What goes down must come up

The dammed Ipswich River is wide and high upstream. The water goes right up to the real estate, and that’s good for the real estate. If the dam comes down, we can assume the river will come down some too. So some of the real estate will go from “riverfront” to “river view.”

We may also get views of other stuff. Let Lake Mead be a lesson.

Out west, back in the 1930s, they built Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, and the backup formed Lake Mead, spanning the Arizona-Nevada border. Lake Mead became the biggest-volume reservoir in the U.S., with more than 9 trillion gallons of water.

Of course when you dam a river, you can never be entirely sure where all the bottlenecked water will go, and as Lake Mead formed, the town of St. Thomas, Nevada, went under. 

Apparently named for Jesus’ doubting disciple, St. Thomas had been founded right after the Civil War by Mormons who thought they were setting up shop in Arizona. After they learned that they had actually landed just a bit on the other side of the Nevada line, they bailed out — maybe their prophet foresaw the gambling, and was appalled — but other settlers soon occupied the abandoned houses and shops, and St. Thomas became a thriving community of 500. Until the damming. Then, in no time at all, it was glug-glug-glug. (I imagine the ghost of Doubting Thomas hovering over the waters wagging his finger and murmuring, “I told you so.”)

But fast-forward a few decades. What with global warming, record-shattering drought, and don’t forget the near-continuous watering of Arizona’s critically important golf courses, Lake Mead began to shrink. And shrink, and shrink. At this writing, the lake is reportedly at about one-quarter capacity.

And you can see what became of St. Thomas.

Yes, Lake Mead is now so low that you can see the ruins of the town from the road. I haven’t been there personally, but Wikipedia says it’s so, so I believe.

But poor old St. Thomas isn’t all you can see. The receding lake has revealed some particularly curious secrets. For example, a few sets of human bones. In one case, human remains that still included “organ tissue.” One body — with a gunshot wound — was found stuffed in a barrel. 

The implications for Ipswich are clear. If the dam comes down, declining riverfront real estate values could be the least of people’s problems. In addition to a muddy hellscape of irate turtles and confused fish, decades’ worth of local mysteries will be suddenly and perhaps gruesomely solved.

Children playing on the newly dried-out riverbank find a soggy box containing copies of John Updike’s novel Couples rounded up and chucked into the river by outraged neighbors in 1968. 

Hikers otherwise minding their own business stumble upon the carcass of that noisy dog that mysteriously disappeared from your neighborhood a couple years ago.

It will be scandal after scandal. 

Someone will find your babysitter’s bar tab. A heartbreaking number of piping plover skeletons cynically wrapped in kite fabric. The original, previously undiscovered town charter, specifying that the town manager must actually live in town.

A 1980s pothole crew member’s lifetime collection of bribe offers and salacious love notes from residents desperate to get on the calendar. A laundry bag full of mismatched socks. 

A stash of fake driver’s ed graduation certificates — which may finally explain why nobody understands right-of-way in this town.

I only arrived in Ipswich a short time ago, but if the dam comes down, I’m going to learn a lot about what I missed, and quickly. Sure, it may make a lot of folks uncomfortable, but I think it will be fascinating. Town historian Gordon Harris may need a bigger laptop just to post all the findings.

So enough debate. Take down the dam. Here’s my sledgehammer! Let’s get started!


Doug Brendel lives high and dry on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. To discover his shameful secrets, plumb the depths of DougBrendel.com.

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