Lost Beneath the Lake: Sanish, North Dakota

Old Sanish, North Dakota came to an end in 1953, when the river valley it occupied for over half a century became the bottom of North Dakota’s newest reservoir, Lake Sakakawea. Sanish’s residents left for higher ground, as did the residents of other low-lying towns like Van Hook and Elbowoods.  Buildings were demolished and the land flooded as the reservoir filled behind Garrison Dam. A new Sanish was founded up the hill, but most residents settled elsewhere.

We photographed some of the remaining foundations in Sanish back in 2005 when the lake levels were very low, ruins which had again slipped beneath the lake as of summer 2012.

We are actively seeking old photos and postcards of Sanish, Elbowoods, and Van Hook.  If you have any to share, please contact us.

Sanish, North Dakota, 1926

The postcard shown above is a scene from 1926.  It was sent in by Sanish-born John Morris Benson who says:

I was born in Sanish in 1936 but left before memories of the physical appearance of Sanish was imbedded in memory.

The valley you see in the photo above would eventually fill with water to become Lake Sakakawea, necessitating a new Four Bears Bridge.


The photo above shows the famed Sanish rodeo, an event that drew people from miles around.  Tom Jorgenson of Williston says it was taken by a family friend and he dates it somewhere in the late-forties to early-fifties. The arches of Verendrye Bridge can be seen just above the treeline, right of center.

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19 thoughts on “Lost Beneath the Lake: Sanish, North Dakota

  1. I never knew of this town. Had to be heartbreaking for a lot of those folks who had to pack up and leave their homes. Thanks for my history lesson for the day.


    1. They didn’t have any choice in the matter. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers condemned and bought all the buildings. The owner could buy them back but then had to move them. All the buildings were moved out of the town leaving only the foundations. When they were moving one of the grain elevators it tipped over and fell and smashed in to pieces. Our house was sold and then moved to Tioga – the first ND oil boom and housing was in short supply.


  2. Thanks for the ‘new’ photos above. I’ve always known about the existence of ‘Old Sanish’, but have seen very few photos through the years. Have also known of the existence of Elbowoods and Van Hook, but have never seen any old photos of those towns. Hopefully, someone will share theirs’. Yes, I agree with Brad, it had to have been heartbreaking for all these people to be forced to pack up all and leave. Thanks again for a wonderful website. I spend hours here and also just the other evening discovered the ghosts of Minnesota site. Wonderfull, also.

    Lynn Mickelson


  3. My brother was the last Soo Line depot agent at Sanish. He was just a kid, and was actually a relief operator. I think that he moved to Newtown when Sanish disappeared. I remember going to see him in Sanish when I was about 8. I always thought Sanish and Van Hook should merge into one town called “Vanish”.


  4. My father Gordon S Quammen, bought and tore down the school and bank in Sanish before it was flooded. He used the brick to build an addition onto his blacksmith shop in Stanley ND. I fondly recall many Sunday afternoons cleaning the brick with Dad and Mom,brother and sisters.


  5. My father was born in Sanish in 1922. . .he would take us back to visit the area on vacations. . as a small child, I remember him telling me that this was where he was born and I told him, “but that’s a lake”. . .he told me that the town he was born in was flooded to make the lake. . .it broke my heart as I could see the pain in his eyes. . .his family came from Norway. He told me about the town, and how his Mom insisted that the kids be raised speaking English. . .she only spoke in Norwegian when she didn’t want the kids to know what she was telling my Grandfather. They worked hard and built a new life in their new home. . . Some day I want to make it back there and see the area again. . .


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