The Unsinkable City of St. Thomas

Photo by Osie Turner
Stairs to Nowhere
Photo by Osie Turner

In 2007, the water levels of Lake Mead had shrunk so much that the sunken city of St. Thomas emerged from the waters after almost seventy years. The story of the town is seemingly straightforward. St. Thomas was a small farming town along the shores of the Muddy River that was submerged by Lake Mead after the Hoover Dam was constructed. However, the town does have a unique history that is worthy of a closer look.

Click here for a Custom Map showing the recommended route for this scenic trip.
(Map provided by RoadTripAmerica.com and built by Tom Herbertson.)

The small town was originally settled by Mormon farmers in 1865, only to be abandoned six years later due to a tax dispute between the settlers and the State of Nevada. The settlers thought they were building their town in Arizona, but after a new survey of the area was conducted in 1870 it was determined that the town was in fact within Nevada. To the chagrin of the townsfolk, Nevada demanded back taxes be paid, in gold, for the previous years that they lived there. They had none of it, and instead of paying they simply packed up and moved out of state.

Photo by Osie Turner
Ruins of St. Thomas
Photo by Osie Turner

By the 1880s, new residents had reclaimed St. Thomas and built it up into a picturesque little town. At its height, the town had a population of over 500 and a variety of businesses. Giant cottonwood trees lined the streets, kid enjoyed an ice cream parlor, and all was well until the 1930s.

Once work began on Hoover Dam, it was known that the town would sink beneath the anticipated lake. The town was slowly abandoned as everyone moved away and everything of value was salvaged. The town cemetery was dug up and relocated to nearby Overton, Nevada, where it remains to this day. The last resident, Hugh Lord, set fire to his old house and left St. Thomas as the water filled the streets on June 11, 1938. Within a few months, the entire town was below the surface of Lake Mead.

Interestingly, this is not the first time the city has risen. In 1945 and in the mid-1950s water levels briefly dropped enough for the remains of the city to be explored by curious locals. Young couples posed on rusted cars and beside dead trees, and before long the water retook the ghostly ruins. Over the years since then, the area was a favorite of scuba divers as the water was not too deep and it was a fairly safe dive even for amateurs. Since 2006-2007 the town has remained above water, for the most part.

Photo by Osie Turner
St. Thomas Trail
Photo by Osie Turner

It is amazing how the area is constantly changing. Depending on season, or the weather, or any number of other factors, the entire landscape may look very different. The foliage is sometimes very thick and almost nonexistent at others. During our recent visit, it appeared that a fire had recently burned through the area between the parking lot and the beginning of the ruins. Even if it looks the same, the temperature and especially the humidity can vary considerably as well. The landscape is beautiful in its harshness; desert and seabed clash creating a bizarre, surrealistic landscape unlike anywhere else.

Visiting St. Thomas in the summer is not recommended, even in the spring and fall it can be a brutal hike thanks to the added moisture in the air from the nearby water. The climate once you climb down the hill from the parking lot could be described as tropical, but without the jungle. Although it is hot there the majority of the year, long pants and boots are must. The tamarisk is thick and very sharp, the alkaline dirt makes it feel like you are walking on a beach (well, you are, sort of), and just about everything about this landscape has the potential for danger. Don’t let that deter you, however; the ruins are amazing and the scenery is extremely unique. Just use caution and come prepared and you will have a great time.

Looking down into the valley from the parking lot trailhead.Photo by Osie Turner
Looking down into the valley from the parking lot trailhead.
Photo by Osie Turner

The road into St. Thomas is much better maintained now that it was a few years ago and the turn-off is clearly marked. So long as there haven’t been any major floods, the road is easily accessible to just about any vehicle.

The loop trail is about two and a half miles long and takes visitors to all of the best preserved remains of St. Thomas. The trail begins at the parking lot and takes you down a steep path into the valley below; form there it is entirely flat until you have to climb back up the ledge to the parking lot. A restroom is available a short distance from the trail head, but there is no potable water so bring plenty with you.

The UNLV Digital Library has a wonderful collection of historic photos from St. Thomas during its submersion. The collection can be found at unlv.edu.

For some more interesting reading on St. Thomas, visit hcn.org, atlasobscura.com, and nps.gov.

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