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It's a Historic Drought

COLUMN ONE

As waters around the country recede, the past is revisited at sites long submerged. By Lake Mead, an entire town has reappeared.

October 16, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

OVERTON, Nev. — 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."

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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.

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