From the Depths of Lake Mead: St. Thomas, NV
There's usually not much good news about the ever-lower levels of Lake Mead. But the re-emergence of a small town that was inundated by the waters of Lake Mead after Hoover Dam was completed has provided an interesting spot for anthropologists, historians, and curious hikers.
A new book by History Professor Aaron McArthur is appropriately titled, "St. Thomas, Nevada: A History Uncovered." The project began when he was working on his doctorate at UNLV.
"The late Hal Rothman recruited me to research and write this project that he had gotten a grant for from the National Park Service," say McArthur, referring to the noted UNLV History Professor who passed away from ALS in 2007.
The NPS had opened a public trail down to the St. Thomas remains, and wanted to know what they were dealing with. McArthur went back to 1865, when the leader of the Mormon church sent a group of fourteen faithful pioneers, or "Saints," to build a farming community.
"1865 of course, because they had had five years of the Civil War, and the amount of cotton coming out of the south was fairly minimal. And what was being produced they were trying to sell into Britain," explains McArthur. "And the reason it was established was Brigham Young's attempt to keep the Saints self sufficient, in cotton particularly. And you can grow cotton on the Muddy River."
Muddy River is the Colorado tributary that runs through the Moapa Valley northeast of present-day Las Vegas. "The Muddy River...even though the water is warm and it's not an extremely high volume flow, it does flow year 'round."
However, there was a basic geography misunderstanding. "When the Saints settled in St. Thomas, they thought they were in Utah. And it turns out they might have been in Arizona," says McArthur.
The actual boundaries of the area changed several times in that period. An 1870 survey placed St. Thomas in Nevada, and thereby completely changed the tax system.
"In Utah you could pay your taxes in kind," explains McArthur. "You could pay with, say...a bushel of corn or cotton or whatever you had on hand. But in Nevada it had to be in gold. And there was a poll tax that Utah did not have."
Brigham Young declared that it was up to the Saints in St. Thomas what to do. A vote was taken, and all but one family elected to abandon the place they had lived for five years.
"They left all their homes. Their land that has been cleared for agriculture. All their corrals and things of that nature."
McArthur says that opened up a new phase of St. Thomas. "And so a lot of people moved in," he continues. "And so for a while, it was a very wild place. Looked like a much more typical western place with saloons and outlaws and horse racing."
Gradually though, it transitioned back into a mostly Mormon farming community, and the the town developed with a hotel, a garage, and schoolhouse.
The schoolhouse in particular held fond memories for 94-year-old Inez Waymire when News-3 spoke interviewed her in 2002.
"I was the last teacher in St. Thomas," she remembered, with a smile.
The town had grown with the arrival of the railroad and the "Arrowhead Trail" running through Southern Nevada. But eventually surveys showed that Hoover Dam would cause St. Thomas to disappear.
People began dismantling or moving houses when they could, though not everyone believed the lake would ever arrive.
The waters finally came in June of 1938.
"And then there's another...an old bachelor who lived by himself," said Waymire. "Had for years. And he wouldn't move out until it came right up to his door."
She was referring to garage operator Hugh Lord. McArthur finishes the story. "The day that he left, he woke up with water swirling around his bed. And he put his last possessions into a rowboat and rowed away from his house, and as he was leaving, he lit his house on fire."
Most of the people from St. Thomas settled in nearby Logandale (formerly St. Joseph) or Overton...with mixed feelings.
"Well, some people were happy," Waymire told News-3. "Most people missed their friends and their families you know...their relatives that moved. But see, we had no power, no electricity, no running water. And so a lot of people were glad to have some place where they could have that."
By the Summer of '38, the town was completely under water.
It has resurfaced periodically, during the droughts of 1946-47 and 1952, and again in the mid 60s when water from the Colorado was held back upstream to fill Lake Powell, newly created by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. Those years featured reunions of St. Thomas residents.
Today, only one person who actually lived in the town before the waters came remains. 95-year-old Verna Heller is a resident of Overton. But St. Thomas is high and dry once more, as it has been for more than a decade. As a prolonged drought continues, it is unclear if the remains will ever disappear beneath the waters of Lake Mead again.
"You can see the chimney and foundations of the ice cream parlor, Haneck's ice cream parlor," describes McArthur. "Hugh Lords' garage. You can see the grease pit. The foundations for the school. The foundations for Gentry's hotel the post office."
McArthur now teaches history at Arkansas Tech University.
Inez Waymire passed away in 2006 at age 97.
You can visit St. Thomas yourself if you are interested. You can find links which include the directions on this page.