A trio of news reports in the Napa Valley Register in the 1950s provided details about one Napa County reservoir’s creation, the official naming of another and the potentially disastrous tampering of a third Napa Valley dam.
In 1954, supervisors had attempted to halt the planned creation of Lake Berryessa in eastern Napa County, but that effort was foiled by the federal government who countered that challenge with a mandate ordering the construction of Monticello Dam.
As part of that project, the Berryessa Valley community of Monticello was leveled and the remains of those who were buried within Monticello’s cemetery were relocated to other area cemeteries. With the completion of the Monticello Dam during the late 1950s, the rich and highly productive Berryessa Valley was flooded to create the water reservoir known as Lake Berryessa. It was, and is, a water supply primarily for Solano County.
While those federal mandates and activities upset many locals and their lives, another governmental action was supported by Napa residents. In mid-1951 the Register published an article about how the positive activities and contributions of a Napan were duly recognized and honored by the Napa city council.
The article began, “The name of Conn Lake was changed officially to Lake Hennessey by action of the city council last night after Councilman Joe Greco paid tribute to the work of retiring Councilman E. R. Hennessey in the planning and development of the city’s water supply system and recreation area in Conn Valley. Councilman W. I. Mannering seconded the motion and Mayor Seavey added his support to the move.”
The Register added, “Hennessey, who retires from public office this year (1951), was surprised by the action. ‘This is quite an honor,’ he said. ‘I didn’t expect anything like this.’”
Several years later, another Napa Valley municipal government, its officials and water reservoir were the subject of an incredible and disturbing Register article. The early 1959 report said, “Sheriff’s officers today were looking for some apparent poachers who closed the Bell Canyon Dam drainage valve and threatened destruction of the dam and possible loss of 180 lives.”
You have free articles remaining.
The Bell Canyon reservoir was, and is, a primary source of water for the town of St. Helena. This facility is located within the eastern Napa County hills northeast of St. Helena. As a side note, its name—Bell Canyon—is in reference to the Bell family who homesteaded that area of Napa County.
The details about the 1959 incident continued: “With the gate shut, water began to accumulate behind the earth fill. If it had accumulated enough to go over the uncompleted dam, it was feared the structure would have crumbled and a wall of water would have rushed down the canyon and into the valley. Over 180 persons live along the course the water would have taken, according to (St. Helena) Mayor Louis Stralla.”
Stralla added, “If a heavy rain had come on Sunday, it is likely no one would have noticed the valve was closed and the water would have risen rapidly. The top of the dam is still lower than the spillway. Once water flowed over the dam the wall would have collapsed. A 40-foot wall of water might have roared down the canyon and into the valley.” However, that scenario fortunately did not happen because of an observant teenager.
The Register continued, “An alert 14-year-old boy discovered the gate was shut Sunday afternoon. City authorities were notified by the boy’s father. And the city acted quickly to open the valve. Special equipment was rushed to the site and used to raise the gate, which weighs one ton. This was not accomplished until yesterday afternoon.”
As for how and the probable reason why the valve was tampered with and closed, the Register wrote, “Deputy Sheriff Al Lindhome said heavy wrenches had been used to turn lug nuts and let the valve gate drop shut. He also said he believed steelhead (fish) poachers had been seeking to lower the stream flow of (the nearby) Crystal Springs Creek. He added that they probably did not know they would be unable to open the valve again.”
With that dangerous situation averted, Bell Canyon Dam was eventually completed to become one of the several Napa County water supply reservoirs constructed to serve area residents.