The largest body of water in Colorado, Blue Mesa Reservoir is nothing to scoff at. Found in the southern portion of the state, Blue Mesa Reservoir is 20-miles-long, home to 96 miles of shoreline, and constrained by a 390-foot-tall dam. However, before this man-made reservoir and popular outdoor recreation spot existed, the area was home to a thriving mountain town that has since been wiped off the map.

Lauded for its fly fishing, the town of Iola was established in 1896 and was home to an estimated 200-300 residents - most of them farmers and ranchers. This changed with a decision made by the United States Bureau of Reclamation as part of the Colorado River Storage Compact Act of 1956. A dam was constructed with the goal of controlling water flow from the Gunnison River to the Colorado River, and creating new opportunities for flood control, water storage, and hydroelectricity. This also meant that the town would be submerged in water.

Ghost town revealed after years of being submerged underwater

Exposed automobile generator at the Iola site, which was flooded in 1960 to create Blue Mesa Reservoir.

Photo Credit: Christian Murdock, The Gazette.

Iola residents evacuated and lost much of their livelihoods by 1962 when construction of the Blue Mesa Dam started. At its fullest, water near the dam can reach more than 330 feet, though recent drought conditions across Colorado have resulted in lower water levels. The low water line has revealed some of the town’s existence. Remnants of buildings, fence posts, and farm tools scatter the shorelines of Blue Mesa Reservoir.

Ghost town revealed after years of being submerged underwater

Coors beer can from the 1960s found at the site of Iola. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock; The Gazette.

Water from Blue Mesa Reservoir is pumped through large pipes that extend through the Blue Mesa Dam and into the powerplant where water turns turbines that generate electricity. One of the Aspinall Unit dams, the Blue Mesa Dam was the first of the group to be built and is the largest of the three dams that are used to store and control spring flows on the Gunnison River.

Blue Mesa Reservoir (Photo) Credit equigini (iStock)

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Photo Credit: equigini (iStock).

Blue Mesa Reservoir is found 30 miles west of Gunnison and is the largest lake trout and Kokanee salmon fishery in the United States. Today, it’s a popular spot for boaters, fishers, and campers, though few likely know the history of how this breathtaking water spot came to be and of the town that paid the ultimate price.

Leslie James is all about Colorado when it comes to writing features, sharing adventures, and creating colorful galleries. She loves camping, hiking, mountain biking and snowboarding. Leslie joined OutThere Colorado in November 2020.


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(5) comments


I wonder if that old song "Iola" by a country group called Great Plains was written about this town?


200 to 300 people is a thriving town? Hilarious.


I know too much about this reservoir. It flooded my family's homestead, robbing us of our heritage. As I watch my grandfather slowly fade away, he shows me on maps where the original cabin was, where he and great-granddaddy used to herd the cattle for which season. All gone. Replaced by people who want "Green" in theory but I've rarely seen any who talk the talk ever walk the walk. It might be worth losing our past if I see these people follow through on their theories. Do the work!!!


I'm going to take a guess and say that Grandpa and great-grandpa were compensated for this land that they lost.


Of course they would have been compensated. At 1960 values. Many times, though, an owner(s) does not want to sell. Such could well have been the case here. That portion of the Gunnison River was reputed to be one of the premier fly fishing rivers in the entire country. Very unique property and impossible to replace. Can you imagine how much that land's value would have appreciated 70 years later in 2021?! Part of the agreement in 1960 to build Blue Mesa Res. provided for acquision of public fishing easements on area streams to replace fishing frontage lost on the Gunnison River with construction of the reservoir. Seventy years later in 2021, while Colorado Parks and Wildlife occasionally secures a lease for the public on an area stream such as the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, these leases are very hard to come by. In 70 years they still have not been able to secure leases to replace the amount of river frontage lost with the construction of the Blue Mesa Reservoir in the 1960s.

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