Thursday, November 22, 2012

St. Thomas, Nevada - Underwater Ghost Town

There's a little known gem about 50 miles North of Las Vegas. St. Thomas was a small Mormon settlement established the same year Nevada became a state (1865). It never boasted a population of over 500 people. Only one famous person ever stayed there: President Hoover. However, it is unique in that it is one of only a handful of towns deliberately flooded to create a dam and lake; in this case, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. It slipped under the water completely in 1938, and it's said that, while the water was creeping slowly and they were given plenty of notice, the last citizen waited so long to evacuate that he had to leave in his row boat. For whatever reason, we humans are always attracted to the weird or unusual. I admit it. I'm often considered an extreme and was recently referred to as "macabre", although that was in regard to my hobby as a graveyard rabbit. I have lived in Las Vegas for 20 years, but I never heard about St. Thomas until about 10 years. Nobody told me the name of the town until about 4 years ago. It really does make it much easier to research a "ghost" town with a name. Duh. Anyway, I've been wanting to go check it out for several years, and since I was hiking at Valley of Fire last week, I decided to finally check it out. It is only about 5 miles past Valley of Fire, at the entrance to the Lake Mead Recreation Area, down a well-maintained, dirt road. I didn't plan to return to that area again anytime soon, and it was gorgeous out, so I went. The last mile back to the car at the end of my visit to St. Thomas was a little tough because a slight nuisance pain in my right foot had been bugging me, but of course, it waited until I was still a mile from the car, in the middle of nowhere with no one else around to make itself a full shooting pain and limp. As it turns out, Train Wreck #1 (me) managed to sprain the three middle toes of my right foot without even knowing it. Now I'm grounded until it heals. During the best and short time Las Vegas has perfect weather for such an outing. Unfortunately, it did cut my exploring short, but it was still a very interesting hike. Here's the history as I understand it. It was bigger than I had expected. The town briefly enjoyed the business from the Interstate before the flooding, and even produced agriculture. It was chosen for It's location close to the Virgin River. There was some mining in the surrounding hills. As St. Thomas sat in a valley, when the Hoover Dam was being built, it was decided that the town would be sacrificed in the name of progress and residents were given notice. Some residents even completely disassembled their houses and took them with them. Many were homesteads of the pioneers and their children.

A rare picture of the Post Office as the town was being flooded in 1938.

The remains of the Post Office in November 2012.

A door of the old Post Office, laid flat where it once stood.

Once the dam was complete and the entire valley flooded to create the largest man-made lake in the United States, it was only possible to see St. Thomas if you visited by scuba diving the 50-60 feet to where it rested on the bottom. Given Lake Mead's visibility, you probably won't have seen much, and after learning to scuba dive in one of the best locations in the world (the Bahamas), I refused to lower my standards. But It's actually much more interesting now that it's back above the water. The town has actually flooded and reappeared about five times with the various levels of water in the lake in the past 75 years, until our water level dropped to an all-time low a few years back. I'm not sure you could actually walk out there during any of the past brief reappearances, but that is definitely not a problem now. Standing at the trail head which starts at a ridge overlooking the town site, you can barely see the lake in the distance, that's how far the water has receded. I'm not sure what I expected to see when I got there; I mean, I knew it wouldn't be in pristine condition, but all that water has taken its toll. There are still numerous "foundations" (actually, at first look, they appear to be just foundations but if you look closely, you'll see that you may actually be looking at a second story or roof that has been so completely overtaken by the silt and vegetation that the majority of the structure is 'submerged' by the remaining dirt...there is one large structure that you can clearly see where the floor of what looks like the foundation has sunk in one corner where there was either an air bubble or the sand didn't fill it evenly), several of them quite large. One is the Post Office, one is the Hotel, one is the schoolhouse. From the ridge, the town looks like nothing but a few straight roads, so I was disappointed, but if you go down there, you'll see remains everywhere. The town seems to have been built with an oval main street that reminds me of a race track with structures built around it and on the inside. I followed the whole street back to the trail when the toe-sprain issue arose and cut my visit short. It's a little eerie if you're there by yourself. There may be no wind or noise at all except for the Mormon crickets we have so many of this time of year. If you are near any structures that have what look like wells or ventilation shafts with rebar grates screwed over them, have a look in them. They actually look down into where the structure may have lower floors you can't see from the surface looking at the remains. This can be a little tough if you come at midday like I did...the sun directly overhead made it very difficult to see anything, but a handy cellphone flash works, too.

If you decide to visit, I would do so quickly. For you locals like me who have been curious but procrastinated, get there soon. The town will probably never have to worry about being submerged again, however a forest of scrub and short trees are now taking over what was previously the lake bed. The forest is winning. Several remains have already been swallowed up and its clear that very little maintenance is being done to stop it. When you take the trail down from the ridge to explore, I have a few words to the wise: 1) You will see what look like foot paths crisscrossing the main path. If I had to take a guess, I'd say these were probably well-established paths before the flooding, so very little vegetation has grown there, though some of them do eventually choke off. PROCEED WITH CAUTION! Especially if you're alone. I took a couple of them and was fortunate enough to find some smaller foundations (probably houses) back in the forest. The trees, however, are about 6 feet or more and it is extremely easy to get disoriented or lost in. 2) You may want to avoid walking in the middle or around the edges of a structure, especially if you think there may be additional floors under what you can see. I noticed a few where corners are settling and sinking and it was clearly easy to step in the wrong spot and get stuck...or worse. 3) People who appreciate the history of the town respect the archaeology are the site and do not remove anything found there. I noticed a couple of places where visitors have laid out pieces of old bottles, cans, pottery, etc. so that others can look at them. Please do the same and do not remove anything you find there. Metal detectors are forbidden. 4) Due to our killer heat here, not to mention critters like rattlesnakes and gila monsters, you should really only go between November and March. Otherwise, you're taking your life in your hands! Depending on if you go all the way around the town from one side to the other, the hike is about 2.5 miles, easy and flat the entire time once you come up/down the ridge from the trail. The elevation change there is about 60 feet. The only thing I was really bummed about is that there is nothing telling you what building you're looking at. I was guessing at most of them, but I had to come home and compare my pictures to the few, poor quality pictures taken 100 years ago. If you do a web search on St. Thomas, you'll find plenty of articles and information sites, but I've listed a few below. Enjoy!


  1. I was just there today and I got some great pictures! What a treasure we have here in Las Vegas !

  2. So glad you found it and enjoyed! Best wishes!