City Cast

The Creation of an Underwater Ghost Town

Sonja Swanson
Sonja Swanson
Posted on July 28
A black and white photo of the ruins of a building surrounded by rising lake waters.

A photo of the rising waters of Lake Mead covering the ruins of St. Thomas taken around 1938 (Elbert Edwards Photograph Collection, 1852-1991/UNLV Special Collections)

City Cast Las Vegas lead producer Sonja Cho Swanson drops some knowledge on a piece of Nevada history.

Nevada has hundreds of ghost towns (more ghost towns than populated ones, in fact), but only one of them is underwater — at least until recently: The town of St. Thomas, a former Mormon settlement founded in 1865 on the route between L.A. and Salt Lake City.

At its peak, St. Thomas had 500 residents, a post office, and even an ice cream parlor. In September 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally dedicated Boulder Dam, and Lake Mead began to fill up. By 1938, when this photo was taken, the Lake still hadn’t reached capacity — it would take seven years to fill.

Well in advance of dam construction, the federal government told the residents of St. Thomas that they would need to move and would be reimbursed for their homes. The government-owned most of the town by 1932. But one resident held out: Hugh Lord, who owned a garage, waited until the waters were high enough for him to step into his boat from the front door. Then he set fire to his house and left.

There’s one more town that was covered by the rising waters of Lake Mead: An archaeological site near Overton called the Pueblo Grande de Nevada, or sometimes the “Lost City,” a complex of homes, agricultural sites, salt caves, and larger buildings (one had over 100 rooms). The site had been home to several successive groups of Native Americans, including the Anasazi, the Pueblo, and eventually the Paiutes.

For unknown reasons, the site was abandoned hundreds of years ago, but archaeologists have been studying the site for the last 100+ years. In fact, they were working frantically until the last minute before Lake Mead’s waters covered the site. Today, the receding waters of the lake have revealed the site once again, now badly damaged by erosion, but researchers are using tech like drones and 3-D imaging to learn what they can about the Lost City.

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