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No Doubting Drought With Emergence of St. Thomas

No Doubting Drought With Emergence of St. Thomas
August 10
10:21 2015

If you want to visit an authentic Old West ghost town, you better hurry – before it disappears again.

A severe drought in the Southwest has lowered water levels at Lake Mead – and brought St. Thomas back to life.

St. Thomas, once a hideaway for outlaws, was glimpsed from time to time as the water levels in Lake Mead fluctuated.


Brigham Young

But with a drop in snow runoff from the Rocky Mountains and lack of rainfall, the once thriving town has fully emerged from its watery grave.

St. Thomas was founded in 1865 by Mormons drawn by Muddy Creek, a tributary that flows into the Colorado River, which was 22-milkes away.

Brigham Young sent 14 of his followers there to grow cotton. With the end of the Civil War, the South wasn’t growing as much cotton and Young believed the Mormons could use the crop to become self-sufficient. However a dispute over taxes led the Mormons to abandon the community in February of 1871.

A land survey shifted the Nevada state line one degree longtitude – placing the Mormon’s “Muddy River Mission” in Nevada instead of Arizona or Utah. When Nevada decided to collect taxes from St. Thomas, the Mormons abandoned it.

An empty town stood, waiting for new inhabitants. They came from a rough breed. Bank robbers, cattle rustlers, gunmen and others riding the Owlhoot Trail soon turned St, Thomas into a lawless haven.

But, in the 1880s that version of St. Thomas gave way to an influx of hardworking farmers, drawn by the fertile soil.

St. Thomas became a key stopping point between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

However, the pioneer town’s fate was sealed in the early 1900s, when the federal government decided to build a dam to harness the power of the Colorado River, thus allowing for westward expansion and large-scale irrigation.

And soon, St. Thomas was forgotten.

At its peak, the town’s population reached about 500, and there was a school, church, post office, grocery stores, and an ice cream parlor.

Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam, swallowed up the old town. The lake became a popular public attraction, with visitors drawn by the sight of a shimmering body of water set against the harsh backdrop of the arid, unforgiving desert.

In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill authorizing the building of what would become the Hoover Dam. St. Thomas residents were ordered to relocate and the U.S. government reimbursed them for their property. Residents abandoned the town as Lake Mead began to fill in 1935; the last resident to leave St. Thomas rowed away from his house in June of 1938.

When it is at capacity, Lake Mead is the largest man-made reservoir in the United States. At the lake’s highest point, St. Thomas was 60 feet below the water’s surface.

But, since 2002, St. Thomas has remained exposed.

Today, you can still see the steps of the local schoolhouse and the wall of the St. Thomas ice cream parlor.

“It’s kind of ironic that this town was initially settled because of water … water was the source that started this town and then it was water that defeated the town when the lake filled up,” said Christie Vanover, public affairs officer for the Lake Mead National Recreation area.

Now, a lack of water helped to rediscover the town, Vanover added.

Visitors are free to wander around the area but are prohibited from touching or moving any objects long-ago residents left behind; those pieces are considered protected cultural artifacts.

“There are still artifacts on the ground in addition to the foundations,” Vanover said. “There’s also wheels, engines or other car parts that are still present from people who just abandoned their cars when they left the town.”

Federal officials expect St. Thomas to remain exposed for at least the next two years. However, Lake Mead, which gets its water supply from snow melt-off in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, could eventually refill, sending St. Thomas back to its underwater tomb.

Until then, from time to time, former residents and family members continue to hold reunions at St. Thomas, the last one being in 2012.

While they remember old times, the rest of the people who come to St. Thomas enjoy a unique — and possibly somewhat fleeting — chance to revisit history.



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