The Willamette Valley Project, and the towns it drowned, are currently at the center of the Atlas of Drowned Towns research focus. The town of Old Detroit, a small unincorporated community along the North Santiam River, was a victim of dam construction that many in the Willamette Valley were thrilled see built.
The Willamette Valley Project (WVP), and the towns it drowned, are currently at the center of the Atlas of Drowned Towns research focus. The WVP and the resulting dam projects were born out of the desire of those in the Willamette Valley to mitigate flooding along the Columbia River. The catastrophic Columbia River flood of 1948 that saw the destruction of the town of Vanport, Oregon was the final straw for those in the Valley as residents and editorials alike called for the state to intercede and prevent further devastation. The initial appeals voiced by farmers and residents during small community town hall meetings gradually transformed into an colossal undertaking, expanding to encompass multiple tributaries of the Columbia River, including the North Santiam River which ran parallel to the town of Old Detroit. As local businesses and town magnates became interested and financially invested in dam construction, the project took on a more nuanced form, one that would carry the project for half a century.
Shaping natural landscapes to serve local communities and their populations was not a new phenomenon early in the twentieth century West. As Robert Bunting explained in “The Environment and Settler Society in Western Oregon,” early Euro-American settlers of the West battled against the natural environment to assert dominance indicative of eastern ideals of civilization. Settlers found the West uncooperative with the natural environment of Oregon and Washington being resistant to human alterations. This natural unwillingness did not dissuade settlers however, as those migrating to greener pastures were insistent on shaping their new homes to their desires. The WVP encapsulates this struggle as those in the Willamette Valley were fervent in their want to shape the land to their ends.
This persistence extended into the 1930s during which time those in the Willamette Valley sought to bend the rivers they lived upon to their will. The Great Depression served as yet another motivator for the residents of the Valley as dam construction would draw in state funding as well as employment. The River and Harbors Act of 1927 served as the vehicle for the much-desired federal funding to reach the Valley. A year prior to the passage of this legislation the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) submitted a report to Congress offering a list of ten river systems worthy of federal development projects and funding; the Columbia River was chief among the list of candidates.
Once the federal government had taken the leading role of dam development along the Columbia USACE stepped in to shepherd the project. With federal funding and support (not to mention a significant financial injection to the project from the state of Oregon) the Willamette Valley Project was established and as William Robbins put it, “The plan was advertised as the final answer to the natural and human problems facing the valley’s population.”
Federal intervention in western development was an important part of the WVP’s history. Historians like Walter Prescott Webb and Gene Gressley assert that the West in many ways was a fief of the East, a land hoping to relieve itself from the yoke of a strong federal government. The WVP represented a sea change from this tradition as the people and government of Oregon surrendered their resistance and requested aid from the Federal Government to assist in their irrigation programs which, according to Gressley, was “a basic split in the western psyche.”
Planning for the project gained considerable momentum in the early years of the WVP. Both the federal and state governments had committed funds and resources to the project which in turn gave the WVP its legitimacy. The question of support then turned to local communities. Regional business titans and newspapers came out in support of the WVP offering reasons behind the project’s advancement. To their mind, dam construction would bring economic rehabilitation amid the Great Depression and bring greater agricultural prosperity. Resistance did eventually arise from the naturalist community who was concerned that dam construction would disrupt fish migration and breeding. Perhaps most critically, voices of decent arose from the town of Old Detroit, as their town was at risk of being wiped off the map. Dam sponsors were quick to dismiss these concerns, claiming the decenters were obstructionists or resistant to progress.
While these dam projects did in fact reduce flooding in the Valley, they were not without expense. The sixty million dollars for the Detroit Dam alone represent a small portion of the significant financial cost of the project, but it does not encapsulate the human cost. The town of Detroit was inundated by the WVP with the residents of the town being forced to relocate. The support of local business and agricultural sector drowned out the voices of those whose town was on the chopping block. The residents of Old Detroit, and many towns like it, have seen their history disappear into the same waters they lost their homes to. Continue to support the Atlas of Drowned Towns as we uncover more lost histories and give a voice to underserved communities!
 William G. Robbins, “Cornucopian Dreams: Remaking Nature in Postwar Oregon,” Agricultural History 76, no. 2 (2002): 208–19.
 Robert Bunting, “The Environment and Settler Society in Western Oregon,” Pacific Historical Review 64, no. 3 (1995): 414.
 William G Robbins, “The Willamette Valley Project of Oregon: A Study in the Political Economy of Water Resource Development,” Pacific Historical Review 47, no. 4 (1978): 585–605.
 Robbins, 591.
 Gene M. Gressley, “Colonialism: A Western Complaint,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1963): 1–8.
 Gressley, 5.
 Robbins, 588.
- An injunction was recently filed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon requiring USACE to improve fish passage and water quality at several of their dams. The interim injunction is an important part of the ongoing story of the WVP. Read more here: Willamette Injunction (army.mil)
- To view a full list and map of all dams constructed under the WVP follow this link: Water Resources Department : Willamette Basin Review : Willamette Basin Review : State of Oregon
- Bunting, Robert. “The Environment and Settler Society in Western Oregon.” Pacific Historical Review 64, no. 3 (1995): 413–32.
- Gressley, Gene M. “Colonialism: A Western Complaint.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1963): 1–8.
- Reinhardt, Bob H. Struggle on the North Santiam: Power and Community on the Margins of the American West. 1st edition. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2020.
- Robbins, William G. “Cornucopian Dreams: Remaking Nature in Postwar Oregon.” Agricultural History 76, no. 2 (2002): 208–19.
- Robbins, William G. “The Willamette Valley Project of Oregon: A Study in the Political Economy of Water Resource Development.” Pacific Historical Review 47, no. 4 (1978): 585–605.
Warner, Jack. “The Willamette Valley Project— Old Detroit’s Inundation in Midst of the Dam Building Boom.” The Atlas of Drowned Towns (blog). July 10, 2023.