Lake Mead's retreat leaves Nevada ghost town high and dry

  • The remains of a building seen through the tamarisk that has grown over the site of the lost town of St. Thomas, Nevada. The town was covered by the waters of Lake Mead in the 1930s, but has been visible since 2002.

    Leila Navidi/Las Vegas Sun
 

Looking down on a Nevada valley from a rocky ledge near the edge of Lake Mead, it was hard to believe that the bustling town of St. Thomas had ever thrived here. A woman shielded her eyes from the October sun and asked our guide, "Is this it?"

Eighty years ago, neighbors gossiped under cottonwood trees and children played baseball in the street. Now, only scattered remnants hint at the rise and fall of the little town: crumbling concrete foundations, rusty engine fragments, and dry cisterns. The valley feels abandoned and desolate, starkly lonely under a cloudless desert sky.

It was National Archaeology Day, and I'd accompanied six curious tourists to explore the skeleton of this ghost town, resurrected from its watery grave. We negotiated a steep path down, our feet sinking deep into the soft desert sand. Thick groves of invasive tamarisk -- one of the few living inhabitants of the dusty plain -- choked the narrow path and scratched our bare arms and legs. Thousands of tiny freshwater shells crunched underfoot, mementos from the decades the town spent far below the murky surface of Lake Mead.

Settled by Mormons in 1865, St. Thomas was nestled between the Muddy and Virgin rivers, two tributaries of the nearby Colorado River. The rivers provided fertile ground and dependable water, both rarities in southern Nevada. Despite the inhospitable climate, the settlement thrived, supplying nearby mining communities with barley, pears and cotton. By the early 1900s, a railroad ran through town, and soon, one of the first automobile highways in the West linked St. Thomas with developing cities in California and Utah.

But the water that brought St. Thomas to life also led to the town's demise. In 1928, Congress approved a plan to tame the mighty Colorado River by building the Boulder -- now Hoover -- Dam at a narrow section of the river less than 40 miles from the town. Once construction was completed, the floodwaters would cover the little valley.

The people of St. Thomas didn't want to leave. Local authorities came by every few months, urging them to pack up and move to nearby Overton or Logandale. "Sure, of course we are getting ready to move," the residents said, reassuringly. "Just give us more time." The rangers returned, again and again, to the same refrain.

As the water closed in, in the mid-1930s, people finally began to gather their belongings and move. Two worn chairs were left in the street outside the Gentry Hotel, and passersby stopped and sat on them for a while, watching the rising reservoir slowly consume barley fields and chicken coops. Soon, the chairs, too, were swallowed.

St. Thomas lay beneath Lake Mead for much of the last 70 years, emerging occasionally when the water level dropped. This time, the town has been exposed since 2002 -- the longest period since its drowning -- because the reservoir has been depleted by a lengthy drought and a growing population. And Lake Mead is unlikely to reclaim St. Thomas anytime soon: its surface now lies nearly 30 feet below the town's remains. The site, now managed by the National Park Service, is frequented by tourists, historians and the occasional coyote.

Many former residents never stopped considering St. Thomas their home. Each time the water receded, they descended on its ruins to read poems and picnic in the empty lots where their houses once stood. At the 1965 reunion, Marva Perkins Sprague found her childhood doll, buried in a mud bank.

Nearly 30 years earlier, auto shop owner Hugh Lord was the last to leave St. Thomas before it was swallowed. He had refused to believe that the floodwaters would ever reach his home. As the rising lake lapped at his front porch in the summer of 1938, he finally stepped into a boat and rowed away, surrendering to the water that had helped the town blossom, then come to claim it.

Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Mar 04, 2013 02:55 PM
Wow, I was surpised to see this article in HCN. In January and February of 2011, my Nevada Conservation Corps crew and another crew spent a few weeks cutting and clearing the tamarisk and spraying the cut plant stumps with herbicide at Saint Thomas. The work was brutal, being in the sun all day and having the tamarisk snap back in our face after cutting it to ground level. It was a little eerie to uncover the remains of homes that once belonged to people that were removed forcefully from their land. But the final product, making this archaelogical gem accessible for visitors, might have been worth it. I'm not sure yet. Give me a couple more years to forget all the complications.

Also, I believe the building in the picture was the ice cream parlor in town. If a NPS employee runs across this article, correct me if I'm wrong.
Alyce Wasden
Alyce Wasden
Mar 05, 2013 12:21 PM
Daniel, Thanks so much for your service! I am a native Las Vegan--my father's family lived there from the early 1900s. It is good to hear that Saint Thomas is being cared for and visitors are allowed. I'll be sure to check it out, next time I get home.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Mar 05, 2013 08:00 PM
Alyce, definitely worth the visit, and a great drive to the site if you take North Shore Road. Took about 20-30 of us to do all the work, not just me. Plus, the fire crew for Lake Mead National Recreation Area did a substantial bit of clearing before we had the opportunity.