St. Thomas in Lake Mead: In the Midst of Drought, A Town Rediscovered
One might think no good can come from a drought -- that it’s all dry wells, dead plants, fallow fields, and dust storms. Certainly the worsening situation in California over the past few years has brought extra attention to the negative effects nationwide and around the world, especially as it relates to agriculture and water conservation.
But, as it turns out, no rain can be a good thing -- at least temporarily -- for the National Park Service (NPS) and preservationists, who are taking advantage of an enduring drought that has reexposed the foundations of St. Thomas, a small Nevada town once submerged, but not forgotten.
St. Thomas was established in 1865 in the southeast corner of Nevada in what is now the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which partially spills into Arizona. The town was a thriving Mormon pioneer settlement that also served as a prime stopping point on a road between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City (now US-91); it included a schoolhouse, farms, church, stores, and an ice cream parlor.
St. Thomas was the happening place when Las Vegas was just a ranch and a railroad stop; at the time, it was the center of regional commerce and civilization.
But after the Hoover Dam opened in 1936, the Colorado River waters started rising, filling valleys and canyons, creating Lake Mead, and ultimately, forcing hundreds of townspeople to abandon their homes and livelihoods. The last residents of St. Thomas left by boat in 1938, right before water completely flooded the town.
While St. Thomas has not been inhabited for 77 years, its history has been brought to life once again over the last several years thanks to the drought. Steadily dropping lake levels first began to expose the town and many of its buildings’ foundations in 2002; the previous exposure was in the 1980s.
Park visitors can hike a couple of miles down a dirt trail to see the front steps of the schoolhouse and the wall of the old ice cream parlor. To protect the site, which has endured decades of harsh conditions and water erosion, people are asked not to touch or sit on any of the foundations.
Visitors and preservationists have long been exploring St. Thomas’ past. Christie Vanover, the NPS public affairs officer for the area, said weather patterns have exposed the town multiple times since it was first flooded and abandoned.
This isn’t a new situation for park workers or locals who have lived in the area for years, but it’s been nearly 30 years since the last exposure, “so there is a whole generation that wasn’t aware of St. Thomas,” explains Vanover.
One thing that makes this extended period of exposure different is the growing international interest; the park has seen an influx of visitors from abroad, and Vanover and her colleagues have been fielding more requests from international press.
“It’s kind of a symbol of the Wild West,” she says. “It’s such a fascinating interest for international tourists, a juxtaposition to the city and to the desert.” The increased attention on the drought in California and surrounding regions has helped, too, as reporters and scholars are looking for positive outcomes of an event that’s typically fraught with challenges.
The NPS is taking full advantage of this time, as projections show it is likely to be another year or two yet before St. Thomas will be submerged again. The team at Lake Mead has added on to their education and outreach, and as visitors pour in, they’re diligently protecting and preserving the grounds and artifacts (the area is covered under the National Archaeological Protection Act of 1979). Interpretation rangers lead tours and hikes around the town, and the team is creating a set of interpretive panels for the site to provide more historical background.
Steve Daron, the cultural resource manager at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, has been working there for 20 years. He says when lake levels first dropped in the early 2000s, they weren’t sure how long it was going to last, but they quickly got to work surveying, documenting features as they were exposed, and collecting data. Every year they do condition assessments, and they put considerable resources into managing an invasive plant species called tamarisk that continually pops up around the building foundations.
“We spend a lot of time out in St. Thomas,” Daron says. “It’s a really good educational tool. It’s a unique resource in that it gives us the opportunity to look back at a time that’s kind of ‘frozen in time’ and we can help people understand what life would have been like before the lake.”
The significance of St. Thomas goes beyond park visitors from afar. Many locals are descendants of the Mormon families that once lived in the town. In fact, the site has hosted multiple reunions over the decades, including a 100-year anniversary in 2012 of the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the area.
Elise McAllister works at Partners in Conservation, a small nonprofit formed at the start of the millennium to help preserve the legacy and land in rural areas in Clark County. She says working with the NPS on the LDS celebration was an amazing opportunity, a day that saw 1,400 visitors and was an “awesome display” of families and artifacts. Participants dressed in period clothing, ate period food, and even pulled handcarts loaded with goods around the area, as their pioneering ancestors would have.
Partners in Conservation is currently helping the NPS to collect historic photographs and other documents to be used in educational kiosks at St. Thomas and to feature online.
“I’ve really enjoyed talking to people and giving the history; it’s made it a lot more real to me,” McAllister says. “I love that part.”
So what happens when the waters come back and the foundations and signs are covered once again?
“We are wishing for that day,” says Vanover. “We prefer to have more lake in Lake Mead, for resources, for recreation, for water quality. If we get just a glimpse of history every few decades to remind us of our past, that’s great.”
McAllister agrees: “The water will come back -- everyone understands and accepts that. Covering and uncovering has become part of the fabric of our community here, and it’s more imperative than ever to preserve our living history.”