St. Thomas day: The town Lake Mead drowned, then brought back from the dead

The former fence line on the St. Thomas trail in St. Thomas, Nevada, date unspecified, with an inset photo of the remains of the St. Thomas schoolhouse. | Main photo courtesy of Ben Noffsinger; Inset photo courtesy of Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs, St. George News

FEATURE — “In the 73 years of the town’s existence, it died twice.” 

This is what Aaron McArthur, a history professor at Arkansas Tech University, wrote in his doctoral dissertation as a quick summary of the life of St. Thomas, Nevada.

Most towns turned into the “ghost” variety via “natural selection” because the mining that established them went bust, or because repeated natural disasters such as floods were too much for their resident farmers. 

Neither of those led to St. Thomas’s demise. The first time the town “died,” it was due to an unclear boundary and high taxes. The second time St. Thomas “died” was due to a government decision.

When the Bureau of Reclamation greenlighted what was then known as the Boulder Canyon Project, it signaled the final death of a town with a colorful history. From 1938 to 2002, one would have had to wear scuba gear to see its remains. 

Today, however, one can see it without submerging themselves in water and scientific projections say it will stay that way in perpetuity.

Explorers’ assessment

Early explorers’ estimations of the place that became St. Thomas were not favorable. Some referred to the area between Las Vegas Springs, which was an early Latter-day Saints settlement attempt that failed, as “The Journey of Death” because it was a slog through 50 miles of barren terrain without water. If attempted during summer, temperatures were scorching.

The Muddy River was always a stop along the Old Spanish Trail because of its available water and grassland for grazing.

Famed explorer John C. Fremont, who called the Muddy “Rio de Los Angeles,” said it was “the most dreary river he had ever seen.”

On his way to the mission field in May 1851, LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt stopped briefly on the Muddy and noted that getting there was a challenge, but that the valley had good soil, enough water and farmland that had the potential to support a settlement of 100 to 200 families. By 1854, records show that Brigham Young, second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was contemplating establishing a settlement because of its close proximity to the Colorado River and its mild winters.

This historic photo shows freighters posing on St. Thomas’s Main Street around the turn of the 20th century, St. Thomas, Nevada, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs, St. George News

First life: the call to the Muddy

Established on January 8, 1865 at the confluence of the Virgin and Muddy rivers, St. Thomas received its name for the leader of the 14-person (11 men and three women) party who originally settled it, Thomas Sassen Smith.

Smith chose the land closest to the river for settlement and others quickly joined Smith’s party, augmenting the number of settlers to 45 families by 1866. Without the water the river provided, there would have been no settlement.

These first families lacked legal title to the land and occupied it by squatter’s rights, which was standard practice throughout Mormondom at the time, explained McArthur who wrote his dissertation about St. Thomas history as the cornerstone of his Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It also followed another common settlement pattern for the early Saints, located in an area most other whites would spurn.

St. Thomas was not the only LDS settlement along the Muddy. It also included Overton and St. Joseph (now known as Logandale), which, unlike St. Thomas, have survived to the present day.

One of the main reasons the Church decided to settle the Muddy was the longer growing season for raising cotton, which the Church desired to grow in abundance for greater self-sufficiency. Another reason for initiating the settlement was to aid in the movement of people and goods from the Colorado River into Utah.

The daughter of one of the first families to be called upon what became known as the Muddy Mission felt despair when she heard the list of names of those assigned to its settlement at a church meeting in Nephi in 1864:

“Then I heard the name of Samuel Claridge, my father,” Elizabeth Claridge wrote. “After that, I knew nothing for a moment and when I recovered myself again I was weeping bitterly. Tears were spoiling my new white dress but I sobbed on just the same.”

The father of the young woman sitting next to Ms. Claridge during the meeting was also called. Her father, she said, would not go but Ms. Claridge knew her father would, but admitted she would be ashamed if he didn’t answer the call. 

Many of St. Thomas’s first settlers admitted that they never would have lived in the place had they not been called there by Young. To these religious settlers, a call from the prophet was the same as if it had come from God himself, so they heeded the call despite their reluctance. 

Some theorists have surmised that Young worried that the Saints “were getting soft and might wander from the path if not toughened up by some sacrifice,” McArthur explained.

Deeming the number of settlers along the Muddy inadequate, in October 1867 Young issued another 158 calls to new settlers. Despite Young’s initial optimism, only eight of those calls actually reached the Muddy, McArthur noted. A third round of calls went out a year later and instead of calling youth, Young called “men of weight,” which worked because by January 1869, most of those calls had reached the Muddy.

One reason for the displeasure of those called to the Muddy was its remoteness. There were no good roads to the fledgling settlement from the nearest population center, St. George. To reach it, they had to simply follow the Virgin River, having to ford it over 30 times in their wagons. One settler decided to leave many of the items he brought on the side of the trail, including a stove, so passage through the unforgiving terrain was easier. 

Later on, another challenge to that remoteness was transporting lumber as both building material and firewood, which was scarce in the area. Most settlers chose to build homes out of adobe bricks, but even adobe houses need some lumber for the door and window frames. Floors of the homes were mostly dirt. Adobe wasn’t the only building material used. Some settlers got creative with building materials. One family of settlers spent four years in a tent, walling up both sides and putting a fireplace at one end. To protect the tent’s roof, they built a bowery of willows over it. In fact, the first church meetinghouse was constructed out of woven willows.

Another reason not to enjoy St. Thomas was the weather. Pleasant in the late fall, winter and early Spring. Summers were scorching and, of course, those early settlers didn’t have air conditioning. The only relief was finding shade or getting wet. One settler wrote of going as far as sleeping in one of the irrigation ditches to keep cool. Coupled with the heat, high winds sometimes destroyed gardens and filled irrigation ditches with sand.

“Most Mormons called to the Muddy did not complain about conditions to their church leaders,” McArthur explained. “Regardless of how they might have felt, complaining showed lack of faith. Whatever burdens were borne, they were borne for God.” 

The setting sun sets St. Thomas aglow, St. Thomas, Nevada, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Ben Noffsinger, St. George News

Though somewhat forgotten now, during pioneer times, St. Thomas was an important settlement located next to the most significant water source for a 120-mile stretch of the Old Spanish Trail and was the main town on the LDS supply line between the Colorado River and St. George.

“St. Thomas residents were involved in many things that parallel larger American settlement patterns in the West: the telegraph, farming, irrigation, mining, simple entertainments and more,” McArthur explained in his volume. “Because the area they settled in already was inhabited, there were many cultural misunderstandings with their Native American neighbors, violence and reprisals on both sides, treaties, and the white utilization of Paiute labor.”

In addition to being a labor force, the settlers constantly helped their Paiute neighbors by giving them food. There was some tension with the local tribe, especially during the Black Hawk war years from 1866 to 1872. But most of the time, the two groups lived in close proximity peacefully. One of the biggest headaches with the Indians was actually worrying that the settlement would be included in the reservation the government created for the tribe.

One interesting distinction St. Thomas can claim during its early pioneer years as being the terminus of John Wesley Powell’s famed 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers. Leaders in St. Thomas received a report from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City that Powell’s party was lost and that St. Thomas residents should look for any signs of the party. In turn, Powell received a report that mail for members of the expedition had been sent to St. Thomas and immediately sent a Paiute man to town to get it. St. Thomas then sent the exploring party much-needed supplies and food. 

Powell’s group did end up coming to St. Thomas. The party’s artist and topographer, Frederick Dellenbaugh, was very impressed with the settlement, writing: “As pioneers, the Mormons were superior to any class I have ever come in contact with, their idea being homemaking and not skimming the cream off the country with a six-shooter and whiskey bottle.”

The town’s first “death” was the result of geography. The settlers originally thought they were within the boundaries of Utah so they paid their taxes to the Utah Territory. However, both Nevada and Arizona felt like they had jurisdiction over the area. 

“In 1866, Congress voted to take one degree of longitude from Utah and give it to Nevada,” McArthur explained in his dissertation. “St. Thomas lay within this ceded territory, and residents there fought the transfer for four years, until they left the town en masse to avoid falling under the jurisdiction of Nevada.”

Due to boundary maneuvering between 1866 to 1870, at one point in 1867 the settlers thought they were in Arizona and two settlers traveled all the way to Tucson to take their seats in the territorial legislature. An official survey in 1870 put any question as to what state or territory St. Thomas was located to rest. That survey firmly concluded it was in Nevada.

Settlers voted that rather than submit to Nevada’s high rate of taxation and the back taxes that they owed, they would abandon the settlement and received permission from Brigham Young to do so. They didn’t object to being Nevadans. They simply objected to the high taxes the newly-minted state (1864) levied towards them and were rapacious in trying to collect, McArthur noted.

McArthur also explained that, besides a high taxation rate, another negative aspect of living in St. Thomas during the early pioneer era was the Church’s insistence that it grow cotton. The lack of crop diversification prevented the settlers from developing a more secure economic base. During its first lifetime, between 1865 to 1870, the Muddy Mission provided most of the cotton that came from the Southern LDS settlements.

With the help of St. George residents, most settlers along the Muddy left in 1871. A large contingent of them moved to Long Valley, settling in the communities of Mount Carmel, Glendale and Orderville. Not all of the early settlers left, however. Families such as Daniel and Ann Bonelli remained as their relationship with the Church had fractured and they did not want to give up all they had built.

“As they left, some residents realized that they would never return so they destroyed their property rather than see it fall into the hands of those that drove them out,” McArthur wrote. “John Kartchner set his house on fire as they rolled away rather than leave it to the Paiute or the gentiles . . . there were miners and other opportunists that flocked to the valley to take up the land and improvements left by the departing Saints.”

This historic photo shows the Gentry Hotel, which hosted dignitaries visiting St. Thomas, including President Calvin Coolidge, St. Thomas, Nevada, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs, St. George News

Second Life: An agricultural stronghold

For about the first 10 years after the Saints left the first time, St. Thomas fit the mold of a stereotypical rough-and-tumble Western settlement. It became a place shady characters came to avoid the law.

Daniel Bonelli gained the most from the early settlers’ departure, filing for water rights which amounted to one-quarter of the Muddy River’s flow. He raised hay and vegetables on the irrigated land, which, along with beef cattle, he sold to miners in nearby El Dorado, White Hill and Chloride. Bonelli also filed a claim on the salt mine near the town.

LDS settlers began to return to the Muddy in 1880, this time without the Church’s planning and direction, which turned out to be a positive because, as noted previously, it allowed them to diversify their crops. This time around, they were also able to do business with gentiles and took Bonelli’s lead in selling their produce to area miners.

In the 1880s, it became an outpost for outlaws of another sort: polygamists fleeing federal marshals because of its distance from the main settlements of Utah. A more positive development during this period was the establishment of a school, which used a room in a resident’s house for instruction until a dedicated school building went up in 1915.

Water was a continued source of contention as the Bonelli family was the only one that actually had water rights and refused to join the Muddy Valley Irrigation Company. It was the courts that decided the Bonellis could still have their one-fourth of the river’s flow so that other farmers could legally use the remaining flow to irrigate their crops.

The cash crops for farmers along the Muddy were alfalfa, cantaloupes, watermelons, corn, peanuts, peaches, pears, grapes, sweet potatoes, pomegranates and other vegetables. 

At times, the residents had to deal with too much water such as when floods in 1910 and 1914 wiped out crops and fences and damaged the railroad right of way.

The coming of the railroad spur line in 1912 essentially ended the town’s isolation and increased its economic potential by providing a much easier way to ship its goods. For instance, the railroad turned the salt mines into a profitable venture. By 1926, Benjamin Bonelli, Daniel’s son, and four partners’ Virgin River Salt Company was shipping a carload of salt per day. Cantaloupes and watermelons became the major agricultural cash crop thanks to the railroad.

Another boon for transportation to the town was the completion of the Arrowhead Trail highway, a route from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, in 1915. This led to actual “through traffic” through the town, different from the railroad’s spur line which ended in town. Many travelers along the Arrowhead Highway sang the praises of the towns along the Muddy for their unmatched hospitality, McArthur recounted. On several occasions, Muddy area residents took it upon themselves to maintain the road to keep it in good shape for passing travelers.

This historic photos shows St. Thomas residents packing up to leave as the Lake Mead waters are rising, St. Thomas, Nevada, circa 1938 | Photo courtesy of Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs, St. George News

The second and final death

The opening of the 1920s signaled the beginning of the end of St. Thomas. First, Congress decided to move forward with the project that would eventually build the Hoover Dam and inundate the town with the waters of the reservoir it would create, and an August 1921 flood rendered the bridge across the Virgin River at St. Thomas useless and dimmed the optimism the new road brought. 

The discovery of the “Pueblo Grande de Nevada,” now known as Lost City, and its resulting archaeological dig, pageant and tourism helped temporarily bolster the town’s optimism and economy. 

However, by that time, the town’s fate was not in doubt as it became the headquarters of survey crews from the Bureau of Reclamation working on the preliminaries of the project that would flood the town for good. Another blow was the fact that Clark County commissioners decided to abandon the Arrowhead Trail highway route through the town, favoring the route through Apex Summit, where Interstate 15 runs today, because they determined it cheaper to maintain.

On December 21, 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill formally approving the Boulder Canyon Project, and afterward began the process of the government purchasing all St. Thomas landowner’s holdings. Town resident Levi Syphus was appointed to the appraisal board to try to protect residents’ interests, but the Bureau ignored his input and received lower prices than they felt they deserved. Wrangling over compensation for residents’ landholdings was still ongoing even 10 years later. 

The emotional end of St. Thomas came with the disbandment of the LDS St. Thomas Ward on May 14, 1933.

“At the end of the meeting, the members present raised their right hands to consent to the dissolution of the ward,” McArthur wrote. “Many tears fell as the meeting ended and people returned to the business of leaving.”

A few residents had their doubts that water would actually reach the town, including Hugh Lord and Leland “Rock” Whitmore, the postmaster, and his wife. They remained right until the flood came.

Lord literally exited the town in a blaze of glory. Lord, who operated a garage, woke up the morning of June 11, 1938, with water under his bed, McArthur wrote. He gathered his things, stepped onto a boat, set his house on fire and paddled away, watching his soon-to-be waterlogged home go up in smoke.

Rockmore saw the opportunity to make a buck off the town’s impending watery grave and put out the word for last-day cancellations on a postcard he designed with an illustration of the town going under, starting in 1935, thinking that the inundation might come sooner than it actually did. In the intervening years, he had angry customers writing him back demanding refunds, but on the day of the town’s “death” he and his wife canceled nearly five thousand postcards and letters from people seeking a memento to commemorate the historic occasion. 

“When they finished, they had to wade with mailbags to their waiting vehicle to take the mail up the valley,” McArthur wrote. “To put a note of finality on the affair, Whitmore threw the canceling stamp out into the advancing waters of Lake Mead.”

A hiker holds up a picture of the St. Thomas schoolhouse next to the remains of its foundation, St. Thomas, Nevada, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs, St. George News

Reappearance and interpretation

It only took seven years for St. Thomas to make its first appearance after being flooded. In 1945, the town’s remains emerged and gawkers flocked to them to see what remained. It happened again in 1946 and 1947. 

Former residents organized a reunion when the town resurfaced in 1952, holding the event around the foundation of the old schoolhouse. In 1965, the town’s 100th anniversary, the last reunion of former residents was held among its ruins.

“Rather than lamenting the decision of the government to destroy the town, the reunion focused on the good grounding and wonderful times that those who had lived there enjoyed,” McArthur wrote.

In 2002, after five years of drought, St. Thomas began to emerge from Lake Mead once more. Knowing that the town’s ruins would probably not be submerged again, the National Park Service realized it needed to interpret the town’s history, practicing “civic engagement” by presenting the story in an objective manner. The NPS portrayed the town’s history as a Western story that is not keenly focused on the religious beliefs of the majority of St. Thomas residents, McArthur explained.

A survey McArthur cited in his work concluded that “Americans trust museums and historical sites more than any other source of history because they can see the places or items on display for themselves and draw their own conclusions.”  That’s precisely what the NPS wants visitors to do: draw their own conclusions from the information presented, he wrote.

UNLV history professor Michael Green said he feels the NPS has done a good job at interpreting St. Thomas history through the plaques onsite and the information available on the Lake Mead website.

One of their concerns had been safety – it isn’t the greatest road to get there, and they don’t want people destroying the place, but it’s also hard for them to watch it all the time,” Green said. “We tend to forget that Lake Mead is both a historic area and a recreation area, and everybody involved has to be careful to protect both the past and the present.”

Treasure hunters swarmed the area after it first emerged and the NPS had to do all it could to protect the site, including banning overnight camping near the site. Lake Mead rangers arrested more than a dozen people in 2004 for taking items from the protected area.

McArthur’s own research was partially funded through an NPS grant. His dissertation, entitled “Reclaimed from a Contracting Zion: The Evolving Significance of St. Thomas, Nevada” was later published as a book by the University of Nevada Press under the title, “St. Thomas, Nevada: A History Uncovered.” He was ecstatic to do it because the story had never been told before, he said in an interview for this story.

It was gratifying to collect over a century’s worth of primary sources from a couple dozen institutions and assorted random places and craft them into a narrative,” he said. “It is nice to not have to confirm or refute the works of others, but to just tell the story as I see it. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of moments of discovery that kept me interested in the topic. It was also gratifying to contact people whose ancestors lived in St. Thomas and see their excitement in the story finally being told.”

Two girls inspect the sign at the trailhead of the trail that traverses St. Thomas’s ruins, St. Thomas, Nevada, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Jonny Volcansek, St. George News

Visiting St. Thomas

The ruins of St. Thomas lie approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes southwest of St. George, driving on southbound I-15 towards Las Vegas and taking Exit 93 towards Logandale and Overton. Once past Overton, take the left on Old St. Thomas Road, which ends at the trailhead of the short hiking trail that traverses the ruins. 

Plaques along the trail interpret the town’s history, giving context to the remnants that remain.

A trip to St. Thomas could easily be combined with a trip to explore nearby Valley of Fire State Park and the Lost City Museum.

For more information about St. Thomas, visit the Lake Mead National Recreation Area website

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

For previews on Days Series stories, insights on local history and information on upcoming historical presentations, please “like” Wadsworth’s author Facebook page.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

 

 

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