6 Underwater Towns and Their Histories

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Look closer next time you’re hiking around a reservoir or kayaking through an inlet — there might be a sunken city below the surface. Around the world, tiny villages and grand metropolises have been submerged by either natural disasters or dam construction, forcing residents to abandon their homes and their hometowns. But these watery ghost towns never completely disappear — there may be a church tower emerging from the center of a lake or foundations that reappear every so often during dry spells. Here are the stories behind six underwater cities you can dive or boat to.

Curon, Italy

The bell tower of the sunken church in Curon, Resia Lake in Italy.
Credit: faber1893/ iStock

Lake Resia, a stunning alpine lake in northern Italy, features a strange anomaly rising from the water: a 14th-century church steeple. Located in South Tyrol, the region bordering Austria and Switzerland, the steeple was the tallest structure in a town called Curon, once home to hundreds of people, who left when a nearby dam was constructed in 1950. The dam, built for a hydroelectric plant, flooded the valley and merged two smaller lakes. Naturally, the odd sight of the remaining chapel tower has fascinated tourists — especially during winter. Visitors can walk to the chapel when the lake freezes over to get a better look. The scenery even inspired the Netflix series Curon.

In April 2021, the lake was drained for maintenance, affording local residents and curious visitors a chance to check out what’s left of the village after being submerged underwater for over 70 years. Apart from the magnificent cathedral, the stone walls surrounding the village, as well as steps and pathways, remain relatively intact.

Shi Cheng (Lion City), China

An aerial view of Qiandao Lake in China.
Credit: LIUSHENGFILM/ Shutterstock

Shi Cheng, or the “Lion City,” was home to 300,000 people before it was intentionally flooded to accommodate the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in 1959. The flooding created a human-made reservoir named Qiandao Lake, located near China’s east coast among the Lion Mountains, southwest of Shanghai. But Lion City was no ordinary town. At over a thousand years old, the city was large and characterized by ornate architecture and statues of lions and phoenixes. Once a political and economic powerhouse, this underwater ghost town, which lies up to 130 feet below the water’s surface, features temples, memorials, arches, and homes along a warren of paved streets. Protected from the elements, the entire city is a time capsule — even much of the wood is intact. The overall condition and complexity of the underwater city has earned it the nickname “Atlantis of the East.”

Lion City was nearly forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2001, when the Chinese government organized a dive to establish what exactly had been lost when the valley was flooded. A series of photos and illustrations followed, and today, expert divers can join one of a handful of dive operators to explore the city and its arches and statues from April to November.

Villa Epecuén, Argentina

Argentine tourist town in ruins, located in the party of Adolfo Alsina, province of Buenos Aires.
Credit: Fernando Tsariktsian/ Shutterstock

Villa Epecuén was one of Argentina's top resort towns, attracting many wealthy visitors and celebrities. Founded in 1921 on the banks of Epecuén Lake, the destination became famous for the lake's therapeutic, mineral-rich saltwater, believed to have healing properties. In its heyday, 5,000 tourists were accommodated in this village of just 1,500 full-time residents — many visiting from Buenos Aires, located about 370 miles away. By the 1970s, Villa Epecuén was home to some 280 businesses, including hotels and restaurants, and hosted 25,000 visitors in summer between November and March.

That changed in 1985, when a storm’s strong winds destroyed the dam holding the lake water along Villa Epecuén’s waterfront. Water slowly rose throughout the town, forcing evacuations and eventually engulfing the train tracks that transported visitors back and forth from Buenos Aires. Businesses were abandoned, and it took 25 years for the water to recede enough to reveal portions of the town. The above-water remains — trees, buildings, and even vehicles — are coated in ghostly, white salt. Tourists from across the globe make the trek from Buenos Aires to check out this partially-underwater, eerie, white ghost town.

Port Royal, Jamaica

A view of boats docked at Port Royal in Kingston Jamaica.
Credit: Lieblingsbuerger/ Shutterstock

Once notoriously referred to as the “most wicked and sinful city in the world,” the city of Port Royal was a first stop for European explorers in the Caribbean. The city, which was under Spanish control until the English took over in 1655, eventually became the second-largest European city in the New World, after Boston. Located along the southeastern coast of the island on Kingston Harbor, the city became well-known for its “anything-goes” atmosphere, attracting raucous, rum-filled parties and pirates.

In 1692, a major earthquake and tsunami submerged 33 acres of the city, which was built over sand and thus vulnerable to severe weather. For years thereafter, pirates looted what they could find from Port Royal, and to this day, buildings, paved roadways, and hundreds of sunken ships lay below 40 feet of water off the coastline. The underwater ruins have become an important spot for divers and archaeologists who began studying and cataloging their discoveries in the 1950s — including largely intact building interiors, much like those found in Pompeii. Special government access is required to visit the ruins, officially named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but casual visitors can explore artifacts across several museums in Kingston, as well as at the National Museum of Historical Archaeology in Port Royal.

St. Thomas, Nevada

The abandoned ghost city of St. Thomas in Lake Mead national recreation area.
Credit: Amanda Mohler/ Shutterstock

Original residents of St. Thomas, founded by Mormons in 1865, thought the town was in Utah. But within a few years, a survey revealed St. Thomas was actually in Nevada — and the state immediately decided to tax the residents, including taxes from previous years. Unable to afford the levies, the Mormon pioneers left the town, their businesses, and their farmsteads by 1871, with most heading to Utah. Others eventually swooped in, taking over the abandoned properties. It wasn’t until much later — the 1920s, to be exact — that the federal government started buying up land in and around St. Thomas to construct the Hoover Dam.

By 1935, the dam was completed, and as the Colorado River swelled into the newly formed Lake Mead, the town was gradually abandoned — this time due to rising water. By 1938, the town was submerged. Today, with water usage soaring and drought conditions persisting, St. Thomas has emerged on the banks of shrinking Lake Mead. Visitors can now visit this tiny ghost town, which was officially declared a national historic site, and walk among the foundations of homes, the occasional stairway, and rusty car and equipment parts.

Vilarinho das Furna, Portugal

A view of the traditional village of Vilarinho das Furnas that was submerged by a dam in 1971.
Credit: LuisPortugal/ iStock

Vilarinho da Furna, a tiny village in the former Portuguese province of Minho, was founded by the Romans over 2,000 years ago. By the 1960s, the town was home to about 300 people — many of whom raised cattle or produced wine. But their way of governing, a council called the Junta, was as ancient as the town’s stone bridges. It involved one member from each household participating in the council, and leaders serving for just six months.

In the late 1960s, the Portuguese Electricity Company began constructing a dam that would flood the area. The payout to displaced families from the corporation was a pittance, so residents famously stripped the town of everything but the stone walls and streets — including roof tiles. The last resident of Vilarinho das Furna left in 1972. Today, visitors can catch a glimpse of the village’s stone remains during the spring or fall dry seasons. When water is high, glass-bottomed boats tour the area. In the nearby town of São João do Campo, a museum constructed of stone from some of the village’s old buildings tells the story of this underwater city.

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