Spending time on Candlewood Lake as a kid, I heard the rumors. Supposedly, beneath the lake’s pristine surface, deep within its murky depths, were the remains of an old town called Jerusalem. The town had been flooded in the 1920s when the lake was made to help Connecticut Light & Power generate electricity. In addition to buildings and homes, the story goes, the town’s graveyard had been swallowed by the waters.
It didn’t take much imagination to envision the bodies in that graveyard swollen with seeping water, waiting for me as I dove in. It turns out, however, that the tale of this flooded Jerusalem is only half true.
Candlewood Lake, the state’s largest lake, was indeed created in the 1920s by Connecticut Light & Power as a reservoir to produce electricity. It was formed behind a hydroelectric dam near where the Rocky and Housatonic rivers meet in New Milford. A 200-foot drop in the Rocky River nearby had long been used to power mills. In 1904 the first hydroelectric plant was built at the site. Before long, to increase the electricity the plant could produce, the construction of Candlewood Lake was undertaken. The lake was the first large-scale project in the U.S. to utilize the concept of a pumped-storage facility. Water is pumped from the Housatonic River up a 13-foot diameter pipe into Candlewood Lake. When there is demand, the water flows back down into a turbine, producing electricity in the process.
The lake plan was approved in 1926. Twenty-six months later, the lake was completed. More than 1,000 laborers, many of whom lived in temporary construction camps on areas that would ultimately be flooded, worked on the project. They cleared woodland, built dams and dug ground that was too high to contain water. Beginning on Feb. 25, 1928, water was pumped into the valley that would become the lake. By Sept. 29, 1928, there was enough water for it to be considered complete, resulting in a body of water 16 miles long and 8.4 square miles.
A total of 5,420 acres of farmland and forests had been flooded. The area included tobacco fields, cattle farms, forests and about 100 buildings, including homes, churches and schools. In all, 35 families owned property within the flood zone. But the electric company was armed with eminent domain and was able to purchase most of this property. However, there were a few holdouts and some small portions of privately owned land were ultimately flooded. Parts of Brookfield, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford and Sherman were submerged, as was the entirety of the village of Jerusalem, now under the New Milford portion of the lake.
As for those waterlogged bodies I envisioned as a kid, thankfully they don’t exist. While the flooded area of the lake did include four graveyards, those buried within these sites were exhumed and moved as part of the lake’s construction by workers who were paid $1 per grave. On Nov. 26, 1926, a local newspaper reported “the work of removing the 412 bodies in these cemeteries commenced a month ago and is now practically complete. … Most of the bodies have been re-interred in Wood Creek Cemetery [in Brookfield].”
Today, divers sometimes search for hints of the history hidden beneath the lake. In a YouTube video showing a dive in the village of Jerusalem, stone structures and what appear to be tools are visible, but the images are murky. This murkiness is a fact of life for those who choose to dive in Candlewood Lake, where visibility is known to be limited. The lake is 40 feet deep, but shortly after submerging, visibility shrinks to mere feet. It didn’t use to be this way. According to the Candlewood Lake Authority, “In the early days the lake was so clear that old stone walls along the bottom were visible.” Over time, pollution and invasive species have hindered that visibility, a fact that is certainly more real than the bloated bodies I once envisioned in the water’s depths.