Applegate Reservoir engineered to touch people's lives
Applegate Lake is a tranquil splash of blue in the dry mountain wilderness of Southern Oregon.

In 1976, the Army Corps of Engineers began the work of creating Applegate Reservoir. The transformation fundamentally changed the valley, river and most of all the people. Here are stories of people who had their lives changed by the reservoir’s construction.

o o o o

By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

I'm floating on the surface of what seems to be a gigantic bathtub stuck right in the middle of the Siskiyou Mountains.

The water is milky blue and flat, and the entire shoreline is a razor smooth ring of tan dirt that encircles the lake like the edges of a large wooden basket.

I'm fishing for trout in Applegate Reservoir, a reservoir that impounds the Applegate River, trolling along the southwestern shoreline in my small yellow kayak.

Even though it's a relaxing day for fishing, it takes me a moment to reconcile the stark difference between the tiny backcountry lakes I've been exploring all summer and this massive 988-acre, 200-foot deep creation that seems to engulf half the valley.

The tan edges of the reservoir tower high above my boat, having been exposed by the low water level of late summer, and slant up from the shimmering blue surface at a sharp uniform angle.

Above the ring of dirt is a vast green forest, and above that forest are the craggy tops of the Red Buttes Wilderness. In the afternoon sun, Applegate Reservoir is mix of natural beauty and eerie modern creation.

Having grown up on small midwestern lakes, I can't help but feel a sense of awe about reservoirs. In this age of miniaturization — when the latest technological advances involve computer chips and Internet-ready cell phones — there's something powerful about engineering a slice of blue tranquility within the dry mountain wildness.

But that's my experience. To understand a place such Applegate Reservoir, it's important to talk to the people whose lives the water has touched.


Jess LaLande was doing field work for his master's degree at Oregon State University when Applegate Lake was being carved out by the Army Corps of Engineers from 1976 to '80.

In collaboration with engineers, LaLande studied the Native American campsites and relics — some of which he said were around 8,000-years-old — that were unearthed around what would become the reservoir.

The main thing he remembers about the process were the machines: the trucks as large as houses, the giant rock-crushers and the conveyer belts that removed the rock and dirt.

"The place was a beehive of activity," the retired archeologistand historian for the U.S. Forest Service recalled.

"There were people running all over the place and huge equipment."

Applegate Reservoir was created as the second of three multi-purpose water resource projects — including Lost Creek reservoir and the ill-fated Elk Creek reservoir — authorized for the Rogue Basin for flood control (primarily), irrigation water quality and cooling, and recreation.

The operation also reaped an unintended benefit gold. As the immense loads of river gravel were crushed, the material was processed and an estimated $1 million of gold was recovered, which was split between the U.S. Treasury and the building contractors.

But not everyone was happy about the building of the reservoir.

"There was a major campaign against all three dams that included both local residents and early environmental groups," LaLande said. "I think some people were concerned about the loss of fish habitat while others were afraid it might lead to major residential development of the area."


The biggest change Bev Fry has noticed since the creation of Applegate Lake has been the amount of people that visit.

She worked at the Star Ranger Station — just 10 miles from the reservoir — from 1969 to '72, before the project began. In 1978, when construction began, her uncle was contracted to help build the dam.

"The area has changed so much," Fry says. "Before the reservoir, I just remember the river running through, and maybe a few small houses."

Now days, Fry manages the Jackson Campground and works at the general store at Hart-tish Park, which offers food, fishing gear, camping supplies and kayak rentals from spring through Labor Day.

She estimates more than 1,000 people visit the lake each day in July, lured by the fishing (crappie, bass and trout), camping, mountain biking and the miles of hiking trails that encircle the lake and travel to Stein Butte, Collings Mountain and the Big Foot Interpretive site.

"The lake has had an immense impact on this area," said Fry, who also operates the year-round Jackson Campground. "We have bass tournaments and people come from all over to fish here. This area wouldn't have nearly that amount of people coming out without the reservoir."


Janeen Sathre misses the Applegate River of her youth.

She remembers the area now underwater as a small valley with a couple of large farms and the pink cliffs of the Red Buttes as backdrop.

"The river landscape has changed dramatically since the lake was created," the Applegate resident and trail guide said. "The river was more open before with many rock or sand bars, now the trees and brush are able to grow right to the banks as there are no more floods to clean the system. There were wonderful swimming holes where the water hardly moved and then very shallow fast water between."

Sathre also reflects on the concerns of the lake's impact not only on the ecology but also on the people it displaced.

"I know we were sad for the families that had to move," she said. "Many people felt there wasn't enough benefit from the lake to outweigh the loss of land, homesteads and fish habitat. Many people were concerned about the increase in traffic and recreational use in the upper Applegate."

Still, she's made the best of the situation. Sathre still lives along the Applegate River, about five miles below the lake.

"The river is much colder and of course runs a lot more water through in the summer than ever before," she said. "I see more water birds now.

"I have learned to live and enjoy the river as it is now, but it is not the same river I grew up on."


« Back to stories main page
This site Copyright © 2019 Grants Pass Daily Courier/Courier Publishing Company.
To return to the Daily Courier homepage click here