Skip to Content

Hidden history resurfaces as water level drops at Prineville Reservoir

Low water levels reveal Prineville settlers' communities

PRINEVILLE, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Rick Swope is no stranger to the Prineville Reservoir. He's lived in Prineville for more than 20 years, often fishing and boating on the reservoir -- although there isn't much water for him to fish in nowadays.

"You can't mess with Mother Nature," Swope said Tuesday, with a pause, then added, "I don't know what to say."

Seeing the water so low brings anger to his voice, and tears to his eyes.

But through the frustration, it also brings up a memory.

"I had completely forgotten about it," Swope told NewsChannel 21. "And I came down one day and I saw two black spots. And I thought, 'Oh, my God.'"

As a kid, Swope used to visit the area before it became a reservoir -- so he was shocked when he saw a familiar bridge poking out of the water.

Swope reflected on what he remembers the area looked like.

"There was a barn out there by that bridge, I know that. And a couple of little outbuildings," Swope said.

Right now, the Prineville Reservoir is only 21 percent full. Since the water is so low,, you can see structures from before the dam was built in 1961.

Steve Lent, a historian at the Bowman Museum in downtown Prineville, says an entire community existed in the area that later became the reservoir.

"This is gone. All that's left is the abutments that come up to it," Lent said, looking at an old picture of the bridge.

The bridge used to be a county road, and the area that went underwater when the reservoir was created was home to ranches, roads, a school and a Civilian Conservation Corps camp.
Those ranches belonged to some of Prineville's founding families and are responsible for developing this areaof Central Oregon.

Members of Prineville's original families can still be found in town today.

Marty Bailey, a Prineville resident, is in that category.

Baily's great-grandfather, Monroe Hodges, founded the city in 1877. His grandparents owned the Bailey Ranch and Bailey School -- both in the area now covered by the reservoir.

Lent says some of Prineville's richest history can be found underwater -- usually.

"Everybody should be aware that there's not just a reservoir there," he said. "There was actually a thriving ranching environment there."

Bailey says growing up, his family never really talked about their role in Prineville's history. But he enjoys learning about his ancestors, and the roles they played in the town he loves.

"Going back and finding out something new, that I can every time is interesting -- 'Oh, they did that.' Oh, they did that,'" Bailey said.

Author Profile Photo

Carly Keenan

Carly Keenan is a multimedia journalist and producer for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Carly here.



  1. This article is not accurate. My father bought a home site up there at Bottero Park. One of the first homesites available. He built a 3 bedroom two bath house there (along with a well and septic of course). We grew up in that house. I remember the Pontes, the Lewis family and many others. That was in 1964. We moved up there with I was 4. The statement that Prineville Lake became lake in 1964 is wrong. It was created in 1961 and was a full lake when we moved there. My father was part of the crew that built the dam. They worked on it 24/7 until it was completed. It was completed in 1961. Because my Dad, an electrician, was on call 24/7 as well to make sure the lights and anything else electric powered was running properly he got paid handsomely. It was that money that he used to buy and build the home.

      1. Thank you Barney. A lot of people dont know this but when they started on that dam they had great big lights strung across the width to light the way for the workers. They were powered by big generators. This lighting system was also very temperamental. Mother told me that many a time during the night father would received a phone call from the radio operator stating that the foreman had radioed in saying there was a problem with the lights. Out of bed he would roll and way he would go. Of course being a small child I slept through all that. My father passed away from cancer in 1998, Every once in a while I take an drive up the scenic gorge to the dam and just stand there on it and think “Wow. My father was part of this” At the age of 61 you hang on to your memories no matter how big or small they are.

    1. Maybe it is not Brown that should be doing something but all the Republicans that do not think there is climate change causing all the reservoirs to dry up.

  2. Yeah, and the same group that claims there’s no such thing as climate change spits out the same talking points about how it’s all Kate Brown’s fault. Good job, you really did something here!

    1. I don’t think there are any groups ( well maybe the fringe groups ) that claim there is no such thing as climate change. The divide is on what is causing the climate change. I say it’s cyclic… you say its carbon emissions. I say that one active volcano spews out more carbon emissions in a day than all the cars on the planet. You say you can fix it ( you cant even fix covid ) I say thats human arrogance to even think you are more powerful than Mother Nature.

  3. As though there are no politics in climate change. My understanding is water was released downstream this past spring. An Ochoco camp host witnessed the Oregon Department of Water Resources open the flood gates in early March. I talked with him, he said “there was enough water to make it through the summer but they intentionally dumped it”, many locals are aware of this while others ignore it. The same thing is happening across Oregon reservoirs, Malheur and Detroit intentionally lowered. I predict this will happen every spring from now on. Control the land, water, you control the food and then the people. If you purposely reduce the water levels, allow forests to burn it builds the narrative for climate change.

Leave a Reply

Skip to content