Off the Beaten Path – the Lost Towns under Lake Red Rock, Iowa

If you are up for a fascinating and chilling read you would be interested to hear about the Lost Towns of Red Rock which is about 20 minutes from where I lived in Iowa.

I will give you the condensed version and show you some incredible photos I took to go along with this chilling tale. If you read through the comments you’ll find plenty of information from locals too!

Lake Red Rock, now the largest lake in Iowa, once had six towns there….that are still there today….under the lake. What you see here is all that is left of the town of Fifield. The lost town of Cordova is not too far away.

We were out for a drive this morning and saw this dirt road that appeared to end into Lake Red Rock so we pulled over and walked down the road. We noticed that seagulls seemed to be just standing on top of the water. That’s when we realized we had found one of the lost towns.

Back in the mid 1900’s a dam was created to help re-route river waters back to neighboring towns. Things went wrong, the river flooded too fast and 6 towns were lost forever.

The dirt road that we walked down on took us to what was left of a road in one of these lost towns.

If you look carefully out over the water you can see something sticking up in a few places. Whether it’s just debris or remnants of the old town I don’t know. Someone in the area had told me it was pieces sticking off of the tops of buildings but I’m not sure if that’s true.

It was a bit eerie but an interesting history lesson for our kids to learn this morning.

What made it even more eerie is that we had incredibly dense fog which blocked most things from our vision.

This is on the same bridge that I pictured above covered by fog. It was so weird to drive on it. We couldn’t see where the road was going and there was no one around.

So if you’re up for a good read and an interesting history lesson you should read the brochure from Marion County about the 6 lost towns under Lake Red Rock. The brochure is informative but not extensive. I would love to learn more about this tragedy and scout out the areas of the lost towns!

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73 Comments

  1. Julia White says:

    This is a really interesting article. I traveled through this area today on my way home (south of Ottumwa) from Ames. I teach Iowa History to sixth graders at Cardinal Community Schools,and I will be sure to share this article and pictures with them. They will love it! Living in southern Iowa my entire life, I’ve heard stories of this, but never seen the brochure. Thanks for sharing!

    1. It would make a cool field trip 😉 and Ames isn’t terribly far away! I love that the brochure has a map on it that pinpoints the location of each town! It’s so neat!

      1. Kimberly Gressley says:

        When the water is really, really low you can walk through where some of the towns used to be and still find some of the foundations of the buildings. My dad you to take us on hikes and would tell stories of the old towns and we would hunt for arrowheads. It is all very interesting. I have lived around this area my whole life and will never get tired of hearing about the history. Thank you so much for sharing your photos and bringing up some fond memories for me

    2. rosemary witzenburg says:

      the road that is shown is old highway 14 going south into Knoxville, iowa before the mile long bridge was built….and there are no buildings in the water, that would have been seen in the water

  2. Looks like you had a great day:)

  3. How interesting! With all the scary weather we have had recently, it is a scary notion to think that there are towns underwater.

  4. Kristin Wheeler (Mama Luvs Books) says:

    Beautiful! We have places similar near us here in RI and I love finding them! So peaceful!

  5. Christopher Scholl says:

    The town of Red Rock Iowa now Long forgotten and often out of veiw as it sits under the muddy water. Back in late 2009, I was on my way north from Corydon, and came over the long bridge, Rivers were very low then, you could see the old main road going down to town to the broken concrete road once Main Street to Red Rock. At the time you were able to cross the small bridge which looked to have fair well over the years of being submerged, beyond that as you would have been going to what i assume is down town, youll cross a rail raod crossing, see a few foundations from old building and continue straight back into the river. Its really pretty cool and useto have sever pictures. Its rare for the water to get low enough that you would be able to actaully walk the main streets of the old town, which several were doing when they had the chance. If I can find the pictures id love to share them, it was just unreal how the town basically got swallowed up nearly over night after the dam redirected waters.

    1. Old Hwy. 14 went south to the other side of the “bluffs”….there was a curve in the Hwy. to the west and then it went back south….near the curve there was an old gravel road that went into Red Rock from the east…and…there’s no way you can walk through the main streets of Red Rock even when the water level is low…the village sat west of the mile bridge and with the water and mud it would be impossible to walk to R.R….if I remember correctly it was suppose to take 3 years?? to fill up the reservoir but due to much rain it filled in 3 days…something the Army Corp of Engineers didn’t realize would happen….

      1. Mary Swihart says:

        Actually it mostly filled in about 3 days as there was flooding on the upper Des Moines after heavy rains that Spring. At the time I was going to Iowa State University but am actually from Monroe. I had to do a study for my ornithology class and I did one on the species of ducks that would use an instant lake.

    2. Red Rock didn’t have a concrete road going into it….

  6. dale vanderlinden says:

    I would love to find the old cemetery that was cover up and who was in them and where the people want

    1. EddiesMom says:

      The Red Rock cemetery was moved to higher ground. Today, it may be seen near the Painted Rocks housing development. Turn left on the first gravel road on the north end of the Highway 14 mile long bridge. Follow the signs.

      1. Jim Buttrey says:

        The cemetery was never moved, it is on the same site that it always was, North of the town on the hill. I lived on the Northside of Red Rock for many years

      2. rosemary witzenburg says:

        the red rock cemetery was never covered up and stands high on the the hill where it always has been…

    2. The old Red Rock Cemetery sits on the north bluff by Painted Rocks….there are still burials today….the first burial was in 1847 or 1848….

    3. Paul Wright says:

      My Brother helped relocate cemeteries before the dam was completed… the bridge and road in your photos was the highway that stretched across the river bottom… and was there still until the 80’s when the corps of engineer’s dynamited it.. you could walk nearly all the way across the river bottom on it…

      1. Dale long says:

        I believe to that the original bridge over the Des Moines river had been left intact. Once the lake filled the top of the bridge was just below the water. So many boats sank hitting it they lowered the lake so it could be destroyed.

    4. RENANNE HOLLINGSWORTH BAKER says:

      THE CEMETARY WAS MOVED TO A BLUFF OVERLOOKING THE TOWN. MY GREAT GREAT GRANDPARENTS ARE BURIED THERE. MY GG GRANDFATHER, MARTIN DAVID HOLLINGSWORTH, OWNED AND OPERATED THE FERRY ACROSS THE DESMOINES RIVER BEFORE THE DAM WAS BUILT. HE ALSO USED THE FERRY IN THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD TO CARRY SLAVES ACROSS THE RIVER AT NIGHT. THIS IS DOCUMENTED IN A LETTER/ARTICLE THAT WAS PUBLISHED IN THE NEWSPAPER. HIS DESK IS ALSO IN A MUSEUM. HIS SONS AND GRANDSONS WORKED IN THE COAL MINES IN THE AREA. I HAVE A PICTURE OF SOME MINERS OUTSIDE A MINE, IN WHICH HIS SON AND 3 OF HIS GRANDSONS ARE POSING WITH OTHER MINERS I HAVE NOT BEEN ABLE TO IDENTIFY. THERE ARE MANY BOOKS AND ARTICLES WRITTEN ABOUT THE AREA.

      1. Brad Brown says:

        Interesting post. The history is fascinating. I have seen at least two Hollingsworth entries in the cemetery listings. My 2GG and 3GG are buried in Red Rock cemetery. They moved to Red Rock from Highland County, Ohio in about 1850. Surnames Brown, Collins, Shrader and Rice are in my research area. My web site is bradbrown dot net. I also post on findagrave.

    5. Red rock cemetery is still there on top of the hill, in the painted rocks housing development, going north on hwy 14- 1st gravel road to the left…after crossing mile long bridge

  7. Treasa Cooney-Lizotte says:

    I was just talking today with my dad about Red Rock the town. My mother was born and raised in the area near Red Rock. He has the brochure with the lost towns. I noticed a book written by Grace Karr called The Best of Grace Karr’s Cordova News. That’s how I found this sight of yours. My moms maiden name is Karr. I found your pictures very interesting. I plan on taking my dad out to see some of those old roads. I think it will bring back a lot of memories and some good stories. Today he told me about a man called The River Rat. If you know of any books with pictures and stories about that area lost under water please let me know. Thank You

    1. Unfortunately I don’t know very much more than this post. We moved up here several years ago and the brochure and little bit of information I was able to find on it was just SO intriguing to me!

      1. Lori bender says:

        Actually the road you were on appears to me to be old highway 14. Fifield is farther down river, East of cordova. Red rock was just north of the mile long bridge. Actually, all the folks from those towns were bought out , before the dams construction. It was finished in 1965. It did fill much faster than they anticipated. My dad worked on the construction of the dam. I still live a short distance from the lake.

    2. Bob vsn gorp says:

      My great grandparents lived in red rock ia. They wss bought out and moved just south of knoxville ia. On a farm george and bessie hsning. Im thinking sam nichols lived south of red rock but cant rember a hole lot but can rember going thru red rock before the town was flooded and im thinking they was a few that was still living their. Would love to find some one that has pictures of the town.
      [email protected]

    3. RENANNE HOLLINGSWORTH BAKER says:

      MANY ARTICLES IN THE GENEALOGY ROOM AT THE KNOXVILLE LIBRARY. I HAVE SOME OF THE BOOKS WRITTEN ABOUT THE TOWN, AND COPIES OF NEWS ARTICLES ABOUT THE FLOODING OF THE TOWN.

    4. Hello. My maiden name is also Karr. I don’t really know a lot about this side of the Family. If you don’t mind, could you please tell me your Mothers name? My Father is LaVerne Karr. Grand Father is Merritt Karr. Thank You!

      1. Kayla Davis says:

        I am pretty sure your grandmother’s name was Wilma. Does that sound right?
        She worked for years with my mother at the Knoxville schools in the kitchens.

      2. Mel Knowles says:

        I went to Blaine School with LaVerne Karr in the 50’s.

    5. Darlene Karr says:

      Who was your mother?????? Bill can’t think who she might be. Grace Karr was his mother. We live just outside of Painted Rocks east of the Red Rock cemetery . There are several misinformation facts in the story and more in comments. We are both 89 and the only living old people from Cordova. We moved to Monroe in 1960 but are back “home” by the lake.. Rita recently bought my book “Memories” and posted the article on FB. …Darlene & Bill Karr

  8. cool

  9. My Uncle who is in his 70’s helped build this damn. I have lived here most of my life and I remember stories that he helped move graves because they knew these towns were going to be washed away once it was built. I also remember him saying that these towns were very small. Like just a few houses. Their used to be tree tops sticking put of the water and one of those trees was a huge sycamore tree. It was called The Peace Tree. It was where the Indians used to meet to draw up peace treaties. Their is a lot of history here.

  10. Someone actually from Knoxville, Iowa. says:

    You’re making it sound like some horror story. All of the structures in the flood plain were moved or destroyed after being purchased by the Army Corps for construction of the dam. The lake did fill up faster than expected, but everything from the former town of Red Rock was gone before the lake began to fill. Also, construction on the dam ended in 1969. It’s fine if you want to make up stories, but don’t make them sound like fact when they’re not so.

    1. I did my research from the Marion County brochure and I did not try to spin it as a horror story at all but one of sadness that the visual history of these towns is lost! How fascinating it would be to have these buildings above water still standing to learn about and drive past!

  11. A book is available from the Red Rock visitors center just south west of the dam. Red cover, Very interesting.

  12. Jove Stickel says:

    My mom grew up in Marion County and used to work for the state historical building in the 1960s, her and a college along with my grandfather’s help excavated the Coal port Pottery in the 1960s. Thanks for sharing this in your blog. This was a great opportunity for me to remember my family history.

  13. Carol Beier says:

    I have followed your blog for quite awhile but did not realize you lived in Marion County!! I have taught in Pleasantville for 30 years!! Are you teaching now?? My brother just posted a pic of the mile long bridge while it was being built. I will try to share it with you.

  14. Robert Perry says:

    The Red Rock Dam was built in the early 60’s. My second grade teacher Fonda Fawcett lived on one of those lost towns. Her husband Tom worked with my dad (James Perry) at a factory (Dowden’s Inc.) in Prairie City. I Remer going to their house after I was past second grade (no earlier than 1965) to visit them before their town was engulfed by water. The Fawcett’s built a new house right outside of Colfax on the west side of, what was then. U.S. HWY 117. The house is still standing…and still boring all white…

    1. My husband lived in Percy before the flooding took place. He has also mentioned having Fonda Fawcett as his teacher. Some of the houses from Swan were moved to higher ground before the floods.

      1. My Grandparents had a small farm near Percy in the early 1960’s. I remember going there when I was just a youngster. I’ve been trying to find some historical information about Percy, but haven’t had much luck so far.

  15. Take some of these comments with a grain of salt….and not everything is completely true that is in the Red Rock book by Harriet H….. she did a good job but it depends who she interviewed for the book….

  16. Interesting. You might find the town of Pattensbu
    rg, Missouri interesting too. It used to be down in the river valley, but they rebuilt the entire town up higher, a mile or two away from the original town. Last time I checked, there were a few buildings left in the valley. I believe there was a grain elevator/farm store, or something like that. One church that looked like it was still active (with a sump pump pipe coming out a basement window and another church that I would have loved to explore, obviously unused with lots of tree sprouts grown up around it.

  17. Celina Tooley says:

    Her story is not accurate , the dam was built in the 60’s, my grandpa was part of the building of the damn. They moved the towns that were there along with the cemetery which you can find over by the second Roberts creek campground. They then flooded the area which they predicted would take years but actually filled in a few months.

    1. red rock cemetery is in the Painted rocks housing district, just across the mile long bridge going north, you turn to the left…. There is a sign there with some information about the area and cemetery

    2. red rock cemetery sits on top of the hill….in the painted house development….north end of mile bridge, road to west,

  18. Rick Johnson says:

    I was a Freshman at Central College [beginning in Sep., 1967] when the dam was being finished. I had friends who were art majors. We used to take trips to the [now] lake bottom to salvage interesting pieces from abandoned buildings. Window frames became picture frames. Barn boards were used many ways. Posts from a front porch were use as candle and pottery stands. I have often wondered how much was left behind.

  19. My dad took off work from Parsons in Newton to go junking before they flooded Red Rock Lake. Him and a friend would take old power lines, strip the insulation off and sell the copper. They would go into the stores and bars to buy stuff to sell to the junk dealers. They bought a old stand up scale that you would put a penny in to get your weight. They found a extremely old penny inside. They both made more money in two days of junking then they did in two weeks of work.

    We also went down and honey hunted. Dad knew a guy that chased honey bees. He had followed some bees to a abandoned house. We went inside, the friend smoked out the bees. We would then tear down the latte and plaster walls to expose the honey combs that the honey bees had built in the walls.

  20. Paige Everly says:

    I also want to chime in and reiterate the warning about interpreting this brochure/information as fact. And please don’t teach your kids that this is the history of Red Rock! My father worked on the dam and we spent many weekends in his International Scout, exploring the area that would become Red Rock Lake. We have lots of pictures of the area, including the towns as they were being bought out. The towns that were covered with water were not taken by surprise. The project lasted several years and the residents were moved with very little protest (the towns were already very tiny and they were given more than fair compensation for their property). The cemeteries were moved and the buildings were torn down. There might be some remains of foundations, but there were no buildings remaining by the time they let the water cover the area. I remember exploring the towns before the buildings were torn down and then coming back after they had removed the buildings. Also, their history is not lost. It remains preserved at the state historical society where you can find pictures and archives of the families who lived in the towns. The road you have pictures of is old highway 14, as another reader mentioned. It is usually visible. I still think the creation of Red Rock Lake is a fascinating story…and it is obviously interwoven deeply into in my life, but it is not the dramatic event you portray it to be. Be careful of romantic assumptions. And always double check, and support, your sources.

    1. Jill Vander Martin Butler says:

      Hello, My name is Jill Vander martin Butler,
      I read what you had wrote about the towns under red rock.. You said you had lots of pictures of the towns befor taken down.. My great grandparents and my grandfather was born in on of the towns.. im having a family reunion this Sunday was wondering if there was any way possible you could email me some of the pictures.. I have always wondered what the towns looked like..thank you for your time and sorry if I bothered you or was out of line to ask..
      Thank you jill

      1. I would love to see some those pictures also. My family lived in Swan in the lower grounds that were flooded, and my husband lived in Percy. He talks about the town and can picture it in his mind, but I would love to see actual pictures if anyone has some!

    2. You need to check some of your info. CEMETERIES WERE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE MOVED…. I have all the papers the government gave my grandma while she was still living in Red Rock. Very little protest???? Fair compensation???? Maybe you need to read the old Des Moines Register papers that were printed at this time….and what about Red Rock and other residents who had lived there their whole lives. People in their 70’s and up…grief of losing their homes and especially their towns is still around and will be until the last person with memories of these towns dies….

      Sue

      1. RENANNE HOLLINGSWORTH BAKER says:

        THE REDROCK CEMETARY GRAVES WERE MOVED. IT IS LOCATED NEAR WHAT IS NOW CALLED PAINTED ROCK SUBDIVISION. LOOK FOR PICS ON FIND A GRAVE.

        1. Jim Buttrey says:

          The cemetery was never moved, it remains on the hill that was on the North side of the town. I know this as a fact as we lived on a farm on the Nirth side of Red Rock and when I was young I would go up the hill through the timber and visit the cemetery. I have relatives buried there

  21. Margery hibbard says:

    I grew up on a farm partially in Marion co. It was affected by the Red Rock Res. The little town of Percy had a general store that my family frequented. I remember pickle barrels, huge stalks of bananas & the old fashioned gas pump. As a young child I enjoyed watching Shirley Temple movies projected on the side of the building on hot summer nights. I spent many Summers watching my uncle & brothers playing men’s softball. Many fond memories of Percy, Iowa!

  22. janie barnard says:

    I lived on a small farm just off the mile long bridge somewhere down there when we were first married. I have a baby that is buried in Dunreath cemetery that is still a little further over. We moved to Newton and after everyone had moved out because of the dam coming we would go back and dig up flowers to take and replant. It was a beautiful place in that area and such a shame it is gone . That was in 1960 and 61.

  23. If you would like to see pictures of the twon, they have them at the county accessors office in Knoxville. These towns were very poor as they so often were flooded. Building the dam saved towns further down the river.

  24. My dad and his family came from redrock

  25. Dennis Nieuwsma says:

    There used to be some old train box cars that were derailed along the river to prevent erosion. They were held together with cables. I often wonder if they were removed before the lake was filled. Also when the dam was being built there was a sulfur mine that was burning.

  26. Dennis Nieuwsma says:

    From the age of 1-5, Lived on a farm Just south of Fifield Rd half way between Pella and Fifield. Now I know why my folks moved. Remember going down to the river along the R/R tracks and playing near some derailed box cars. (used for erosion control).

  27. Hi, just came onto this site, very cool.
    I have moved back to Iowa for several years now and am just now exploring the hidden gem that the Redrock area is.
    While I bemoan the damming of so many acres of prime Iowa landscape, I am also grateful that so much land has been made open to the public.
    I have a story that I would like to share and would welcome any input…
    When we lived in the Ozarks, my Mother would occasionally visit, and we would go for site seeing rides of the beautiful Southern MO landscape.
    There was a road near our house that we would drive on that was at the foot of a tall cliff on one side, and a river/creek on the other side.
    Every single time we drove on this road my Mom would remark about how incredibly similar this spot was to a road that she as a young girl had ridden on the way to the town of Redrock from Pella (I believe).
    DNR has a fascinating website of historic aerial photographs, and I think I have determined where this road was,
    Just curious if anyone else has heard anything about this.

  28. Raeleen Vonk says:

    Is there another road that goes into the water close to roberts creek. I think it was gravel but not sure. My parents alwsys took us fishing on a road into water with a bridge. I thought the bridge was metal though. I was only 7 or 8 years old at the time, so it would of been in 67 or 68. Or right after it had flooded. I didnt know any of this until I seen your post and I live in Newton. If anyone knows where all the roads are that led into water, I’d really like to know. Then I could go and check each one out and see if any of them bring me back. I think of our fishing trips often. They were great. Thanks in advance for anyones help.

    1. Brian Dawson says:

      My dads family came from Percy. Have been fortunate to have many trips with my father to “the bottom”. Dad knew where all the old gravel pits where, esp the ones with fish, he knew alot of good mushroom spots, and he had a pretty good memory and could tell you most everyone lived in the area. Fortunately, the last time we were there, spring of 2015, it had been dry enough that we could walk from the crossroads at Percy, to his folks farm at the rivers edge. He was able to point out a few distinguishing features, a corn crib foundation, remains of a smaller buildings foundation, etc… ill never forget that day, i figured that be the last time id be with my dad on the bottom and it was.

  29. Jennifer Kanitz Paris says:

    I live in Painted Rock’s and very fortunate to know Bill and Darlene Karr who lives across the road from us! Bill Karr could pretty much answer any question about these old towns! He grew up in Cordova on his family farm! The stories are priceless … amazing couple in their late 80’s

  30. There is no tragedy and no buildings sticking up out of the lake. The lake does cover where towns used to be, most of them were dying or gone when the lake project started. The road is old highway 14, the large bridge is new 14. Both connected Monroe and Knoxville. Many years ago you could still see the old streets of the town of Red Rock as you drove across the mile long bridge to the northwest before the lake level was raised. No buildings no people just where the town used to be.

  31. I would read it!!

  32. Bill Brunia says:

    The Red Rock Dam was in the planning stages back in the 1930s. The flood of 1947 caused a ramp up. The government chose two dam locations to investigate, one near Madrid, and one at Howell Station. An article in the Des Moines Register May 1 1949 states that there was much opposition to both plans, and states that the Red Rock Project would take at least 15 years. My Grandfather was scoutmaster at Pella, and the Howell location is where he and his scouts built a camp back in the 1920s, and had planned to plant hundreds of hardwood trees. It was two miles north of the Howell Bridge, so just north west of the present location of the dam, all under water now.

  33. Shirley Bloodsworth says:

    In 1969 we moved to a house on Amsterdam Hill. As I came home from work that summer, I saw something that I’d never seen before – water! The lake was filling up for the first time. Also my husband’s parents, John & Gertie Bloodsworth lived in Fifield in the 1940’s and my husband was born in the old Fifield store.

  34. Would love to know more about the Coal Port Pottery!

  35. rosemary witzenburg says:

    true, from Knoxville also…the lady who posted the pictures-here is what the road you took pictures of was…the picture is old highway 14…comments are not factual, she doesn’t have the story right…This road is going south on the old highway 14 going into knoxville, iowa, that was the used before the mile long bridge the new highway 14……going north from Knoxville, iowa…..you can not see any building remains standing….of any of the 6 towns that lie under the water, due to the construcition of the dam

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