Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
Nestled in Nevada, the area that became the town of St. Thomas was once home to settlements of the Ancestral Puebloans and Basket-Makers. In 1865, settlers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began farming in the area, believing that they were in Utah or Arizona. Pioneers established farms and businesses in the area.
But then, they learned they were in Nevada.
In 1871, the state of Nevada levied taxes against the residents, including taxes for the previous five years that they had been settled there. The Latter-day Saint settlers refused to pay taxes and voted to abandon the city, except for the Bonelli family. The residents burned down their homes and moved to Salt Lake City.
After the settlers abandoned the property, a new wave of Latter-day Saints moved into the area in the 1880s. The town soon featured a church, post office, a school and grocery stores, and reached a peak population of 500 people. While St. Thomas did not have indoor plumbing or electricity, memoirs indicate that residents were enchanted by their simple life. But this did not last long.
President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill in 1928 to construct the Boulder, later Hoover, Dam. This dam led to the creation of Lake Mead. St. Thomas residents were forced to again abandon their town as water levels rose. Lake Mead began to be filled in 1935 and the area slowly became flooded.
One of the last remaining residents, Hugh Lord, paddled away from home when the rising waters hit his front door in 1938. Eventually, the lake completely covered the now-abandoned town, submerging it 60 feet below the surface.
This wasn’t the first time the town had been flooded. The ancient peoples from the Basket-Maker and Pueblo cultures occupied the territory for more than a thousand years, growing maize, beans, and other crops. Their settlement in this same area, called Pueblo Grande de Nevada, or the Lost City, was also flooded previously. In the 1930s, archaeologists recovered hundreds of artifacts.
The fluctuating water levels have meant that the ghost town has reemerged, not once, not twice, but three times — in 1945, 1963 and 2012. The severe drought in Nevada has kept St. Thomas above water since 2012.
Remember the Bonelli family who stayed in the area? For years, Daniel Bonelli operated a ferry service across the Colorado River. Some of his descendants still live in the area.
The ghost town now consists of some building foundations and metal artifacts — only a fragment of what it once was.
Lake Mead Water levels
St. Thomas was uncovered by the drought that is leading to many other discoveries in the lake. According to NPR, human remains continue to be found at the lake. This area, which is experiencing its driest period in 1,200 years, has seen the discovery of at least five sets of human remains in recent months.
In 2022, ABC News reported that the fifth set of human remains was found in mid-August and that water levels are receding at an unprecedented rate.
The latest information on Lake Mead water levels as of Nov. 2023, according to the Lake Mead government website, indicates that water levels have been relatively stable for a couple months.