Drought Unearths Wild West Ghost Town In Lake Mead — Waters To Submerge It Again [Photos]

At the bottom of Lake Mead, a ghost town and its fascinating history have been hidden for 77 years. But the epic California drought has brought that history to the surface — though perhaps only for a couple years.

St. Thomas — once a Mormon settlement, then a lawless Wild West outpost, and finally a thriving farming community — was flooded in 1938 to make way for the reservoir, turning it into a underwater ghost town, the San Francisco Gate reported.

Now, tourists can hike across the desert and visit the settlement, see its old businesses and what’s left of the people who lived there, CBS News added.

“It’s kind of ironic that (it) was initially settled because of water … (that) was the source that started this town and then it was water that defeated (it),” Christie Vanover, public affairs officer for the Lake Mead National Recreation area told Voice of America. “And now it’s water that’s helped us to rediscover the (place) because of the drought.”

The ghost town will probably be above the surface for only a couple years — the reservoir gets its water from Rocky Mountain snowmelt and will likely refill, drowning the place and its history once again.

And what a fascinating history.

St. Thomas was founded in 1865 by 14 Mormons (or “Saints”), sent by Brigham Young to grow cotton along a tributary of the Colorado called Muddy Creek. Since the end of the Civil War, the south wasn’t producing much cotton, and Young thought his Saints could use the crop to become self-sufficient, News3 Las Vegas explained.

But there was an issue with taxation, and the Saints decided to abandon St. Thomas after five years. Thus, the sleepy ghost town lured a new type of settler by 1871, interested in the area’s fertile land, said history professor and author of a new book on the settlement, Aaron McArthur.

“A lot of 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… There were some horse thieves. There were some cattle rustlers.”

This Wild West persona didn’t last too long — eventually, St. Thomas became a Mormon farming community again, and a pretty successful one at that. At its height, it was home to 500 people and it boasted not just farms, but hotels, stores, a garage, and a school house.

But then came the news that the Hoover Dam was being built and St. Thomas would be submerged beneath the waters of Lake Mead. The government told people to relocate, and they were compensated for the loss of their property. Most of them obliged, as the waters poured in starting in 1935.

There was one straggler, however, who remained until 1938, when Lake Mead finally swallowed the little settlement. He was an “old bachelor” named Hugh Lord and operated a garage, McArthur said.

“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.”

As Lake Mead’s waters swirled above the buildings they knew so well, residents resettled in Logandale or Overton. People missed their friends and families, but were glad for the electricity and running water in their new homes, said resident Inez Waymire, who was 94 when she spoke to News 3 in 2002.

Droughts in the 1940s and 50s caused the settlement to resurface from time to time and inspired residents to hold reunions at the old ghost town. Now that it’s emerged from Lake Mead again, a new generation is discovering the ghost town — the foundations of homes, car engines, and its old haunts.

“You can see the chimney and foundations of the ice cream parlor, Haneck’s ice cream parlor,” said McArthur. “Hugh Lords’ garage. You can see the grease pit. The foundations for the school. The foundations for Gentry’s hotel and the post office.”

For more pictures of the site, click here.

[Photos Courtesy Ethan Miller / Getty Images]