Drought exposes long-submerged remnants of Utah town

Rockport Reservoir is at 29% capacity. Foundations of the town it once flooded are now high and dry.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought conditions have lowered the level of Rockport Reservoir to reveal parts of an old pioneer ghost town. Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

The extreme drought that continues to plague Utah has uncovered a bit of history in Summit County — the foundations of Rockport, the town that was flooded in the 1950s to create the Rockport Reservoir.

The reservoir is at its lowest level since it was filled 64 years ago. As of Sept. 1, it was at 29% of capacity, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. Last year, it was at 82% capacity, and the average for Sept. 1 is 85%.

The receding water has exposed remnants of the town that the reservoir replaced. A few foundations. Some roads. Evidence that the all-but-forgotten place once existed.

“It’s kind of sad, because of the drought conditions, but it’s a cool little glimmer to look back and see what was there,” said Utah Division of State Parks spokesman Devan Chavez. “It’s helping us remember a little bit of our history.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought conditions have lowered the level of Rockport Reservoir to reveal parts of an old pioneer ghost town. Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

According to the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, white settlers first came to the Rockport State Park area in 1860. They founded a town there called Crandall, which was renamed Enoch City a year later. Residents fled the town in 1866 during the Black Hawk War, then returned a year later to build a fortification they called Rock Fort.

Later renamed Rockport, the area was never home to more than 100-200 people, and its population began to decline in the 1940s. There were just 27 families living in the area when, in 1952, the federal government announced it would build the Wanship Dam on the Weber River, just south of Wanship on state Route 32.

The government bought up all the land in the area and began construction on the dam in 1954. It was completed in 1957, and once filled, it created a 1,080-acre lake that inundated what remained of Rockport.

Not all buildings were destroyed, however. Crowds of people still walk by some each year at Lagoon Amusement Park, where they’ve been part of the park’s Pioneer Village since the 1970s.

Relocated buildings

Before the former Rockport buildings arrived at Lagoon, they were initially relocated from the soon-to-be-flooded town to an earlier pioneer village, which was located at about 2150 E. 3000 South in Salt Lake City. There, they joined a collection of buildings curated by local furniture dealer Horace Sorensen. In 1956, he deeded the property to the Sons of Utah Pioneers.

“They ran it for a few years but couldn’t financially afford it,” said Lagoon spokesman Adam Leishman. “Nobody wanted it. The [LDS] Church didn’t want it. The state didn’t want it. So Peter Freed, the owner of Lagoon, purchased it.”

The village was moved north to Farmington in the mid-1970s and opened at Lagoon in 1976.

Rockport structures that still stand in the park’s Pioneer Village include the former schoolhouse, the town co-op and the Gingerbread House, which was built by Alma Gibbons in 1904. The Wanship Cabin was built less than a mile from Rockport but was also moved before the reservoir was filled.

“All those buildings are right here,” Leishman said.

The schoolhouse was Rockport’s first public building, completed around 1870. It was constructed of rough-hewn pine logs, and the floor was made from flat rocks. The building was also used for community events and church services. The co-op operated in Rockport from 1885 until the 1930s.

Reservoir remains open

Despite the low water level, Rockport State Park, which opened in 1966, remains open to visitors. But the boat ramp is closed.

“People are still able to use paddleboards and stuff like that,” Chavez said.

Rockport marks the only Utah reservoir where the remnants of a long-submerged town have since re-emerged, but it’s not the only reservoir where that could happen. When Jordanelle was filled in 1995, it inundated the towns of Keetley, Hailstone and Jordanelle.

As of Sept. 1, Jordanelle was at 62% of capacity — 25% less than it was a year ago, and 28% less than average for this time of year.