The old townsite of Copper has been under water since 1980, but this time of year, water in the Applegate Reservoir often gets low enough to see what’s left behind. - Bill Miller

The underwater ghost town

Copper sometimes is called Oregon's underwater ghost town, even though the buildings are all gone and it really wasn't much of a town.

At best, it had a one-room schoolhouse, a farm, a store, a gas station and a momentary post office that all disappeared before 1980, when the Corps of Engineers completed the Applegate Dam and began drowning the town site in 100 feet of water.

Guy Watkins was the last of his family to live on the old homestead, finally closing the store and gas station and moving his 100 head of cattle and the rest of his life to a new home on higher ground.

Watkins had been a vocal opponent for nearly 30 years, ever since seriousdiscussions about constructingthe dam began right after the end of World War II.

He continued to fight even when things got very serious in 1962. That's when Congress authorized the Rogue Basin flood control project, which included the Applegate Dam.

"It gets irritating not knowing when I will have to leave the store," Watkins told a reporter in 1977. "I guess I will, as soon as I get this new house built."

By then, Watkins had given up hope that President Jimmy Carter would deny funding for the project. Carter had put the Applegate on a list of 18 federal water projects he wanted stopped, but by the end of 1977 it was obvious he was softening his position, and preliminary work already had begun.

Mark Watkins, Guy's grandfather, was born in England and came to the United States in 1844 when he was 12 years old. By the late 1850s, he was mining in Southern Oregon, mostly in the Applegate watershed.

He filed his homestead claim in December 1889 for 160 acres along the Applegate River, just north of the California border. Long before the Watkins post office was established there in 1893, with Watkins as postmaster, the surrounding area already had been known as the Watkins Precinct.

Mamie Winningham, Watkins' daughter and Guy Watkins' aunt, established the Copper post office in 1924 just to the north of the then-closed Watkins post office. It was named for the copper-mining boom in the nearby mountains that had begun in the late 1880s.

Though that post office lasted less than eight years, it was run from the very store that Guy Watkins would watch being torn down in 1978. He would die 11 years later.

Just before the winter rains, the south end of the Applegate Reservoir nearly disappears, revealing large rocks and thick mudflats where Copper used to stand.

As the water level drops, the old asphalt highway that once ended near the Copper store is revealed, becoming the lower end of the lake's "Copper" boat ramp. Pushing aside the dried mud you still can see the faint yellow centerline that once divided the road.

That's it. That's everything — just mountains, mud and highway, and not a ghost in sight.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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