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Exploring History in the Low Waters of Folsom Lake

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Back in the 1950’s, Folsom Lake was created to provide water sequestration and flood control for the greater Sacramento Valley. Below the lake that now provides a venue for water skiing, fishing, and swimming, lies the confluence of the North and South forks of the American River. Also under the lake are the former mining settlements of Salmon Falls and Mormon Island.  When the lake was flooded, their history was flooded also; except during low water years like this one, when bits of their history re-appear. 

This marker was relocated to the Folsom Point overlook, in preparation for the dam expansion project currently underway.

After the discovery of gold on the south fork of the American River at Coloma, small settlements formed along the lower stretches of both forks of the American River by settlers in search of fortune and a new life. Settlements like Salmon Falls, Mormon Island, Negro Bar, Dotons Bar, and Prairie City dotted the banks of the river, and supported first the miners, and then the families and ranches that remained after the gold had been mined out.

Salmon Falls Bridge, currently exposed.

In low water & drought years, artifacts appear from the period before inundation. Currently, remnants of the former settlement at Salmon Falls are appearing in the muddy banks. Approximately 3 miles upstream from Brown’s Ravine recreational area along the south fork of the American River, the remains of the old Salmon Falls bridge are currently fully exposed. The bridge, built in 1883, replaced two previously washed out bridges, and traversed the south fork, connecting the former settlement of Salmon Falls with Mormon Island. At one time, Salmon Falls was a community of nearly 3,000 and hosted hotels, saloons, and ranches.

Rubble wall shores up the former Salmon Falls Road along the south fork of the American River.


A hiking trail along the south side of the lake can be accessed from Brown’s Ravine, or from the new Salmon Falls crossing. Below this trail are remnants of the old Salmon Falls Road and the Natoma Canal, an irrigation ditch. A hike to the bridge is highly recommended, and despite it having been underwater for nearly 70 years, it remains in surprisingly good condition. Other remnants dot the banks of the dehydrated lake, with the remains of foundations from dwellings, the road and canal clearly visible.

Remnant of the former Natoma Canal.

Parking to access the trail at Brown’s Ravine or Salmon Falls requires payment of a state parks fee.

Also of interest is the Mormon Island Cemetery located on Shadowfax Lane, off of Green Valley Road, nearby the dam. Prior to the completion of Folsom Dam, the US Army Corps of Engineers relocated the graves of 9 scattered cemeteries to this cemetery. Many of the grave markers now read simply “Unknown – moved from Salmon Falls Cemetery by U.S.Government – 1954"

Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery

Relocated cemeteries
New headstones on relocated graves.

Note: no taking of archeological artifacts is allowed, if you discover items, leave them be.

“Detailed Plan for Relocation of Cemeteries” – US Army Corps of Engineers, 01Mar1953
“Folsom Reservoir Real Estate Map” – US Army Corps of Engineers, 17Dec1951
“Reclamation, Managing Water in the West, Site History Report” – US Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation

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