Ghost Town Emerges from the Depths of Lake Mead

October 28, 2015

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In 1935, the Nevada town of St. Thomas, which included the Gentry Hotel, began to slowly disappear under the rising waters of Lake Mead after the construction of the Hoover Dam. Photo courtesy of the Gladys Gentry Collection.

In 1935, the Nevada town of St. Thomas, which included the Gentry Hotel, began to slowly disappear under the rising waters of Lake Mead after the construction of the Hoover Dam. Photo courtesy of the Gladys Gentry Collection.

Receding waters in Lake Mead, Nev. have revealed a haunting piece of history — the ghost town of St. Thomas.

Hoover Dam construction floods town

Located near the Overton Arm of the Muddy River that feeds the Colorado River, the town of St. Thomas, Nev. originally was settled in 1865 by Mormons. Eventually the town’s population reached about 500 people. But it’s existence was cut short when President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill in 1928 authorizing construction of the Hoover Dam, originally known as the Boulder Dam. The dam created Lake Mead, which inundated areas along the Muddy and Virgin rivers including the town of St. Thomas, according to the National Park Service (NPS) St. Thomas website.

A salvage crew rafts through St. Thomas near the ruins of a building as Lake Mead begins to submerge the town in June 1938. Photo courtesy of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

A salvage crew rafts through St. Thomas near the ruins of a building as Lake Mead begins to submerge the town in June 1938. Photo courtesy of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Lake Mead began forming in 1935, and St. Thomas slowly disappeared under the rising water. Hugh Lord, the town’s last resident, paddled away from his home when the water reached it in 1938. At the lake’s highest water level, the town’s highest building sat 18 m (60 ft) below the lake surface, the NPS website says.

“Personally, I am fascinated by the history of the town,” said Christie Vanover, public affairs officer for the National Park Service. “Its first residents came to this desolate desert location 150 years ago this year because of a rare water source and its connectivity to the Colorado River. In the end, it was water that forced residents to flee.”

Reemerged town welcomes visitors

The foundation of the St. Thomas School House, which once looked like the black and white photo, sat underwater for many years after Lake Mead filled. Due to declining water levels, the town has remained uncovered since 2002. Photo courtesy of Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

The foundation of the St. Thomas School House, which once looked like the black and white photo, sat underwater for many years after Lake Mead filled. Due to declining water levels, the town has remained uncovered since 2002. Photo courtesy of Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

The town has reemerged from the murky depths a number of times. Prolonged, severe drought has exposed the town this time since 2002. “This year, Lake Mead reached its lowest elevation since the dam began filling at [327 m] 1074 ft. The last time water was this far away from the town was in 1937 while the lake was still filling,” Vanover said.

“The town starts to become exposed when water elevation is around [355 m] 1165 ft,” Vanover said. Years where water levels have hovered around 329 m (1080 ft), comparable to current water levels, include 1956, 1964, 1965, 2010, 2011, and 2014. Currently the lake’s waters are about 4.8 km (3 mi) away from the town, Vanover said. Lake water levels have been tracked by the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Reclamation and are available on the Lake Mead at Hoover Dam website.

Since the lake formed, the second longest time the town was exposed was slightly more than 9 years, from July 1963 to November 1972, Vanover said. Former residents and their family members have taken the opportunities of the town’s reemergences to hold reunions in St. Thomas in 1945, 1963, and 2012.

An aerial photo of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area taken in May shows St. Thomas and how the waters of Lake Mead have reached its lowest elevation since 1937. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Kennedy with the National Park Service.

An aerial photo of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area taken in May shows St. Thomas and how the waters of Lake Mead have reached its lowest elevation since 1937. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Kennedy with the National Park Service.

Currently, NPS allows visitors to access the town by driving down a 4.8-km (3-mi) dirt road to a parking area, and walking a trail that leads to the town. “Two structures really stand out to visitors: the ice cream parlor and the schoolhouse,” Vanover said. “The ice cream parlor is unique because a vertical wall is still standing. The schoolhouse is the largest foundation, and the stairs leading into the school still remain.”

A history based on trade by water

In 2012, more than 1400 people, some dressed as pioneers, attended an event in St. Thomas to celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the region. Photo courtesy of Elise McAllister, Partners In Conservation (Moapa, Nev.).

In 2012, more than 1400 people, some dressed as pioneers, attended an event in St. Thomas to celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the region. Photo courtesy of Elise McAllister, Partners In Conservation (Moapa, Nev.).

Original settlers sought to grow cotton and open a supply route between California and Utah using the Colorado River. The pioneers learned that the heat, pests such as mosquitos and scorpions, and conflicts with local Indian tribes made the area difficult to live in. After digging irrigation canals, they discovered cotton did not grow well, and many returned to Utah in 1871, according to the Moapa Valley Chamber of Commerce St. Thomas website.

A diverse group of new settlers began to populate the town and grow a variety of crops. Mining became a booming business, and St. Thomas became a freight stop on the railroad. By 1918, the town businesses included a grocery store, cafe, and hotel, the Moapa website says.

A National Park Service employee surveys the foundations at St. Thomas in 2007. Photo courtesy of Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

A National Park Service employee surveys the foundations at St. Thomas in 2007. Photo courtesy of Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

“Walking along the foundations today with the Muddy River trickling in the distance, I like to think back to what life must have been like for the early settlers. They had the fortitude to create a community in very harsh conditions,” Vanover said.

“The extended drought is allowing us to take a glimpse at Southern Nevada’s past. But when weather patterns change, the town could again become submerged, hidden for decades — as it was from 1972 to 2002,” Vanover said.

Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights

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