Visit the lost town of Monticello in this photo essay

December 7, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

"Berryessa Valley: The Last Year" is a mysterious and evocative book of photographs focusing on the nearby town of Monticello.

If you never heard of Monticello, that's because it doesn't exist anymore. Its remnants sleep beneath the waters of Lake Berryessa.

Most of the town's 250 inhabitants moved out in the summer of 1956. Farmers stayed until the September harvest was in, but by the time the rain started in November, the town was essentially gone. Everything was taken out and burned or buried, or in the case of the cemetery, moved and reburied. Houses were moved or burned, trees were cut down.

It was in that year, 1956, that photographers Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones were hired by Life magazine to do a photo study of the last year of the Berryessa Valley. Life never ran the photo essay, but Aperture magazine published their "Death of a Valley" in 1960.

In 1994 the Vacaville Museum curated an exhibit on "Berryessa Valley: The Last Year" and published a catalog to accompany it. This catalog of 28 black and white Pirkle Jones photographs is available today for $20.

Pirkle Jones lives in Marin County and is busy planning for an upcoming exhibition of his work in Chicago. (He was named for the country doctor who delivered him: Dr. Pirkle became Pirkle Jones.)

Two of the photos include now historic shots of Lange. In one, she is posing in the Cook, McKenzie & Son country store. In another, she is at work, shooting the destruction of a California landmark, the felling of a massive tree. All trees in the valley were cut to within six inches above the ground.

In one shot, the beautiful old McGinnis ranch home stands empty. In another, Ed McGinnis and his grandson, Ron, inspect the house, which is being lifted off its foundation in preparation for a move to higher ground. In another shot, workers watch as a ranch house is consumed by fire.

Another photo shows the peaceful Monticello Cemetery in a field of spring poppies before the tombstones are moved. The next cemetery photo, taken weeks or months later, shows the gaping wounds of the empty burial plots.

The Vacaville Museum has another little book that describes the history of the Monticello Dam. That is, "The Solano Water Story: A History of the Solano Irrigation District and the Solano Project" (Solano Irrigation District, 1988, $10).

According to this book, the population in the valley had been dropping for 20 years before the dam was built. Farmers were finding it harder to remain solvent raising cattle, sheep and pigs. Some planted orchards of Bartlett pears and prunes. Cattle and grain were the main products.

Despite the hard times, the valley's residents and Napa County fought hard in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to stall the dam project. They were up against a formidable adversary, Gov. Earl Warren.

"The future development of California will be limited by the extent to which we can put water to use," is one of his oft-quoted statements.

The McKenzie family moved to Vacaville and opened today's Pacific Hardware store. Others said goodbye to their land and their memories. In 1955 Professor Adan Treganza of UC Berkeley and students from Sacramento Junior College excavated Indian sites in the valley. Approximately 150 Indian villages had been found in the valley during an archaeological survey of 1948.

Groundbreaking ceremonies for Monticello Dam took place in 1953, attended by Gov. Warren. By 1957, the project was complete and the valley began to fill with water.

Davis resident Alice Delwiche grew up in Monticello where her father raised turkeys. She and her sister rode horses to the two-room schoolhouse and held rodeos with the other students at recess.

"I graduated from eighth grade there and then went off to high school and college and never came back until the year before they flooded it," she said at the annual meeting of the Putah Creek Council this fall.

"One thing no one mentions are the great big Indian mounds that were there and the Indian artifacts that my father found and gave to the Indian museum in Sacramento," she added. "It's all now under water and I often think about that."

"Berryessa Valley: The Last Year" is available through bookstores or from the Vacaville Museum, 213 Buck Ave., Vacaville CA 95688. Or phone (707) 447-4513.

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