October 14, 2016

Photo Essay: Lost City of the Muddy Valley

I feel like I've only scratched the surface of Southern California in my five and a half years of living here—and I have just barely started to explore the Central Coast, Central Valley, and Bay Area.

So I find myself getting a little overwhelmed when I think about how much there is to see in our neighboring states of Arizona (which I just got to explore really for the first time) and Nevada.

There's so much there now—and, as it turns out, there's so much that's already been lost.

An area known as the Pueblo Grande de Nevada—which exists today as a series of adobe ruins that stretches for 30 miles—was once inhabited by the ancient Anasazi Indian Civilization as early as 300 B.C.

In fact, there's an entire museum devoted to the "lost cities" of Nevada that was created in 1935 to preserve their history, as they were slowly disappearing with the construction of the Hoover Dam (then known as the Boulder Dam), which opened the following year.

Archaeologists and historians scrambled to save what they could and relocate it to the museum. They were literally just steps ahead of the bulldozers that were clearing the way for the area to be flooded and turned into Lake Mead.

Ancient petroglyphs were recovered from a nearby canyon and moved here for display in the 1930s (although now we know that artifacts like this should never be moved from their original location). Starting with the "Basketmakers" and ending with the "Pueblos," ancient civilizations built communities here and even farmed. Relics from a pithouse were found on the site where the museum now stands that dated back to 655 A.D. Later, they lived in multi-room adobe structures.

And then all traces of human inhabitation vanished as of 1150 A.D. The valley had gotten its water from a muddy river fed by natural springs (hence the name "Muddy River Valley," now the Moapa Valley), but it's presumed that widespread drought drove the peoples of the Pueblo to settle elsewhere.

But there are really two layers to these lost cities of the former Pueblo Grande de Nevada: the first native inhabitants who left, and the non-native pioneers (the Mormons) who came to settle here.

There are a number of former Mormon towns in the Moapa Valley, but the first to be settled by the Mormons was St. Thomas, founded in 1865. It was to be a stopover point between LA and Salt Lake City, which was about five and a half hours northeast.

They thought the Muddy Valley was in Utah. They even paid Utah taxes. But when a survey in 1870 determined St. Thomas to lie within the state boundaries of Nevada instead, the Mormons promptly fled. They'd struggled to survive there with floods and drought and other harsh elements, but they actually returned to St. Thomas just 10 years later.

And then they abandoned the town a second time in 1938, when it became submerged by the waters of Lake Mead.

Today, Lake Mead has receded so much that the ruins of St. Thomas have been exposed once again.

Walking along the trail through the town is like walking on the sea floor. The ground alternates between the cracked alkali surface of a dry lake bed and the loose sand of a beach.

A lot of tamarisk seems to have grown here, with all that water.

A lot seems to have died here, too.

And it's not certain how long the remains of St. Thomas will be exposed. Maps haven't been updated to show the town or the trails. By all matters of GPS, you're standing in the middle of the blue lake when you're in St. Thomas now.

People say there's not much to see in St. Thomas anymore, but actually there's much more than you might expect... multi-level houses and homes, a garage, ice cream parlor, hotel, post office, stores, and a school (above).

This isn't the first time that St. Thomas has reemerged from the depths of Lake Mead. Droughts in the mid-1940s, early 1950s, and mid-1960s also exposed the remains to curious onlookers.

But this is probably the longest that the ghost town has been exposed since it first vanished. It started to peek up out of the water surface of Lake Mead back in 2002 and has been playing a game of peek-a-boo ever since. But during my October 2016 visit, there was no water to be seen—anywhere.

Nature has a way of correcting itself. It can both consume and retreat.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Llano Del Rio Company Colony, Abandoned
The Ruin of Ryan Ranch
Photo Essay: Corriganville Movie Ranch, Burned to the Ground

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