Historical society booklet concludes 4-year project on Navajo Dam 'lost communities'
Author Patty Tharp finishes second volume
FARMINGTON — It's been nearly 60 years since rising waters backed up by the newly built Navajo Dam covered the small villages of Los Martinez, Los Pinos, Rosa and Los Arboles in northeast San Juan County, northwest Rio Arriba County and southwest Colorado.
So when Patty Tharp set out four years ago to tell the story of those erstwhile communities, she wasn't sure how much material about them existed and how reliable it would be.
As it turned out, she needn't have worried. Tharp, now the president of the San Juan County Historical Society, uncovered a wealth of what historians call primary sources — materials directly related to a subject that were created during the time that is being examined.
Tharp found so much material, in fact, that she quickly realized her plan to produce a single booklet for the historical society on the history of those villages wasn't realistic. She split the project in half, producing "The Lost Communities of Navajo Dam — Volume 1: Los Martinez" in 2019, and following that up with "The Lost Communities of Navajo Dam — Volume 2: Los Pinos, Rosa and Los Arboles" in late 2020.
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Many of the people whose lives were disrupted by the construction of the dam and the creation of Navajo Lake are still alive, and Tharp wound up sitting in their living rooms and speaking with dozens of them over the past few years as she conducted research into her project.
But that doesn't mean she had an easy time of it.
"In Hispano culture, to talk about something like this, where they had been treated rather unfairly, it's hard to them to open up to a stranger, especially an Anglo stranger," Tharp said, recalling her desire to create a bond of trust with her subjects.
Tharp dealt with that issue whenever possible by arranging an introduction to her interview subjects through a third party both sides knew. That helped create a level of familiarity that made her job easier, and many of her subjects wound up sharing not just their memories of their long-gone communities, but family photos that helped illustrate what life was like in those villages. Dozens of those photos made their way into Tharp's book, enriching it considerably.
Tharp had a personal connection to the area she wrote about in the two booklets, as her family kept a boat at Navajo Lake when she was a child. Many of her summer days were spent gliding across the water that now covers those towns.
Tharp was also a frequent overnight guest during her childhood of a family headed by a man who was part of the construction crew that built the dam. She recalled that they lived in a mobile home camp near the dam site that had been assembled to house hundreds of workers and their families from 1957 to 1962. The community of Los Martinez had been demolished to make way for the camp.
Tharp explained how all the windows on the mobile homes were covered in blackout curtains because work on the dam was taking place around the clock. Large portable lights typically burned all night long in the area, and Tharp recalled how she sometimes would peek out a curtain in the dead of night and marvel at how it seemed bright as day outside.
She was inspired to write about the area's lost communities after attending the Feast Day celebration at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church just down the road from Navajo Dam in 2014. Tharp recalled being so moved by the ceremony she had tears rolling down her cheeks. As she learned more about the villages that had once existed in the area, the historian in her took over, and Tharp began reaching out to some of the families that had chosen to remain in the area after being relocated, with many of them settling in Ignacio, Durango and Arboles, Colorado.
"That's where a lot of these displaced families wound up," Tharp said. "And they have thousands of descendants today."
Others wound up even farther afield, including Raymond Gallegos, who grew up in Los Arboles before settling in California as an adult. He created the maps in the second booklet, an invaluable series of visual tools that help the reader envision the layout of the region before the lake was created.
Tharp also singled out Delia Velasquez and Nioma Gallegos not just for their personal recollections, but their help in introducing her to other displaced families from the area. Although Los Martinez, Los Pinos, Rosa and Los Arboles were separate communities, they comprised a tight-knit region of people of Spanish descent, sharing a language, faith and culture that often separated them from the Anglo residents in the area.
Once the decision was made to dam the San Juan River and create the lake, Tharp said the end came quickly for those communities, eventually resulting in the displacement of approximately 200 families — most of them without the resources or know-how to fight the government or even receive a fair price for their land and homes. Those who refused to sell saw their land taken under eminent domain, often receiving a much lower price than those who had chosen not to contest the deal.
Tharp believed that was a story worth telling, and it turned into a four-year commitment on her part. Now that the project is complete, she said she has been overwhelmed by the response to her work, especially by those who were among the displaced six decades ago and have reached out to her to convey their gratitude. She said some families have ordered up to a dozen copies of the booklet.
"I think that kind of feeling is they're glad that some of it is preserved now, and somebody cared about them," she said.
Copies of "The Lost Communities of Navajo Dam — Volume 2: Los Pinos, Rosa and Los Arboles" are available for $10 through the San Juan County Historical Society. They can be ordered by calling 505-334-7136, emailing email@example.com or writing to the society at PO Box 1252, Aztec, NM 87410-1252. Arrangements can be made to pick the booklet up in person or have it mailed, but there is an additional charge for postage.
Those who are members of the historical society receive a copy of the booklet for free.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.