BAKER CITY — Bob Reinhardt’s master’s thesis is growing into a full-fledged endeavor that he said will take years to complete.
Probably until he retires.
“It’s a long-term project,” he said.
It’s also a project that involves a Baker County village that disappeared.
Reinhardt’s work started 15 years ago at the University of Oregon when he began researching the old town of Detroit, along the North Santiam River in the Cascade foothills east of Salem.
Detroit disappeared beneath its namesake reservoir after a dam was built in the early 1950s.
While studying the history of Detroit, Reinhardt discovered more towns that had the same fate — including Robinette, at the eastern edge of Baker County.
“I had advisors who said there are dozens of these places in the American West,” he said.
Reinhardt learned more about the topic during a stint as executive director at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem.
“It gave me the opportunity to return to the topic,” he said.
He’s now in his fifth year at Boise State University, where he is an associate professor in the department of history. He has named his project “The Atlas of Drowned Towns.”
In 2020, he received a “digital project for public” discovery grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help “recover and interpret the history of these towns that were displaced or disappeared,” he said.
The list includes Robinette, which was on the banks of the Snake River east of Richland.
Robinette, named for James Robinette, who settled in the area in 1887, had its post office established in 1909.
The town, which had a population of 25 to 30 for much of its history, was abandoned in 1957 as construction neared completion on Brownlee Dam on the Snake.
Brownlee Reservoir inundated the site of Robinette in 1958.
Reinhardt is coming to Baker City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, to talk about his project and collect stories about Robinette from local residents.
The event is part of a new lecture series that will be held on the second Tuesday of each month at the Baker Heritage Museum, 2480 Grove St.
His talk starts at 6 p.m. in the upstairs ballroom.
“I’m hoping a lot of people show up who want to share memories,” he said.
He’ll also have a question-and-answer session to see what local residents would like to see in this project.
Although some instances of drowned towns date back to the 1920s, Reinhardt said most occurred during 1950s, ’60s and ’70s when many dams were built across the Northwest.
Some, like Detroit, were moved to higher ground nearby.
But others, like Robinette, just disappeared.
Some of the buildings from Robinette were moved to Richland or Halfway, and still stand.
Reinhardt’s goal is to preserve the oral histories of these towns.
“To capture the stories of people who lived in these places,” he said.
He plans to hold a “history jamboree” in the future to collect stories and document artifacts tied to the drowned towns. He said graduate students will help with this field work.
During his research, Reinhardt said he’s been surprised at “how little vocal resistance there was” to the building of dams and subsequent reservoirs.
“It’s a really traumatic event — the absolute destruction of a place they’ve come to call home,” he said. “It’s a really interesting and sad puzzle — how did people come to accept that?”
Right now he’s working on an inventory of drowned towns, starting with the Snake River.
“It’s been a real process of discovery and enlightenment for me,” he said.
He has a map posted on the website drownedtowns.com.
The website also has a place where people can send a note with information about a drowned town.