It’s a Historic Drought
Early last year, fishermen searching for bass and bluegill on a northern finger of Lake Mead saw a curious cluster of concrete blocks jutting out of the water. It turned out to be the chimney of what had been, 65 years prior, an ice cream parlor.
Within months, other ruins began to emerge from the lake: The steps of a nearby schoolhouse. The foundation of the old Gentry Hotel, where President Hoover once bunked for the night.
Today, the water line of Lake Mead, once six miles to the northwest, is half a mile to the southeast. Now, there is a sun-soaked valley, along with the ruins of St. Thomas, a town that was, until very recently, under 64 feet of water.
For nearly six years, a drought has afflicted much of the United States. Some regions haven’t been as dry as they are today for 1,000 years or more, scientists say, and there have been terrible consequences: crop losses, falling electricity production at dams, savage wildfires.
For historians, however, the drought has brought an intriguing diversion. Pieces of the past that had long been submerged, and often forgotten, are emerging again as lakes and rivers shrink.
St. Thomas was formed in 1865 by Mormons who were dispatched to southern Nevada to plant cotton and push the reach of their church toward the West Coast.
For a spell, the town was the epitome of the western frontier, a bleak outpost where devout religion clashed with liquor and miners, where dreams of a better life were shattered by debilitating heat and disease. In 1938, it was erased -- flooded, intentionally, when the construction of Hoover Dam created Lake Mead.
Eva Jensen, a Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs archeologist, stood in the middle of the town’s ruins recently, shaking her head in dismay and wonder.
“The circumstances of this are not good,” she said. “But it is fascinating to watch it happen. It’s just incredible how much has been exposed, and how fast it has happened.”
Historians and archeologists have reported similar discoveries across the West and the South, drawing widespread interest from outdoors enthusiasts, sightseers and students.
Not far from St. Thomas, in a northern stretch of Lake Mead known as the Overton Arm, prehistoric salt mines have been exposed. Near Roosevelt, Ariz., in an area that was flooded a century ago to build a reservoir, relics left behind by Salado Indians, including ornate jars and pots believed to explain religious parables, have surfaced.
In Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a prized geographic formation known as the Cathedral in the Desert -- long swamped by the creation of Lake Powell -- has been revealed again as water levels have dropped more than 70 feet. In northeast Georgia, a town founded by tobacco dealers in the 1700s, lost when the government created Thurmond Lake, has emerged.
Judy Bense, chairwoman of the anthropology department at the University of West Florida in Pensacola and the president-elect of the Society for Historical Archeology, said the drought had created an exciting time for academicians -- and a fleeting opportunity, since the weather will eventually turn and the water will rise again.
Many of the objects that have reemerged, perhaps most, have little historical significance. A large water-clarifying tank that juts above the surface of Lake Mead, for instance, is more of a menace to pleasure boaters and fishermen than anything. Other finds are significant, however.
Archeologists, for instance, recently discovered ancient canoes embedded in a lake bank near Gainesville, Fla., Bense said. Radiocarbon dating showed that the canoes were 3,000 to 5,000 years old, causing some historians to rethink the conventional understanding of historical water transport trends and migration patterns in the region.
Near Zapata, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, portions of a colonial town established in the 1750s -- intentionally flooded when the two countries dammed the Rio Grande to create the Falcon Lake reservoir -- have emerged again. They include Nuestra Senora del Refugio, a historic Spanish mission, as well as facilities where historians believe the world’s finest lace was produced more than 200 years ago.
“Archeologists are used to this kind of thing,” Bense said. “But even we are amazed at what we are finding.”
Because historical sites are emerging so quickly, academicians and government regulators are having a hard time figuring out what to do with them -- how to catalog, study and, if necessary, preserve them.
Jensen and other historians are pushing for a full-fledged archeological dig at St. Thomas, about 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas, but state and federal officials are still sorting through red tape.
Virtually all that officials have been able to do so far is trim back the tamarisk shrubs that have taken over newly dry areas, offering shade to coyotes and lizards that quickly replaced the bass. Even those efforts are lagging, making it difficult to access some of the building foundations.
Amid the ruins of colonial towns and Native American communities that have emerged around the country are tens of thousands of artifacts -- some of it junk, but all of it worth a look to historians. For several reasons, the artifacts are in peril.
Many wooden structures and artifacts were protected by being underwater, largely because the pieces were shielded from corrosive oxygen. Now that they are above water, archeologists fear that the wooden relics will quickly dry out and crumble.
In the Ocala National Forest in Florida, where several small lakes have vanished, portions of a well-preserved 500-year-old fish trap were exposed recently, and federal officials feared it would be lost. At St. Thomas, Jensen said, delicate window frames on many of the houses, made of wood hauled in from the Utah hills, will soon dry out and fall apart.
The emergence of historic sites has also brought about court battles.
Late last year, for instance, U.S. District Judge Kent J. Dawson dismissed an aircraft salvage company’s claim to a B-29 bomber that crashed into the Overton Arm of Lake Mead.
Local residents had known that a group of test pilots, who bailed out and survived, had crashed a bomber into the lake in 1948. The wreck’s location was unknown until August 2002, when the salvage company used high-tech sonar to find it. The discovery set off a dispute over who should control the site.
Entrepreneurs had hoped to raise and restore the plane, which is seen as historically significant and potentially valuable. State and federal officials designated the wreck a “sensitive archeological resource” and restricted the public’s ability to dive there so they could study the plane and preserve the site.
Finally, looters have descended upon numerous ruins.
Federal officials have banned overnight camping near St. Thomas, primarily to guard against scavengers who were coming out at night with metal detectors, some in search of old railroad ties and buggy parts, and others apparently driven, officials said, by a false rumor that a $5 gold piece was discovered there recently. It has long been illegal to take artifacts from federally protected land, and more than a dozen people have been charged with preservation law violations at Lake Mead.
In Georgia -- a prime region for hunting arrowheads, burial items and other Native American relics that can fetch high dollar on the Internet -- state officials have also had difficulties with looters.
Anticipating that shrinking lakes would expose historic sites, the state passed property laws three years ago to guard against artifact collectors.
Collectors rebelled: They launched petition drives and argued frequently with law enforcement officers, resulting in numerous arrests.
This year, Georgia tried to make peace through a new program that let collectors accompany state officials on archeological expeditions. They are allowed to keep the relics they find, provided that an on-site official determines that the pieces have no historic significance, said Georgia Department of Natural Resources Capt. Mike Commander.
“We’re trying our best to be a good steward of these resources, and it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “But I think everyone is starting to understand that this is in everyone’s best interest.”
The Hannig Ice Cream Parlor’s chimney, the highest point of the St. Thomas ruins, had popped up during a few dry spells in the past. This time it is different: The entire town is visible.
Today at the ghostly, isolated site, portions of about 40 buildings have been exposed. Most were built of tan concrete blocks that look intensely bright when illuminated by the desert sun and contrasted against the colorful mesas and hills behind them. The blocks, crafted of silt lifted from the nearby Muddy and Virgin rivers, are expertly squared off at the edges.
On the outskirts of town -- “the rich neighborhood,” Jensen said -- are the foundations of larger estates, where settlers grew cotton, watermelons, pomegranates and cantaloupes that they sold to nearby towns and as far west as Los Angeles. Orange and cottonwood trees were planted alongside some of the streets; their stumps remain today.
In the center of town is a smattering of smaller foundations. Some of the cellars are still intact, held together by metal bow springs that were removed from buggies and fused into the concrete walls during construction for support.
Two thoroughfares slice through the settlement. One is the path of a long-defunct railroad spur. Built in 1918, the rail made regular stops at St. Thomas, introducing new goods, including blocks of ice and bottles of booze, that led to the town’s brief but colorful heyday and ballooned its population from 300 to almost 500. The second was the original Highway 91, which went all the way to Los Angeles.
Remnants of the post office are here, where the last bag of mail was stamped and postmarked on June 11, 1938, then tossed in a boat for delivery as the water crept up behind Hoover Dam and through the streets of St. Thomas. So is the foundation of stubborn Hugh Lord’s house. Local historians say Lord was the last holdout -- refusing to believe the water would ever reach his tiny home and then, when it did, was so upset that he tried to burn it down before fleeing in a rowboat.
“All of this was under water,” Jensen said. “And it was 64 feet deep. Imagine how much water that is. And how much had to go away.”