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Why ice cream was important for St. Thomas, the Latter-day Saint ghost town

Dropping water levels mean that the ghost town that emerged from the lake, St. Thomas, will likely remain above water

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Foundation remains at St. Thomas.

Foundation remains at St. Thomas, a ghost town in what is now Nevada.

Andrew Cattoir, Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead water levels are expected to drop again by September 2023. Last summer, an entire town, human remains and much more was uncovered due to vanishing water levels. This town, called St. Thomas, has a rich history — interestingly, its cultural and educational center was funded via ice cream socials put on by the local Latter-day Saint Relief Society.

The water levels hit historic lows during the summer of 2022, according to Newsweek. The drought is drying up the lake and even though the water level has risen slightly due to rainfall during the winter, experts say this will not last.

“By the end of September, Lake Mead is expected to be nearly 20 feet below its current level, according to projections released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,” as reported by CBS affiliate KLAS. “Lake Mead, which ended the year at 1,044.82 feet, will be down to 1,025.71 feet — a drop of 19.11 feet — according to the operational plan for Hoover Dam, contained in the January 2023 24-Month Study.”

This means that the ghost town that has emerged from the lake, St. Thomas, will likely remain above water. 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.

What is St. Thomas?

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. According to Deseret News, the town was named after Thomas Smith — a member of one of the 45 different families who began settling this area.

Historian Aaron James McArthur said in his dissertation that on Jan. 8, 1865, Smith, along with his 11 brothers and three sisters, founded the town. Soon, pioneer families came into the area as Latter-day Saints began to expand in the West under the direction of then-church President Brigham Young.

After pioneers established businesses, farms and homes in the area, they discovered that they were in Nevada and soon the state of Nevada levied taxes against the residents — including taxes for the previous years they had settled there. The Latter-day Saint settlers refused to pay taxes and voted to abandon the city, except for the Bonelli family. Residents were concerned that the taxes of silver and gold that were required would be misused, per the Deseret News. The residents burned down their homes and moved to Salt Lake City after receiving permission from Young.

After the settlers abandoned the property, a new wave of Latter-day Saints moved into the area in the 1880s for the purpose of salt mining, which caused the town to boom even more than the previous time it was settled. The town soon featured a church, post office, a school and grocery stores, and reached a peak population of 500 people.

Cottonwood trees lined the streets, according to Nevada Magazine. The town even had a hotel and an ice cream parlor — Hannig’s Ice Cream Parlor. While St. Thomas did not have indoor plumbing or electricity, memoirs indicate that residents were enchanted by their simple life.

A thriving Relief Society was established. McArthur said that Latter-day Saint women in the area were determined to fund a Relief Society hall. Through ice cream socials, they were able to fund the hall that was used for Relief Society, church and school — this hall became an important gathering place for those there and was the center of the town. The women would gather on the day of the social and make the ice cream together.

Later, Hannig’s Ice Cream Parlor would become the first building to emerge after the drought. This parlor’s foundation and structure is still visible today.

The tight-knit community had built a functional and thriving town together. 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.

The National Park Service said that residents who had lived in the town for generations packed up their bags and abandoned their homes after saying goodbye. But some longtime residents stayed until the bitter end.

One of the last remaining residents, Hugh Lord, paddled away from home when the rising waters hit his front door in 1938. According to Atlas Obscura, he waited until the town was drowning before he set fire to his own home and sailed away. The remains of Lord’s three Model-T’s, 1913 Cadillac and garage became part of the tourist attraction, per McArthur.

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. These artifacts are currently housed in the Lost City Museum.