Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Update on Photograph Albums

I have had numerous requests for more information about Desert Lake and Victor and its residents. So I have updated the Photograph page on the top of this blog, and also put some links to the album on the previous blog post, but here it is as well for your convenience: Desert Lake-Victor

Monday, September 19, 2011


I was asked if the lake on the desert now called Desert Lake was the original reservoir for the settlement?
I originally thought that since they named their town "Desert Lake" it was because of the lake that was already there when they settled. I thought it was water that was too salty to be used, so they brought in other water and made a small reservoir---but you can't count on my "thinking." I learn on the job. 

I didn't grow up knowing about this county or hearing facts about the area; I have to depend on these wise, long-time residents to inform me. And lucky me, Mervin Miles--one of my mentors--dropped in to talk to me for a few minutes. He is a walking historic encyclopedia! He worked for the BLM for 38 years and I'm sure he knows everything about anything in the Castle Valley area. He has become a great friend and resource for the Archives. 

Mervin's answer was that it is a man made lake. It is a low spot that probably collected a little water naturally, but it was not a lake until a dam was built by the early settlers in the 1880s.

In Nancy Tanaguchi's book Castle Valley America, she says that Thomas Wells moved his family 6 miles east of Cleveland and OPTIMISTICALLY  named it "Desert Lake."

A book called,  Emery County Historical Records Inventory, 1941 states:
A dam was constructed from a reservoir in a natural declivity between the clay hills to impound the over flow water from Huntington Creek. In August 1896, the dam broke and many people had a narrow escape from drowning...During the following winter the dam as rebuilt with assistance from the L.D.S. Church...The region is irrigated from the reservoir, which covers about 2 square miles. A ditch intercepts the flood water from the Washboard Basin and Miller Creek.
I'm assuming from this that the town was still there in 1940 when this inventory was done.
Desert Lake taken by Lamont Johnson, probably in the  1940s
 Working at the Archives is always interesting. Besides the perfect timing of  Mervin coming in to answer my questions, I was excited to notice a black and white photo of Desert Lake sitting on top of a pile of photographs set aside ready to be scanned. It is part of Lamont Johnson's collection (an author from Emery County )which is in process of being documented. The above photo was in the right place at the right time for me to share in this article.

On the back of the photograph he has written "Desert Lake is a body of water amid the dry hills of northern Emery County. This area attracted some of the earliest county residents to that area. The loss of irrigation water has caused most of the rich land near the lake to be abandoned in recent years, but this is the landmark of an early Emery County settlement. A pioneer railroad grade was built near it, but that was also abandoned."

Desert Lake Cemetery
I have been to the Victor area quite a few times and had never seen any real evidence of former towns there--except the Victor Cemetery.  I wanted to go again with "history glasses" on. So Monday my husband Ben and I decided to go on our four wheeler and check out the Desert Lake and Victor area. We drove on all of the roads out there to see what we could see.We found the two cemeteries (found the Desert Lake one as well), and we also noticed fences, and old dead trees, roads, and driveways indicating residential spots.
Desert Lake Dam Area--between the two hills. The green area is the dam.

 We saw the dam that was built by the pioneers of this area and is now maintained by the Division of Wildlife Resources. Back in the 1800s, when the dam broke the town was flooded and it did some real damage. So we figure the town must have been in the direct path of the dam--to the right of the photograph, but I don't know for sure--remember don't trust my thinking or figuring. I've got to talk to my mentors about that. I plan to get a copy of the town plat, recruit a former resident of  Desert Lake or Victor and go back to the area. Want to go with me?

Close Up of the Desert Lake Dam--center of the photo where the greenery is seen.

The abandoned reservoir holds water that is not "fit for human consumption," as they say, but it has attracted so many birds there that today it is a Bird Refuge or a Waterfowl Management Area. One can see water birds like Egrets, Swans, Pelicans, Herons, etc. at certain times of the year. For a list of birds and seasons they can be spotted, see or many other websites about Desert Lake, Utah.

Here is the technical information about why the water in Desert Lake is foul to all but fowl.

Here is the history of the water situation for Desert Lake and other areas of Emery County.This is from Ed Geary's Emery County History book.
The predominant mancos shale formations of Castle Valley, having once been sea-bed deposits are impregnated with salts. Furthermore, the tight soil structure and lack of organic matter result in poor drainage characteristics. Irrigation saturated the soil and dissolved the salts, which then collected on the surface in "alkali" patches. Where canals cut through shale hills, large quantities of water seeped into porous strata to rise to the surface in some instances several miles away. Runoff water from higher fields returned to the creeks and was reused downstream. The addition of the salty water to salty soil only accelerated the degradation (of the soil) process. Within a few years, large areas of once productive cropland were transformed into alkali flats capable of supporting nothing by saltgrass and greasewood...A U.S. Department of Agriculture report estimated that by 1904 some 30 percent of the farmland in Emery County had been abandoned.
Desert Lake and Victor Were Part of That Abandoned Land
The saline waste water from Cleveland farms caused some damage, but then they extended the Huntington North Ditch to bring in some fresh water hoping to offset the saline problem. It worked okay for a while. They still had to import drinking water to the towns, but the final crisis that caused these to towns to give up and seek better land was the drought years of the 1930s. They were on the end of the ditch line and just didn't have enough water to survive. But these two towns were very much alive for over 40 years, making them an important piece of the history of Emery County.

MORE RESIDENTS OF DESERT LAKE: (email me copies of people you know who lived in this area)

Click here for Desert Lake-Victor Photographs Emery County Archives Photographs