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Water-starved Lake Mead has given tourists new insight into a town that vanished underwater in 1938.
Photo: UNLV Special Collections (above), Maureen Skoblar (below)
A prolonged drought in the Southwest has communities contemplating a dry future and the potential consequences. But for one Nevada town it wasn’t the lack of water, but the opposite, which caused it to disappear more than 70 years ago. Today, Lake Mead has receded to the point that visitors now have an opportunity to see a town that was once submerged.
Walking amid the remnants of a community that had been underwater for so long is a fascinating historical journey. Established as a Mormon settlement in 1865, St. Thomas was officially vacated in 1938 when the rising waters created from Hoover Dam, completed two years prior, flooded the town.
From the onset, the folks in St. Thomas endured a legacy of misfortune. Sent by Brigham Young, settlers established an outpost there to transport goods from California to Utah during the Civil War. However, the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 changed that. With the Civil War over and a more comfortable and efficient method to transport people and goods in place, the outpost became expendable.
Compounding the town’s demise was a logistical oversight by its settlers. When the newly established State of Nevada finished its land survey in 1870, it was discovered that St. Thomas was actually in the Silver State, not Utah. The Nevada government demanded five years worth of back taxes, due in gold coins. “The problem was the Mormons were a communal society and did not have a cash currency,” says Eva Jensen, a former archaeologist and curator at the Lost City Museum in Overton, about 15 miles north of the Historical St. Thomas Site. Young gave townsfolk permission to leave the town upon a vote, and all but one voted to leave, Jensen adds.
By the 1880s, some Mormons had returned to St. Thomas. Cotton farming was the primary source of income for the town of about 500. The burgeoning town gained attention in the 1910s when Arrowhead Trail, the first automobile road between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, traversed through the Valley of Fire (now a Nevada State Park) and stopped in St. Thomas. Tourists would stay in the Gentry Hotel and support the five other businesses, including a café and grocery store. However, the economic boon St. Thomas enjoyed from tourism was short-lived. In the early 1920s, the bridge across Virgin River burned, and the road was moved to a more northern route across Mormon Mesa near the current Interstate 15 alignment.
St. Thomas’ woes did not end there. After World War I, the price of copper plummeted, causing a ripple effect on St. Thomas. The salt mines in town were no longer needed to process ore. Soon after, the community would see its fortunes turn for the worst one final time.
In 1928, Congress passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act to build a dam on the Colorado River. The children of St. Thomas cried out, “That damn dam bill passed,” for they knew the town they loved would disappear. The government purchased the land that surrounded St. Thomas, and the school’s class of 1932-33 would have the distinction of being the last in town.
In 1936, Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover) was completed, and Lake Mead began to form. There was a sense of loss in the town, but citizens recognized they were doing something for the greater good. They were making a tremendous sacrifice for their country. Another burden they endured was taking care of their loved ones who had passed. The town cemetery was relocated to Overton in 1935 and can be visited today.
As the new lake approached St. Thomas, water poured into a cistern. “One woman said, ‘It sounded like a deep sigh, like [our] town was breathing its last breath,’” Jensen says. But not everyone believed their beloved town would be flooded. According to folklore, the last resident, Hugh Lord, paddled away from his home as the rising waters reached his front porch in 1938.
Fast-forward 72 years, and the drought has provided an opportunity to explore a ghost town. A 2.5-mile loop trail leads to the ruins from a gravel parking lot (the dirt road is accessible from State Route 169 and Northshore Road). Foundations, walls, and grated cisterns dot the site, along with numerous alkali-crusted trails branching in all directions. A very large foundation has many visitors incorrectly guessing its background. “The biggest foundation is the school [see image above]. People assume it’s the Gentry Hotel because it looks too big for a house,” Jensen says.
A trip to St. Thomas would be incomplete without visiting the aforementioned Lost City Museum. In addition to offering more information about St. Thomas, the museum is also an archaeological treasure of the Anasazi and other tribes who once occupied the area. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 for the state to house archaeological collections, the museum building was constructed of sun-dried adobe brick in a pueblo style.