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Drought reveals lost world

Published March 22, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Looking down into a valley near the edge of Lake Mead, it was hard to believe that the bustling town of St. Thomas had ever thrived below. 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 into the valley, 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.

A century ago, residents slept outside and lounged on shady porches to escape the summer heat. Crowds would celebrate as the train rolled into town, carrying hundreds of pounds of ice. Each July 4th, children flocked to Hannig's Ice Cream Parlor to buy special 5-cent ice cream cones. Today, just one corner of the ice cream parlor still stands, its pockmarked concrete walls hot to the touch, baked by the desert sun.

The water that brought St. Thomas to life eventually led to the town's demise. In 1928, Congress approved a plan to tame the mighty Colorado 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 close in on the little valley.

But the people of St. Thomas did not 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 reluctant refrain.

In the mid-1930s, as the water closed, people finally began to gather their belongings. 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 lake 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 time 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 any time soon: Its surface now lies nearly 30 feet below the town's remains.

Even after the town was gone, its previous residents still thought of the little valley as home. Each time the water receded, they descended on the ruins to read poems and picnic in the empty lots where their homes 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 came to claim it.

Kate Shaw is a science and environmental writer living in southern Nevada.