manager of the Kettle Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. “They drove them all the way to Colville,” 20 miles round-trip.
If the move doomed Meyers Falls, it was salvation for the conquering city. Kettle Falls, which was bypassed by the railroad, was losing population in 1939. It’s a railroad town today, with 1,400 residents.
Marcus, the largest of the submerged towns, never recovered. It is a grocery store, post office, a handful of houses and other buildings, and a burned-out shell of a school.
At Daisy, there had been more than 100 residents.
“Today? I can count them up,” said Cranston, mentally visiting each house and tallying its occupants.
“Two, four, six, eight, nine. Nine.”
Inchelium and Keller survived. Boyds, on the backed-up lower stretch of the Kettle River, is a single business and a few houses. Lincoln became a boat launch. Peach and Gerome vanished.
When water is low, muddy foundations, roads and sidewalks from the long-vanished towns emerge from the green waters.
“Down where State Street was, it filled all in with sand,” Frostad said of Marcus. “You can’t see where nothing was.”
In Old Kettle, visitors can sit on chipped concrete steps that once led to the Monroe Hotel. They can skip along cracked and buckled sidewalks.
Locust trees with rusty bark grow thick in the old building sites.
“These locusts are new,” said Buckley, who seldom visits the old town. “New, since ‘39.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos Map of Lake Roosevelt from Marcus to Gifford
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Regatta Sailors may want to check out the Lake Roosevelt Regatta, scheduled for July 8-9. The event includes five races, with boats handicapped on the experience of their crews. For more information, call (509) 738-6939 or (509) 738-2578.