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.
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.
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 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.