Exploring a Wild West Ghost Town That Emerged from a Watery Grave

Photo by Flickr user Thure Johnson via Creative Commons license

Founded in 1865, St. Thomas, Nevada, was initially settled by Mormons drawn by Muddy Creek, a tributary that flows into the Colorado River.

By Dora Mekouar

Drought conditions in the Western part of the United States have allowed an old Nevada town once submerged deep beneath Lake Mead to emerge from its watery grave.

Once submerged under water, the entire town of St. Thomas, Nevada, is now exposed. (Photo: Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs via Flickr)

Founded in 1865, St. Thomas was initially settled by Mormons drawn by Muddy Creek, a tributary that flows into the Colorado River, located 22 miles away. When the Mormons left in 1871, outlaws — including horse thieves and cattle rustlers — moved in. The town was eventually settled by people attracted by the region’s prime farming land. St. Thomas became a key stopping point between Salt Lake City, Utah and Los Angeles, California.

Main Street in St. Thomas, Nevada (Photo courtesy of UNLV via Flickr)

However, the pioneer town’s fate was sealed in the early 1900s, when the federal government decided to build a dam to harness the power of the Colorado River, thus allowing for westward expansion and large-scale irrigation.

Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam, became a popular public attraction. Visitors were drawn by the sight of a shimmering body of water set against the harsh backdrop of the arid, unforgiving desert.

Group of people in front of Gentry Hotel in St. Thomas, Nevada. (Photo from the Gladys Gentry Collection via Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs via Flickr)

But underneath this man-made wonder lay the doomed town of St. Thomas, which had been submerged when the Colorado River began to fill the surrounding canyons and valleys. At its peak,  the town’s population reached about 500, and there was a school, church, post office, grocery stores, and an ice cream parlor.

A salvage crew rafts through the town of St. Thomas near the ruins of a building as Lake Mead begins to submerge it in June 1938. (Photo: Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs via Flickr)

In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill authorizing the building of what would become the Hoover Dam. St. Thomas residents were ordered to relocate and the U.S. government reimbursed them for their property. Residents abandoned the town as Lake Mead began to fill in 1935; the last resident to leave St. Thomas rowed away from his house in June of 1938.

When it is at capacity, Lake Mead is the largest man-made reservoir in the United States. At the lake’s highest point, St. Thomas was 60 feet below the water’s surface. But then came the fluctuation in water levels. Over the decades, drought conditions have given visitors repeated glimpses of the once-thriving wild west town and, since 2002, St. Thomas has remained exposed.

The foundation of the St. Thomas Schoolhouse, 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 resurfaced in 2002. (Photo: Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs via Flickr)

Today, you can still see the steps of the local schoolhouse and the wall of the St. Thomas ice cream parlor.

“It’s kind of ironic that this town was initially settled because of water…water was the source that started this town and then it was water that defeated the town when the lake filled up,” said Christie Vanover, public affairs officer for the Lake Mead National Recreation area. “And now it’s water that’s helped us to rediscover the town because of the drought and the lack of water.”

Visitors are free to wander around the area but are prohibited from touching or moving any objects long-ago residents left behind; those pieces are considered protected cultural artifacts.

Aerial photo over Lake Mead National Recreation Area taken May 2015. (NPS photo by Chelsea Kennedy/Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs via Flickr)

“There are still artifacts on the ground in addition to the foundations,” said Vanover. “There’s also wheels, engines or other car parts that are still present from people who just abandoned their cars when they left the town.”

Federal officials expect St. Thomas to remain exposed for at least the next two years. However, Lake Mead, which gets its water supply from snow melt-off in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, could eventually refill, sending St. Thomas back to its underwater tomb.

“Which would be tragic for the town but would be very fortunate for our communities because we all definitely need more water in Lake Mead,” Vanover said.

House foundation in St. Thomas, Nevada. (Photo by Flickr user Thure Johnson via Creative Commons license)

Until then, from time to time, former residents and family members continue to hold reunions at St. Thomas, the last one being in 2012.

While they remember old times, the rest of the people who come to St. Thomas enjoy a unique — and possibly somewhat fleeting — chance to revisit history.

Originally published by Voice of America, 08.07.2015, under a Government Public Domain license.