Shaver Lake's history exposed as water disappears

New look reveals long-forgotten tools from years past.

The Fresno BeeDecember 18, 2011 

SHAVER LAKE -- Hey, what happened to all the water?

Instead of a lake here, there's just an empty brown expanse littered with boulders, tree stumps and logs.

But take a closer look, preferably with binoculars or a spotting scope. What you're seeing is Fresno County history, much of it exposed to sunlight for the first time in eight decades.

"It's like, 'Wow!' You're never going to see it like this in your life ever again," said Kathy Melkonian of Fresno, who drove up to take pictures and gawk at the empty lake. "You're so used to seeing it full of water."

Shaver Lake will remain completely drained this winter while contractors hired by lake operator Southern California Edison place a protective liner along bottom sections of the dam's concrete surface to guard against erosion and leakage. Water levels are expected to return to normal by Memorial Day weekend.

But the 170-foot-tall "new" dam, completed in 1927 to provide hydroelectric power, isn't what's creating the fuss. That honor belongs to the 50-foot-tall, 300-foot-long, rock-fill dam built in 1893 by the Fresno Flume and Irrigation Co. for its lumber mill operation.

In its day, the mill pond created behind the old dam stored 5,000 acre feet of water, a fraction of the size of modern-day Shaver Lake. Processed lumber from the mill was then delivered to the Valley by way of a 42-mile-long wooden flume that snaked down the mountain to the present site of the Clovis Rodeo Grounds.

What's remarkable is that much of the heavy machinery that powered the lumber operation -- an old steam engine, drive wheels, boilers, remnants of smoke stacks, even a steam ship -- is still down there.

Except with the lake drained, these artifacts are visible instead of sitting beneath 120 feet of water.

"What gets me excited is being able to see how the operation worked," said Norman Saude of Tollhouse. "It's like going back in time to 1894."

The old dam and mill pond sit about 500 yards southeast of the modern dam and can be seen from turnouts along Highway 168 as well as Shaver Lake Point. A member of the Central Sierra Historical Society, Saude is one of many stopping by for a look-see.

"Even the old ladder is still in position," he marvels while peering through binoculars. "The same ladder from the old pictures."

Unfortunately for history buffs, the turnout is as close as they're going to get.

Citing safety concerns as well as state and federal laws that protect archaeological and cultural sites, SCE isn't allowing the public (or the media) down in the exposed lake bed.

Access roads are blocked by gates, and fences and signs warn off people from getting too close. At high-traffic areas such as Eastwood Cove, orange-vested security guards in white SCE pickups stand guard to make sure folks don't wander down too far.

Jeff Young is one of the fortunate few. SCE hired him to help the company's archaeologist catalog what's down there.

Young is a lumber mill operator and lifelong Shaver Lake resident. His great-great-grandfather, Henry Hauret, was a teacher at Pine Ridge School (near where Cressman's General Store stands today on Highway 168 just below Shaver Lake) at the turn of the 19th century.

Young spent two days last week combing the dry lake bed, calling it "a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

"Many of the items that we were touching, measuring and describing for the archaeologist haven't seen sunlight since the old dam was exposed," Young said.

"It was fascinating, especially to someone that's interested in history and archaeology. I've been looking at the lake bottom for old bottles since I was a kid."

Among Young's discoveries were an old steam engine (with pieces missing) and the 11-foot-tall drive wheel that powered the lumber mill's main saw blade. The wheel sits vertically in the mud as if still in working position.

Embedded in the north side of the rock-fall dam is what looks like a wooden shack.

The structure is an old valve house, used to control the flow of water from Stevenson Creek. (Someone must've left the valve open, because water from the creek still flows through.) The old stone footings that housed boilers and served as foundations for the mill glisten in the sun like remnants of a medieval castle.

At the bottom of the exposed pond sit about 1,000 "sinkers" scattered like giant Pick Up Sticks. Sinkers are logs that absorbed too much water and sank to the bottom of the pond during transport.

Not far from the old dam, next to the skeleton of a rotting pier, lies the Michigan, a steamship that for years moved booms of logs across the pond to the mill from where they were dumped by railroad cars. The vessel is missing its transom, but most of the hull is still there.

Young also came across several smaller artifacts. In the old blacksmith area there were a couple dozen rock drill heads, severed at the shaft when they went dull. And there are about as many tear-drop-shaped metal cutouts formed when making saw blade teeth.

Historians estimate that the Shaver mill cut 450 million board feet of timber during its 26-year run -- enough wood to build a large city. Its importance to Fresno County's emerging economy cannot be overstated.

Much of that lumber was used by raisin farmers in Fresno for the construction of shipping boxes.

Lumber production at Shaver pretty much stopped in the winter of 1914-15 when heavy snows did extensive damage to the 42-mile flume.

Four years later, in 1919, SCE bought the property and reopened the mill to produce lumber for the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project.

In autumn 1927, after the new Shaver dam was built, the saw mill and other buildings in the lake bottom were burned to clear the new lake from floating debris.

Young, who is also a board member of the Central Sierra Historical Society, said he hopes that a couple of the larger items might find their way to the Museum of the Central Sierra located at nearby Camp Edison.

Young said people tell him that the lake looks unnatural and unreal. "It's a little bit unnerving to some folks, actually," he said. "But give it six months, and it'll be a lake again."

The reporter can be reached at marekw@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6218.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service