Sanish Rises from Beneath the Waves

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Sanish was a thriving North Dakota town until 1953, when residents began to evacuate to higher ground. The construction of Garrison Dam, a project to provide hydroelectric power and flood control, would turn the Missouri River Valley in this part of North Dakota into a large reservoir to be named Lake Sakakawea. Sanish succumbed to the rising waters soon after the Garrison Dam embankments were closed in April of 1953, and the townsite disappeared beneath the waves of Lake Sakakawea.

Although some residents established “New Sanish” just across the highway, on higher ground to the south, most of the town’s residents moved to the newly established “Newtown”, several miles to the east.

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Although the remains of Sanish are underwater most of the time, in dry periods, the lake level drops and portions of the town reappear. In 2005, we visited Crow Flies High Butte, and we were surprised to find the lake levels so low that we could see the remains of Sanish from the scenic overlook.

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Looking down from the butte, lake eroded foundations were visible where Sanish once stood.

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Thanks to some photos rescued from the trash by Staci Strand Roe, we got a glimpse of life in this town before the flood in Christmas in Sanish.

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Terry made the trek down into the valley to get some up-close shots of a town long abandoned. Only foundations remain, since most of the structures were moved or torn down before the flood. You can read more about that in Before the Flood: Leaving Sanish.

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Old Sanish, North Dakota

The Four Bears Bridge, below, once stood in another now-submerged town downriver, Elbowoods, North Dakota. When the flood came, it was floated upriver to this spot and re-erected here with new approach spans. The old Missouri River crossing at Elbowoods, now without a bridge, also sank beneath the rising water and left a North Dakota highway submerged forever. We hiked the highway and photographed its remains in 2016. Read: This Lost Highway Leads to the Bottom of a Lake.

Old Sanish, North Dakota

Above: Looking down on Four Bears Bridge from Crow Flies High Butte. In the backround, the old Four Bears Bridge, and in the foreground, construction of the new Four Bears Bridge is underway.

Below: A view of the bridge from the opposite shore. The white arrow indicates where we were standing when we took the photo above.

Old Sanish, North Dakota

When the new Four Bears Bridge was completed, the old one was imploded.

Old Sanish, North Dakota

We featured Sanish in our book, Ghosts of North Dakota, Volume 3.

See also: Lost Beneath the Lake: Sanish, North Dakota

See also: Building Four Bears Bridge

See also: Memories of Silver City Ghost Town

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright Sonic Tremor Media

87 Comments on “Sanish Rises from Beneath the Waves

  1. i don’t know when you visited old sanish, but the story has always fascinated me how they just abandoned an entire town when the lake formed and rose. i heard that back in ’05-’06 when the lake was at an all time low the town began to reemerge at least what was left. any truth to this?

  2. That’s what you’re seeing in this gallery, Jason. We visited in 2005. When people say the town began to re-emerge from the lake, that’s what you see in the pictures above. The structures are gone and only their foundations remain.

  3. Strange seeing this. Before the lake was filled a lott of the boy scouts went to Sanish to collect items of historical anterest and to help move the cemetry. Brings back memories.

  4. My Grandparents bought a house in Sanish and moved it down to Garrison before they flooded the town. It’s always amazed me that they could move a big house that far way back then. Must have been something to see!

  5. My aunt and uncle lived there and then moved to New Town. They were Sophie and Caleb Johnson. Not sure if anyone might have known them. I remember as a little girl going to Sanish but cannot remember much about it.

    • They may have been related to my grandparents – Melvin and Alice Johnson, who also lived there up until about 1942. My aunt Florence lived in New Town her whole life.

  6. My grandmother, Bernice (Aardahl) Auverson, and grandfather Kenneth Auverson lived in Sanish. They relocated to New Town when the water came. They built the Tastee Freez in New Town as well. I will have to show these pictures to my grandma and see if she can recognize any of them.

    • Aubrey, my grandparents lived in New Town, not far from the Tastee Freez. We visited from Ohio every three years for family reunions, and trips to Tastee Freez with the cousins were a very big deal!

  7. One of 3 towns lost to the lake. Van Hook and Elbowoods are also under the water of Lake Sakakawea

  8. There seems to be a trailer park at or very near the location of old Van Hook?

    • There is a “recreation site” near Van Hook. It has rows of trailer house “cabins” as well as an RV park for the temporary folks…there’s also a small store with gas (for boats) and I think there are some permanent houses as well.

  9. I walked around down in Sanish back in the late 1980s when the whole state was dry. It is really a strange feeling, almost like you are walking in on someone’s life. But kind of cool to imagine the people and their lives there as you walk around the foundations.

  10. My Dad (David Nelson) graduated from Sanish. He used to tell about when the FBI had a shootout with Johnny Benson – a wanted man. They had staked out his mothers house. Dad was walking to school the next morning and they were cleaning up the street. I heard other people say there was a bullet hole right above Virginia Uran’s crib. I’m not sure what Virginia’s maiden name was but think it was Anderson. I went to School in New Town with Aubry’s mother Bonnie Auverson.

    • Mr. Nelson, I would be interrested in learning more of Johnny Benson. He came from a large family whose father died when most were barely grown. He died in 1946. More local information, not that written for newpaper would be interesting.

    • One of my best friends was Gary(?) Bugge. Our families socialized quite a bit. I have photos of joint fishing trips. I remember Bugge having the drugstore. My dad (Art Hammer) was the cattle buyer and had the stockyards.

      Don Hammer

      • The three Bugge boys were Harold ( my dad, the oldest) Bob and Daryl ( the youngest).There was no Gary in the Bugge family. Daryl is the last living sibling and lives in Washington state. I remember Grandpa ( Hjalmer) and Grandma ( Ella) liking to socialize, have fun and laugh with family and friends….when he wasn’t busy working at the drugstore!

        • Hi, I knew Bob Bugge, was very active in the Boy Scouts as I was a member. I also remember the Drug Store in Old Sanish, ‘Dot’ Aubol was my mothers sister.

    • I have part of a newspaper article about the FBI shootout with Johnny Benson. My dad, (John) Byron Keith knew Johnny when he was a kid. My dad was born in Osborn Twp., Sanish, ND in 1914

    • The FBI really angered the local people when they shot him. His mother was the telephone operator and they ambushed him in the alley between the telephone office and the lumber yard. As kids we used to put our fingers in the bullet holes in the lumber yard.

  11. Hi Dad. That’s a really interesting story.

    Grandpa Bob once told me how he would go down to Sanish where there was a skate rink; he went there because he said it was the only place in the area he could meet girls 😉 He said too I think, in Grandpanese, that it was one of the places that they spent time together and fell in love. Also, when I was a kid I was extremely interested in Sanish. You know how when you’re a kid, anything out of the ordinary gets elevated to legendary in your child mind? (A little like Boo Radley was to Scout and Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird!)

    Anyhow, when we’d go out on the lake in Brenna’s boat, I would just imagine a complete ghost town beneath the water, complete with streetlamps, cars, and – i imagined- even residents who refused to leave and were caught in the flood. I wanted desperately to get scuba gear and dive down with you, and I always pictured it like Indiana Jones and his dad in The Last Crusade. I would also imagine, when the water was low, trees beneath the boat, and I’d worry that we’d accidentally run over one.

    Anyhow, thanks to ghostsofnorthdakota for posting the pictures you did. I guess you’ve demystified the “Great Underwater City” of Sanish for me, but it’s good to know what it really looks like under there.

    • The Brennas are my Dad’s cousins, Dad was a Grendahl. My grandparents moved from their farm to New Town.

      • The Brennas are my cousins. i was also very interested “Old” Sanish. However, I was also very afraid. We would out to the road to Old Sanish where Dad would wash the car. We were always admonished to stay near the car because of old basements. One of our family friend’s sons (not originally from ND) drowned when you fell in one of the basements.

    • How large of town was sanish I’ve seen pictures of rodeos that were there and it looked like there was a rather large grand stands and arena as well as a large attendance looked like a fun place to be

  12. My grandparents lived in Sanish in the late 40’s, later moving into Newtown. We visited the old Sanish site in 2007. It looked (looks) like rubble, but to many of us it is history and memories. Thank you for all you invest in preservation of North Dakota towns!

  13. I guess they say you learn something every day..I never heard of the town but there are many I have heard little about..The town where I went to grade school..the school is almost underwater..Minnewaukan. Thanks for the post. 🙂

  14. In the 1930’s Sanish had a rodeo. My uncle Leo was 17 years old when he went with his parents to the rodeo and but ran away to Washington State. That would have been in 1937.

    I have never been to Sanish, but have heard the story of Uncle Leo running away from home many times.

    • What was his last name? My Father graduated from Sanish High School in 1936.

    • I think my Grandma had some pictures taken at one of those rodeos…

  15. My family had relatives in the Sanish area, if memory serves right they were farmers, whose land was inundated by the lake. Their name was “Dideo” or “Didio”-would truly like to connect with the long lost relatives. email me at any info would be appreciated.

    • Also, a family who the husband was “Bill Uran.”

      Related to both the Uran’s and Dideo’s on my maternal grandmother’s side. their name was “olson”-pretty cheap name to come by coming out of the scandanavian countries-“son of ole.” The family changed their name from Sletmoen to Olson, for whatever reason. My grandmother’s whole name was “Clara Sletmoen Olson Sveum.” They came from Iowa to Ransom County in North Dakota. Great-grandmother Olson is buried southeast of Lisbon in an old country cemetary.

  16. How is the oil boom affecting the area around towns like these? What happens to the properties which areabandoned? Are they still owned by absentees or can they be resettled and claimed by such as oil companies and prospectors?

    • I am working on my husband’s family tree. His Great-grandparents were homesteaders in North Dakota: Anders (Anis) Gabriel Anderson and Elisabeth C. Anderson (Klevland). They were married in Van Hook in 1917. They had 3 children: Vera, and a set of twins Arvid and Edna. Edna was my husband’s grandmother. Elisabeth died (in childbirth i think) and Anders re-married a much younger woman by the name of Clara ((Olson?). They had 3 more children: Alvin, Adeline, and Clarence. The family story is that Clara died of an appendisitis in 1930. Anders placed the children in an orphanage in Chicago for 10 years because he couldn’t take care of them. I would love to hear from anyone who remembers this family and maybe knows of relatives or where Clara is burried? The tree is on under krassau family tree. It has picture of the people mentioned. Thanks!

      • My mother was Vera Anderson and the people that you mentioned are my aunts and uncles. I have no info concerning Clara but I would like to talk to you about our family history. Members in our family are currently researching our family tree. Are you the wife of Butch’s son? You can contact me at

  17. My dad’s side of my family are from Sanish. They moved to Van Hook when the water came. My grandmother was born in Sanish. Their last names were Hansen and Orr. My great grandpa and grandma Orr moved to Washington. My fiance is from Watford City. We went to ND in Summer of 2000 to his family reunion. We were at the Tabacco Gardens on the lake. He took me to the edge of the lake pointing and telling me that was where Sanish used to be! I laughed. Thanks for posting these pictures. It’s nice to see something from where my family comes from!

    • Krisna: I am from Sanish ND–came to Portland during WWII. I knew Bernice (Hansen) and her husband Hugh Orr (Red) very well. I was good friends with their daughter, Mildred. My mother went to hight school in Plaza with Bernice. We visited them in Tacoma many times. We have never known what happened to Bernice.

    • Krisna: When I saw your posting the first time, I wrote and told you that I had known the Hansen/Orr family well in Sanish. I am curious if you heard anything of Bernice Hansen Orr who lived in Tacoma, Washington. She was a very good friend of my mother, and her daughter, Mildred, was a good friend of mine. I understand from your letter that Hugh (Red) and Bernice Orr were your great grandparents. I would enjoy hearing from you.

      • Mavis, I’m not sure if Krisna responded to you but since it has been a couple months I will. Krisna is my cousin, my grandparents and her great-grandparents were Frank Orr and Edith Hansen Orr, brother and sister to Hugh Orr and Bernice Hansen Orr. My mother as well as Krisna’s grandmother are double cousins with Mildred and her brothers. Bernice remarried and passed away in Tacoma in 1990. Mildred is living in California with her husband of many years. You may contact me at if you care to correspond further.

      • Hi Mavis…I don’t know if you had heard anything more about Bernice Hansen Orr (she is my 1st cousin 2x removed. I’ve been doing genealogy for years and I found that she died on 1 Sept 1998 in Tacoma. Much of my family was from the area around Sanish…Keith, Hansen, Kooken just to name a few.

  18. Whoops! I meant they moved to New Town not Van Hook. There were some of my family who also lived in Van Hook and Amanda. Sorry for the error.

  19. My Father Graduated from Sanish High School in 1936. When he died in 2006 I found a Sanish Crow High School year book from 1930 with all the classes of that year.

  20. In response to Thea, what is your dad’s name ? My grandpa is Orel Grendahl. He was the oldest of 11 born in Sanish. I have heard alot of stories from my grandpa about the town. I never heard about the Brennas but I did know the Growe side.

      • Beatrice Graue, who married Eldred Brenna, was the sister of my Grandmother, Celia Graue Grendahl. They were daughters of Thea and Chris Graue. My dad, Vernon, was Celia and George Grendahl’s middle child (sixth of eleven!) The Grendahl and Brenna farms were near each other. My dad told me he was born at Aunt Beatrice’s house. I remember visiting with Clayton and Ollie Brenna and their family
        on trips to ND when I was young.

        • I would love to learn more about sanish, my father has told a couple stories when he help move sanish and get the bridge up.. my father had passed away 09′ and never kept in contact with family and friends as much as he aliked to, My fathers name is Jerome (jerry) Froshaug; son to Boyde Froshaug and June Hasby they had a farm in Charlson,ND Ollie Brenna Hasby was my Grama June’s Sister. If u know of any pictures please email me( Joanella Froshaug) at:

        • I would so like to return a wonderful family photograph to one of Beatrice & Eldred Brenna’s family. Carol Graue Stein..

    • I would love to know more about Sanish , I own the land which now remains of that town and i am interested in pictures or facts about the mill that was there and the Lumber company, maybe you have something you could share. Gerald Aftem

    • Andrea, are you Lavonne’s daughter? I remember your grandpa fondly. My dad was his brother Vernon, the middle (6th) child of their family. He passed away in January. How is your grandmother doing? A lovely lady. You can email me directly at

  21. I recall as a lil girl, we were crossing a bridge. My mother Doris Erickson Burchard pointing out the church steeple below that was sticking out of the lake and telling about a town that was under the water. That all the people had to leave as they were going to flood the whole area. I could see hints of other buildings just below the surface as we moved over the bridge. It had to before 1964 as we moved to Calif. in 64.

  22. My parents, Harold and Myrtle Bugge lived in Sanish as well as my grandparents, Hjalmer and Ella Bugge.
    Grandpa Bugge had a drugstore in Sanish. I heard many wonderful stories about good people who lived there
    before the area was flooded

    • Are you one of twins born to the Bugge family? I remember being told I played with the Bugge twins when I was about 4 yrs old. ???

      • Yes, I’m one of the Bugge twins. Funny how people called us the Bugge Twins ( Jack and JoEllen) instead of thinking of us as individuals.

    • My grandmother was the telephone switchboard operator in Sanish and told of your grandfather calling central and saying, “Get me the house.” With only a few voices to remember in those days it must have been easier than now.

    • My mother was Anne Sinnerud. She boarded at Bugge,s her junior and senior year of high school, graduating in 1935. She said it was the best place in the world to live! Does anyone remember her or can give me any information about that time?
      I think Harold was one of the children of this family.

      • Harold was my dad, the oldest of 5 siblings. I don’t know information that you seek. However, my folks and others have told me that Sanish was a great place to live because of the good people. Incidentally, several
        have told me that their relatives boarded at my grandparents ( Hjalmer and Ella Bugge) place and it was a good experience.

        • One of my best friends was Gary(?) Bugge. Our families socialized quite a bit. I have photos of joint fishing trips. I remember Bugge having the drugstore. My dad (Art Hammer) was the cattle buyer and had the stockyards.

          Don Hammer

      • Hi my great great grandmother was Marie Strand(Sinnerud). She had a daughter named Anne Sinnerud that graduated in 1935 in Sanish. I have a quite a bit on family history. I’m pretty sure its the Anne.Direct email me if you would like more info

  23. I really like these pictures. I worked at the last two Rodeos in Sanish, those were the most fansastic celebrations for hundreds of miles. The last sunset had a horse and rider doing “The End of The Trail” pose on the ridge across the river, perfectly centered in front of the setting sun. I stood and sadly watched that with no camera. Would anyone who had taken that shot be able to post it here?

    • In 1952 during a big family reunion at Coteau farm, we all attended the Sanish Rodeo. It seemed very Old West to me, at age 12. It’s still vivid and it may have been the last one which is good to know.

  24. My father and I stood above the town and we could see the buildings mostly submerged. I was horrified and intrigued simultaneously. There was change that no one could stop, but a culture had been obliterated.

    • Me thinks that great swaths of North Dakota culture, and land, are now being obliterated by the oil and gas boom. I sometimes wonder what is going to happen when it all runs dry and the barons leave. North Dakota is such a beautiful place…and has been so abused by anyone who wants to come in and strip the land of resources.

  25. I am trying to locate Mavis Moe of Newtown. She was a JAckson and has some pix of my father, Lawrence Nelson from Lostwood. Annyone with any pixs of him please contact me. THANK YOU

    • Proof of my heritage. Lawrence married Helen J> Erickson from Parshall. He drowned in Sawyer Dam 1947 and is buried in Lostwood cemetary.
      My e mail is

  26. Well it is just history to most of us now. My Grandmother Josine Benson was the Sanish telephone operator for many years and in 1936 I was the first born of the infamous Johnny Benson mentioned in Steven Nelson’s entry. We left there about 1941 and after my father died in 1946 we lived in Van Hook until 1949. The first I visited Sanish since was this June (2013).

    • The whole town of Sanish was really angry with the FBI. Benson was coming to visit his mother – the telephone operator and the FBI gunned him down near the telephone building. The bullet holes in the lumber yard next door were there for a long time later. Most of Sanish thought the FBI should have given him a chance to surrender. I’m not sure but I think he killed a deputy or sheriff in Missouri.

      • Had he lived, Benson would be 100 this September. History cannot be re-written. Records and newspapers of the time do not mention any incident in Missouri but he was in CCC camp there in 1935. He did wound a lawman near Kackley, KS in ’46.

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  29. I had relatives in Sanish as well, they carried the last name Sveen. Not sure if anyone out there knows them

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  31. Was Sanish a Finnish settlement? My mother was born in Belden, but I remember her talking about Sanish and Van Hook alot. Her name was Zelda (Sally) Hill daughter of Mary and Willliam Hill.

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  33. My Grandparents and dad lived in Sanish and them moved to Newtown where I visited often while growing up. Grandpa ran the Enco/Exxon gas station (Lloyd Anderson) and dad married his girlfriend from Parshall and moved to Oregon back in the 60’s.

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  36. Would be interested in knowing anything about some people who operated light plants in this area – Dewey and Bert Shubert as well as one James Brusel. Dewey started up the Sanish Electric Co. plant in the 1910s and both brothers bought the Parshall Electric Co. about the same time, Bert taking up the reins as operator. The Sanish plant was owned by James Brusel from 1925 to 1927, by which time he left the country for points unknown(!). Otter Tail Power bough the Sanish and Parshall plants in 1928 and replaced the two DC light plants with a new transmission line out of Benedict.

    • Hi, My name is Jacque Shubert, Bert Shubert was my father and Dewey was my dads brother. I grew up with the ‘Light Plant’ in Parshall. I had relatives in Sanish. I graduated from Parshall High School in 1949. I am now 88 years old and have many memories. Would welcome a reply.
      New Years Day 2020

  37. We were raised on a farm NW of Sanish – when our farm flooded we moved to Sanish and started 7th grade. When Sanish flooded we moved to Newtown and were the first graduating class in the Newtown school. My Dad took tickets at the Sanish rodeo and started early in the mornings and Mom cooked until midnight so we spent many hours at the rodeos. Many, many good memories of Sanish. We also would hit the skating rink every weekend. Fun – fun – fun


  38. My Father Graduated from Sanish High School in 1936. When he died in 2006 I found a Sanish Crow High School year book from 1930 with pictures of faculty and all the classes of that year.

  39. My grandparents lived in Sanish, grandpa Harry Osborn, and grandma Myrle Osborn (Madden), born 1914. My Grandma’s friends were Ruth, married Earl Johnson, and Mabel who married Bob McBain. My Grandpa was half brothers with Robert Osborn. Recently I’ve seen Robert Osborn III passed away. My grandparents talked a lot about Sanish, and felt really sad about it flooding and then moving. They moved to Oregon in the 30’s.

  40. Albert and Lilian (Waldorf) Brevig made a farm near Sanish in about 1912. After a year of farming Al gave up and joined the Soo Line. An engineer took an engine home at night just past Al’s farm how convenient. My mother Dorothy Brevig was born in a sod hut on the farm. She went to Nursing school in Drake and met my father on the “Avalon” on the way to Santa Catalina Island. After retiring, Al and Lillian built a small house on my parent’s property in Santa Barbara, CA.

  41. My name is SFC Steven Gardner. As a kid my Mom showed me a map on which was list territories and told a tale of a town that was underwater and that was where we were from. I did not pay close attention and had only vague memories. My Parents passed and I inherited my Dad’s paperwork. In those papers is a genealogy which shows my Relative Charles Gardner (same name as my dad) along with two other families settled in Sanish and the town grew up around them. One of my Relative was a Nun. I have an old Year Book that talks of the town.

  42. Have an old 1919 postcard of Sanish photographed from a very high point. Will send scan of front and back if interested.

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