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A 66-foot drop in the water level at Lake Mead has begun to uncover the man-made reservoir's most precious historical jewel, the 19th-century Mormon settlement of St. Thomas.
The Moapa Valley town was settled in the final year of the Civil War and was flooded in 1938 in the creation of Lake Mead after the Hoover Dam was built.
Within the next two years the drought-shrunken lake is expected to give up the ruins of the town, and the National Park Service is concerned about how it is going to protect those uncovered archaeological remains.
"We want people to visit the site and appreciate the history, because it is part of our heritage, but we also have to make sure we preserve it so that some people don't try to take away that heritage," said National Park Service Ranger Bill Collup, who is in charge of Overton Beach, near the old town site. "By as early as the end of (this) week we hope to have cultural resource warning signs posted."
Park officials say for now they will seek public cooperation with a "look but don't touch" policy and step up patrols to more closely monitor the area. Those looting artifacts from the site can find themselves facing misdemeanor charges that carry penalties of $100 to $500 fine and a maximum of six months in jail or felony charges, with a $10,000 fine and maximum 10 years in prison.
This is the second significant archaeological event at Lake Mead this year. Last month a B-29 Superfortress bomber that crashed and sank 300 feet into the lake's waters 54 years ago was found by a private diving crew. The Park Service has since taken steps to protect that site, pending a study by government archaeologists.
But St. Thomas is different because for years former residents and their children and grandchildren have gone to St. Thomas Point to look at the site, which was buried deep under the lake's surface. Now visitors can look out and see the tops of the town's cottonwood trees, a stove pipe and both the Highway 91 and Main Street access roads.
The foundation of the old sand mill three miles north of St. Thomas is completely uncovered. Earlier this year part of one of its walls collapsed after a camper built a fire near it, apparently oblivious to the historic significance of the structure, Collup said.
Lake Mead officials expect a lot more of St. Thomas to be visible before water covers it again. The area is in the fifth year of a projected seven-year drought cycle, Park Ranger spokeswoman Karla Norris said.
"We expect the waterline will drop another 20 feet in two years and, when that happens, all of the St. Thomas townsite will be uncovered," she said.
As the lake's water level dipped from 1,222 feet to 1,156 feet, the shoreline has dramatically receded in less than a year from just below the edge of St. Thomas Point across from the Muddy River to the outskirts of St. Thomas, leaving a dark ring around the peaks surrounding the town.
National Park Service archaeologist Steven Daron and state archaeologist Eva Jensen toured the site last week. They said they are concerned that important data that could be catalogued and studied will be forever lost if the site is not preserved.
"We want to study and interpret the site to learn what life was like in St. Thomas, learn what the people did and map the area," Daron said.
"We are seeking government funds that will allow us to do the study. There are many questions that need to be answered, like where was the St. Thomas dump? We can learn a lot about people by what they threw away."
Former Las Vegas City Councilman Wayne Bunker, who grew up in St. Thomas, said he recalls that people either buried their garbage or burned it.
"I don't think they will find anything that historic," said Bunker, 79, now of Boulder City. "I really don't think we left any artifacts. We just lived there."
St. Thomas was settled by a party of 45 Mormons led by Thomas Smith in 1865. In its early days it was a key supply stop along the old Mormon Corridor from Utah to San Bernardino, Calif. By the early 20th century, it was as big a town as Overton and much bigger than the then-new city of Las Vegas.
St. Thomas was a bustling mining and farming community with as many as 20 to 30 horse-drawn flatbeds of copper and gold ore coming through town each day, said Collup, a park ranger for 27 years, who has talked with many former St. Thomas residents during his nine years in Overton.
The town had a number of then-modern amenities, including Sellar's cafe and pool hall, the Hannig ice cream parlor, Jacob Baver's blacksmith shop, the Gentry Hotel and a post office.
Then came construction of the Hoover Dam. In the mid-1920s the federal government began to acquire land through eminent domain. Jensen said the residents didn't put up a big fight, because "they had a sense that what was being done was for the greater good of everyone."
Carstens said in her memoir the money her family got from selling their land allowed them to move to Las Vegas in 1932 and buy a farm and "a new modern home." The Bunker family, one of the last to leave in 1933, got a fair price for its land and compensation for water rights, Bunker said.
"The government had an appraiser, the residents had an appraiser and a third appraiser was brought in," Bunker said. "The government was fair. You have to remember, this was the Great Depression and money was tight. People were happy to get cash they could invest in other land and businesses."
In 1952 Hoover Dam engineers intentionally lowered the water level of Lake Mead to accommodate runoff from the melting Rocky Mountain snowcaps, uncovering St. Thomas for the first and -- until now -- last time. About 1,500 former residents converged on the site for a reunion.