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VIDEO VAULT | How a Southern Nevada community disappeared

Rising Waters at St Thomas.jpg

A vibrant Southern Nevada community founded in the late 19th century completely disappeared 80 years ago, when it was inundated by the rising waters of the newly-created Lake Mead.

St. Thomas is the subject of a National Park Service Ranger program on Tuesday, June 26.

The NPS is also partially responsible for the "St. Thomas, Nevada: A History Uncovered" by Aaron McArthur, published in 2013.

"The late [Southern Nevada Historian and UNLV History Professor] Hal Rothman recruited me to research and write this project that he had gotten a grant for from the National Park Service," McArthur told News 3.

The agency had opened a public trail down to the St. Thomas remains and wanted to know what they were dealing with. Rothman's former student McArthur went back to 1865, when the Mormon church sent a group of 14 missionaries to build a farming community.

"And the reason it was established was [Mormon President] Brigham Young's attempt to keep the Saints* self-sufficient in cotton, particularly. And you can grow cotton on the Muddy River," said McArthur, referring to the Colorado River tributary northeast of the Las Vegas Valley.

It was a rough life, but pioneers persevered until an 1870 survey moved the state boundaries -- and thereby subjected them to a different the tax system.

"And in Utah, you could pay your taxes in kind," explained 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."

This led to the second phase of St. Thomas.

"They left all their homes," said McArthur of the original settlers. "Their land that had been cleared for agriculture. All their corrals and things of that nature. And so, a lot of [new] people moved in. 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, Mormon families returned, and the town settled down with a hotel, garage and other businesses common to small towns. The schoolhouse held fond memories for Inez Waymire when she spoke to News 3 in 2002 at age 92.

"And I was the last teacher in St. Thomas," she recalled with a smile. "And then I married, and I've lived in [neighboring town] Overton ever since."

She had departed, along with everyone else, when the rising waters of Lake Mead reached St. Thomas in 1938.

"Well, some people were happy," recalled Waymire. "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."

The U.S. Department of Interior had negotiated settlements with most St. Thomas residents by the time the waters arrived, but a few held out until the end.

"And then there's another, an old bachelor who lived by himself," said Waymire, referring to the last man in St. Thomas, Hugh Lord. "Had for years. And he wouldn't move out until it came right up to his door."

"And he put his last possessions into a rowboat and rowed away from his house," added McArthur. "And as he was leaving, he lit his house on fire."

The town emerged in the mid-1960s when Colorado River waters were withheld upstream for the creation of Lake Powell.

More recently, St. Thomas has been high and dry for over a decade because of increased demand for water at the same time as a prolonged drought. Some of the remains are clearly visible along a 2-and-a-half mile loop trail.

"You can see the chimney and foundations of the ice cream parlor," described McArthur. "Haneck's ice cream parlor. Hugh Lords' garage. You can see the grease pit. The foundations for the school."

The NPS Ranger Program "St. Thomas: A Town Revealed" is Tuesday, June 26 at 6:00 pm in the Boulder City Library at 701 Adams Blvd.

Inez Waymire passed away in 2006 at age 97.

*Within the Mormon church, "Saints" can refer to all adherents of the faith, as it does in this context.

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