Finding Dorena

Imagine learning that your home, your school, and indeed your whole town needed to move or be covered by 100 feet of water. That is exactly what happened in the early 1940s to the town of Dorena. The construction of Dorena dam, which began in 1942, was intended to provide flood control for the towns and communities downstream of the Row River. However, it meant that the whole community of Dorena (population approximately 450), plus the railroad tracks for the “Old Slow and Easy,” needed to be moved out of the way. Because of World War II the completion of the dam was delayed, but by 1949 the dam was done and the houses and buildings had been moved, sold and dismantled, or burned down. Plus, the rail line was relocated to the present location of the Row River Trail.

Original town of Dorena, Oregon

Dorena, before it was moved.
(Thank you to the Cottage Grove Museum for allowing me to take this picture of a photo in their collection.)

Each winter the Army Corps of Engineers does a “draw down” on the reservoir from its summer level to its winter flood-control level. I’ve heard that you can see a part of the old rail line during the draw down, and I’ve wondered if anything from old Dorena was visible during this time as well.

First, I had to find out where Dorena and the rail line used to be. In Golden Was the Past Dorothy Bond writes about the “Galloping Goose,” a gasoline powered passenger car that traversed the rail line for many years. Dorothy writes that:

“… the Cerro-Gordo ‘station’ … stood near to where the spillway of the Dorena Dam is now located. From Cerro-Gordo the old Goose ‘galloped’ up the track, following close to the north banks of the twisting river, past lovely farms and wooded areas to the original town of Dorena which now lies covered by the water of Dorena Lake. The little town which was built near Rat Creek boasted the first of three covered railway platforms on the line.” (pg. 124)

A visit to the Cottage Grove Historical Society confirmed this location with maps, and a visit to the Cottage Grove Museum netted me a photo of Dorena and the tracks before they were moved. In the photo, Cerro Gordo is clearly visible in the background.

Dry winter days are the perfect time to walk down into the mud flats of the reservoir, look around, and try to get a feel for what it might have been like before the dam was constructed. And it was on this kind of day that we walked down there with the picture of old Dorena in hand, to see if we could get a sense of where the town had been and what it had been like.

The original site of Dorena today.

The original site of Dorena today.

Beyond getting a sense of where Dorena used to be, we also found a cache of pottery shards, perhaps from the town or washed down from other areas in the valley. We did not find any structural remains of the town, and in fact, I’ve never heard that any exist. (If you know of some please leave a comment and let me know.) Our search for the old rail line will happen on another day.

Dorena shards

Remnants of an era.


For more pictures of Dorena before the move, visit the web site of the Dorena Historical Society (especially this page:



14 thoughts on “Finding Dorena

  1. Pingback: Covered bridges which were located around Cottage Grove, Oregon

  2. Pingback: Trailheads along the Row River Trail

  3. In the picture of the lake bottom you are not far enough south for your comparison. I know where a concreet foundation is and the rail bed sticks out like a sore thumb once you’ve seen it. The end of Harms Park is an old homestead site with lielacs and a fruit orchard. Lots of neat stuff out there.


    • Thanks Damon, I’ve seen the old lilacs at Harms Park but never put the connection to the old homesteads that used to be around there…. of course! I’ll have to poke around them and the orchard the next time we are out there.

      I’m still looking for the rail bed… I’ve heard different opinions about where it is, but I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve got an old map of where the railroad used to follow along the Row River, but so far that hasn’t been helpful. The lake bed hasn’t been dry enough this year to really venture out there.


      • Well, I grew up on Rat Creek RD. My family still lives up there. I’ve been walking that lake bed since I was 6 years old. I only live about an hour from there now. If you are ever in the area and want some tips let me know. Any particular reason your searching for these places???


      • My only reason for searching out these places is because I think it is interesting. Living in Cottage Grove, knowing the history of the places I am at makes being there more enjoyable, I think.

        We were fortunate last year, as they emptied the reservoir early and kept it drawn down so that work could happen on the damn. It dried out quite a bit making exploring down there easier (and less dirty!).


  4. I’ve often wondered where the old town was down there. Spent many long days trekking around out there. If you know which building ( if not many at the time ) had a concrete foundation, I can tell you where it is. It’s the only one I’ve seen down there.


  5. Hi Colette my friend, beautiful and informative website. I too have a compulsion to learn about my community. I imagine you have located the old asphalt road which traveled along the Row River. You can’t see this small portion when the lake is full.

    I would like to see photos of the area prior to the dam. It sounds like there were a number of farms and ranches which had to be moved and I have often visualized what a lovely place it must have been. If you can direct me to a place where I can see what it all looked like prior to the dam I would be indebted. Thank you!


    • Hi Becky,
      Are you referring to upper reaches of the reservoir at Bake Stewart Park? I hadn’t really thought of it as an old road, but of course, asphalt isn’t going to be hanging out for any other reason.

      I haven’t seen old photos of the homesteads and farms before the dam was put in. It would be interesting. I’ll ask around and see what I can find out.


  6. There used to be some foundations visible by rat creek. If you walk down to the trail to the bathrooms. That used to be an orchard to an old farm house. Walk down to the lake and half way between the bathrooms and the boat ramp there used to be 2 foundations still visible. It’s been about 14 years so maybe nothing there any more.


  7. I know where the foundations used to be and a farm house that used to be near the bathrooms at rat creek. The old foundations was between this farm house and the boat dock on the river bed.


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