Church in the Fluessen lake

Drowned land of ElahuiZen

Dr. Hans Koppen

It gently bobs on the waves of the Fluessen lake: a black and yellow buoy, around 150 metres from the shoreline. Endless stories have been told about this spot. The Chronicles refer to a village swallowed up by the lake. Apparently, the lake bed is still full of hazardous stones – stay away or your ship will be doomed! In the dry summers of 1911 and 1921, when the water level was particularly low, wooden piles could be seen standing out above the waves. The story goes that wooden coffins once floated around here following a severe storm ..... What's certain is that any captain ignoring the warning buoy can run a ship hard aground.

One big peat mass

The story behind the landscape of Southwest Fryslân begins in the Ice Ages. Scandinavian glaciers not only pushed large masses of stone and boulder clay here – the core material of the hills of Gaasterland and of Koudum as we now know them – but also tore open an elongated layer. Nowadays, this is the Hegemer Mar, Fluessen and Morra lakes. After the Ice Ages, peat began to develop from this wet layer, and to cover the land. And so this was to become a vast 4 to 5-metre layer of peat around 1000 years ago. The landscape would have been totally different in those days: multiple marshes, some degree of contours, sporadic clumps of beech and alder trees, but most of all .... an endless wasteland. There was no sign of any lakes (as yet). There were however small rivers meandering through the peat. One such peat river, the Grûns, sprang up where the Aldegeaster Brekken lake can now be found. From around the year 900 onwards, colonists used that river to access the peat area and to excavate it.

A man-made disaster

The founding farmers dug drainage ditches in order to render the marshy area dry and accessible. However, this lowered the land surface area, making the region liable to flooding, also from the sea. Unknowingly therefore, the excavators were actually the cause of the floods. Peat flooded by seawater could no longer be used for agricultural purposes, but it was suitable for salt production. This process is referred to locally as selnering. They began by burning the saltwater-laden peat. The resultant silty ashes were then mixed with seawater and evaporated in large boilers until the crude salt crystallised. A cubic metre of peat could produce 10 to 15 kg of salt. Names such as Sâltpoel (near the Snitser Mar lake), Brandeburen (It Heidenskip) and Brandemar remind us of the salt production facilities established here in this area. In days gone by, salt was extraordinarily important for the preservation and storage of food. And so more people could survive times of scarcity. Together with woodland and peat fires, settlement, peat excavation, wave erosion and salt production resulted in increasing flooding problems in Southwest Fryslân, and the lakes becoming aggressively larger. Or, as newspaperman Jacob Hepkema (1845-1919) was to write at the end of the 19th century: ‘... generally speaking, one can say that the large waters of our region will swallow up land greedily, if left to their own devices.’

ElahuiZen submerged

Elahuizen was one of the villages to become a victim of this process. From the old chronicles, we know that the village was first threatened by the waves of the Fluessen lake in 1543. It happened again in 1578. In 1649, the raging waters caused so much damage that the Frisian state government allocated a subsidy for repairs to the church. It was of no avail. In 1652, the church and churchyard needed to be moved a few hundred metres to the south. Unfortunately, the suffering of Elahuizen was not to stop there. Some 30 years later, the relocated church and churchyard were once again flooded by the waves. And that was the end of Elahuizen.

Take care when sailing!

The black and yellow warning buoy in the Fluessen lake nowadays marks the position of the remnants of the Elahuizen church, destroyed around 1680. Just south of that buoy, sometimes at a depth of less than 50 centimetres, large foundation stones, wooden piles and many of the typical yellow Frisian bricks lie on the lake bed. Take care not to run aground!

The new Elahuizen

Following the floods, only a scarce spattering of the village houses remained. All other buildings had been destroyed by the water. But surely there's still a village called Elahuizen, with a church? There is indeed, but it's actually the old neighbouring village: called Nijega. In 1967, Nijega was renamed Elahuizen, at the request of the postal service. There were a number of Nijegas in Friesland, which was very confusing for mail deliveries.

(This is the abridged version of an article of the same name, published earlier in the history magazine Fryslân.)