The ruins of St. Thomas are scattered across a silent, shallow valley.
The Nevada town was first settled by Mormon settlers in 1865 on the orders of Brigham Young. The Mormon leader told the settlers to grow cotton and open a route to the Colorado river, and after arriving at the St. Thomas site the settlers apparently and mistakenly believed they were in Utah.
(The order from Brigham Young was not usual. Though many settlers arrived in the West seeking fortune in industries such as mining or lumber — and abandoned sites when things stopped working out — the Mormons put down roots and actively colonized the Mountain West. Brigham Young actually set groups out all over Utah to establish communities, many of which survive today.)
In any case and unsurprisingly, cotton didn’t grow well in the sweltering desert.
Eventually, a survey revealed the town was actually in Nevada, and when state officials came looking for their back taxes most of the Mormons left. Other people — including, allegedly, outlaws — then began inhabiting the town. The population peaked at about 500 people. According to the Las Vegas Sun, In the early 1900s the town had “a broad, leafy boulevard with a hotel, cafe and able mechanics.”
St. Thomas was finally abandoned once and for all in 1938. Three years earlier, Hoover Dam had been finished, and as the water rose it slowly crept closer to the town. Ultimately, it began submerging the buildings and the story goes that the last person to leave was Hugh Lord, who paddled away in a rowboat after waking up to water lapping at his bed.
When Hoover Dam is completely full, the remains of St. Thomas are under 60 feet of water.
Thanks to extreme drought in the West, however, Hoover Dam hasn’t been full for a while — meaning the remains of the town are completely exposed and open for exploration.
We arrived at the ghost town on a sweltering afternoon late last summer. After a visit to Hoover Dam, we drove for about an hour and a half, which included about three miles on a dirt road at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. (The time it took to get from the dam to St. Thomas was a reminder at just how low the water level is these days.)
From the parking area, a trail leads down into the valley, which is filled with short, scrubby brush. It is apparently a loop, though we wandered more than we followed the actual trail.
The remains of the town mostly consist of metal artifacts and concrete foundations, the latter suggesting the ruins date from the early 20th Century rather than the years immediately after the town’s founding.
There are also the remains of fences, streets, and cisterns. In other cases, the lower levels of buildings (basements, most likely) have been filled in with dirt and rocks after spending decades under water.
St. Thomas is very hot in the summer (which is why I waited until now to write this post) but no matter when you visit, bring plenty of water as there is really nothing out there. Here are a few more pictures:
If you go: The dirt road to St. Thomas begins just inside the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which has a small entrance fee, near the intersection of Valley of Fire Highway and North Lakeshore Road. I have heard booklets are available at the park entrance booth, though I didn’t personally check to see if that’s true.
For more information and maps, visit the National Park Service website.
— Jim Dalrymple II