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An 'Atlantis' Rises from the Desert

A Nevada town disappeared with the flooding at Hoover Dam. Now a drought -- and tales of ex-residents -- are exposing an old way of life.

August 31, 2003|Ken Ritter | Associated Press Writer

ST. THOMAS, Nev. — Jerry Phillipeck and his family zipped around Lake Mead's St. Thomas cove on boats and water skis for 20 years, never realizing they were playing above a desert Atlantis.

This year, with a Western drought dropping the vast reservoir behind Hoover Dam to its lowest level since the mid-1960s, Phillipeck left the boat on the trailer and led a family trek to the dusty remains of old St. Thomas -- a Mormon community flooded in the 1930s to slake the thirst of the Southwest.

D'Arynne Phillipeck, 18, clutched her baseball cap to her head against a blast-furnace August wind and described the foundation of a house and a drinking-water cistern they found amid tree stumps and fast-growing tamarisk brush.

At water's edge, a crumbling chimney marked the site of a ghostly ice cream parlor.

"When we were water-skiing we were 70 feet over someone's house," said her dad, Jerry Phillipeck of Simi Valley, Calif.

Verna Chadburn Heller, 84, grew up in one of those homes. She remembers the ice cream parlor, which was Reinhold Hannig's place.

"We didn't any of us have any money," said Heller, who was entering eighth grade when her family of 10 moved from St. Thomas to Springville, Utah. "But everyone cared for everyone else. It was like one big family."

St. Thomas survived 73 years before being sacrificed to progress when Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 and water began filling Lake Mead, the nation's largest man-made reservoir.

The town had been settled in 1865 by Mormons led by Thomas Smith -- dispatched by Brigham Young to plant cotton along the Muddy River.

Almost 500 people lived there when the town dependent on water was told it would be destroyed by water.

Leland Whitmore postmarked the last letter from St. Thomas on June 11, 1938, and tossed the last sack of mail into a boat at the post office doorstep.

Hugh Lord waited a little longer.

"He said the lake would never reach him," said Virginia "Beezy" Tobiasson, 58, historian for the surrounding Moapa Valley and Heller's daughter-in-law. "He said he was going to stay in his house."

Tobiasson pores over maps, ledgers and journals at an old schoolhouse library in nearby Logandale. She has a photograph of Lord stepping from his porch onto a rowboat before setting his home ablaze.

"He torched the house" when he realized it would be inundated, she said.

In the three years it took for the lake to reach 45 miles upstream to the confluence of the Muddy and Virgin rivers, the Army Corps of Engineers dismantled or moved town buildings, cut the mock orange trees lining Main Street and exhumed the dead from the town cemetery -- reburying the bodies in Overton, eight miles up the road.

"St. Thomas was a close-knit family town," Tobiasson said. With waters receding and interest peaking, she plans to squeeze 30 years of oral, written and photographic history into a 225-page book.

Her work has an added urgency: The number of surviving town residents has dwindled to fewer than two dozen.

The town was famous for cantaloupes, she said. Every family had at least one milk cow and a grape arbor. They dried grapes for raisins and grew apricots, peaches, almonds, pomegranates, asparagus and figs.

"They had access to water from the Muddy," she said. "It was just a creek then."

These days, the National Park Service says the site, within Lake Mead National Recreation Area, gets 300 visitors on weekend days. It is accessible from the bluff promontory at the end of a 3.4-mile washboard dirt road off state Highway 169.

Determined scavengers surreptitiously scour the site with metal detectors, and rangers fret that people are making off with teacups, bricks and other artifacts.

"We want people to be able to go there and see this town frozen in time," spokeswoman Roxanne Dey said. "But we are having a problem with treasure hunters out there."

"You see little holes all over the place," said Steve Daron, a Park Service archeologist who plans to post interpretive signs telling tales of St. Thomas and encouraging people to leave it untouched.

"The more people who know about and appreciate the town, the more they'll want to help us protect it for the future," he said.

Dey said rangers have issued 13 summonses in 2003 for preservation-law violations and illegally using metal detectors in a national park. A misdemeanor can bring a $500 fine and six months in jail, she said, and a conviction on a felony charge could mean a $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison.

Looting wasn't considered a problem when St. Thomas resurfaced during an earlier drought in 1952, nor in the early 1960s, when the Lake Powell reservoir was being filled upstream on the Colorado River.

Heller visited then and found a shiny $5 gold piece in the old wagon yard. She recognized the school by its fallen arches and hint of stairs, and the Gentry Hotel by its sheer size.

She won't visit this year, she said. She's getting too old.

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