Drought reveals long-submerged Western Slope town under Blue Mesa Reservoir
GUNNISON COUNTY — The cold is just the cold. Bob Robbins and Bill Sunderlin know it all too well.
Negative 2? That’s nothing, says Sunderlin, 78. “Child’s play,” says Robbins, 69.
Their feet crunch the snowy ground floor of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, the land they know as Iola, the town that was here before the dam’s construction starting in 1962. They were among ranching families whose homes would be submerged by the dark depths of Colorado’s largest body of water. Iola was sacrificed with the bigger Sapinero and smaller Cebolla.
The people are gone, most anyway — Robbins and Sunderlin don’t know of many others who stayed like them, settling in higher ground nearby. And the town is gone, though not entirely.
Old foundations, semblances of fence lines and corroded remains of farm life have returned to daylight. As a devastating drought dragged on this summer, as the Blue Mesa dropped to this century’s lowest levels, Iola re-emerged, enthralling Western Slope dwellers who didn’t know of its sunken existence.
As the stark reality of a drier climate settles in, they find a refreshing distraction in Iola. But Robbins and Sunderlin, they only find harsh reminders.
“Well, we’ve had our ups and downs over the years,” says Sunderlin, his voice low and grainy over the chilly gust.
The downs come when the water is low enough to see what they lost. The memories come flowing back, as they did for Robbins’ mother in 2012, he recalls, back during the last driest year before this one, back before she died. “She just bawled like a baby,” he says.
It’s all coming back now on this visit.
The wavy fields of hay. The shimmering stream beneath the cottonwoods, and the fish the size of monsters in a little boy’s eyes. The neighing of horses and lowing of cattle, and the endless sky that blushed above the hills.
How green everything was. How they hid around the rock up there, where the teacher couldn’t find them. The song they sang: “We’re in our places with sun-shining faces …”
And, oh yes, the cold. The blistering cold. Those cold, long days of work and those nights by the fire.
That was cold. Not today. It’s gotten warmer all right, they say.
The temperature has nothing to do with the pain they’re feeling now.
“If people ask me, I will come out here and talk to ’em about it,” says Robbins, as he and Sunderlin have done for reporters this season, because they can’t let the past die. “But no, I don’t just come out here and sit. It’s just … yeah … it’s very painful.”
Theirs are a couple of stories collected by David Primus over his years of researching life before the Blue Mesa. A community engagement facilitator at Western Colorado University and longtime Gunnison resident, he has presented regularly at the local library. Crowds always show.
“It’s not me,” Primus says. “It’s because it’s not there.”
Wide-eyed young people, people with no memory of the valley before the flood, tell him their drives west along the shore to Montrose never will be the same.
“If you’re older than 65, and you’re local, you remember it,” Primus says. “So for older people, it’s just being reminded of what was lost. I’ve had several people come up to me afterwards, this one woman I remember the most. She said, ‘I almost didn’t come, because I didn’t think I could handle it.’”
The number of people displaced is uncertain. Primus guesses between 200 and 300.
“Put it this way,” Sunderlin utters, “it wasn’t enough to fight the government.”
The prospect of hydroelectricity, as well as storage and mass recreation, grew in the minds of regulators. So grew a dark cloud over the hayfields.
“The problem was the resistance was just local here,” Robbins says, recalling the populations in either direction taking on the role of bystander. “They promised them cheap electricity for the rest of their lives. They were more than willing to have a pond out here rather than a river.”
Perhaps they figured the human casualty would be minimal.
“Not that many in the big picture,” Primus says. “But for those 200, 300 people, they lost their livelihoods, often times lost ranches that had been in the family for four generations.”
Robbins is an example, his ancestors having homesteaded the AK Stevens Ranch in the 1870s. Sunderlin grew up about 2 miles downstream at the Tex Lodge Ranch Resort, one of several tourist outfits rooted in the valley.
Best-known was the Sportsman’s Home, hosting the likes of John Wayne and Herbert Hoover over the years. The fishing took on a mythical quality, some of the best catches of the West reported right here. Primus learned of a tradition: Far upstream at a Sapinero hotel, a boy would report the spring larva hatch, and his father would send word across the land, attracting far away visitors.
It wasn’t only fishing that put Iola on the map. After the railroad came in 1881, the town became a pivotal stop for loading cattle on their way to market. Robbins and Sunderlin remember leaving school to help, and the nickel-priced reward of a candy bar at the convenience store.
Then, the road came, like an alarm sounding.
“You could hear ’em,” Robbins says, looking out to the blown corners of the canyon. “It was like World War III.”
And the trees. What they did to the trees. “It looked like they were just dropping bombs on ’em. Just sticks, sticking up.”
Sunderlin remembers the machines. How they got bigger, fiercer. “When they were clearing here, they had a D8 with a shear blade, a big blade that curled down, chopped the trees. Then they came in with a D7.”
Robbins distinctly remembers the summer. The summer of ’63. “That summer, we went ahead and put the hay up, baled it and sold it all. The year before, this was still the home ranch.”
The house was burned. Mom and Dad couldn’t watch, neither could the teenaged Robbins, but Grandma did. Auctions were held all over, farmers flocking for equipment, collectors for antiques.
Some buildings were saved, including the schoolhouse, which now sits just over the hill, the modified home of Sunderlin. He keeps pictures there. Him with his horse, Chico. Him with his dog, Bingo. Him as a smiling kid with that “sun-shining face.”
And Robbins keeps pictures, too, taken with the camera some down-on-his-luck passerby left Dad in exchange for 5 gallons of gas. Robbins never thought to use it, until it was all coming to an end. “If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve taken pictures all up and down this valley.”
Robbins and Sunderlin can see it now, the paradise before this hard, blank canvas.
They stop at the cement base of a flag pole, on which they still can make out their initials. They move on to the cut legs of a windmill. At a foundation that they believe was a barn, they sift through mangled tools, too contorted to determine their former purpose. But how amazing to find them still.
“You know, they made it very clear to us that this ground would be a mud flat,” Robbins says. “I mean, they didn’t envision this all to be here right now. They expected mud. They thought this would cover up so fast that nobody would ever come out and see it.”
The thought lingers for a moment, silence but for the cold wind. Iola’s sons trudge back to their trucks, leaving footprints soon to fade in the snow. And the sun shines on their faces, but they’re not smiling now.
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