Exploring the Mines and Historic Sites of Lake Mead

Date: August 30, 2017
Category: History

Nevada’s Lake Mead was once a booming mining town. Early Native Americans first mined salt in the Echo Bay basin that now sits submerged under the lake’s more than 26 million acre-feet of water. As claim jumpers headed West in search of gold and other precious metals, small mining towns sprung up.

The most notable of Lake Mead Recreation area’s mines – and the only one listed on the National Register of Historic Places – was Homestake Mine near Laughlin, which operated from the 1860s well into the 20th century. If you’re houseboating on Lake Mead, it can be tempting to go on shore to explore the old mines.

How to See the Mines

According to the National Park Service, nearly 1,000 abandoned mines have been identified in the area surrounding Lake Mead. If you’re the adventurous type (or read one too many Hardy Boys mysteries as a kid), you might be tempted to wander down the abandoned mine shafts. Here’s a tip: Don’t. NPS strongly advises travelers not to wander into abandoned mine shafts that may crumble or collapse while you’re busy snapping Instagram pics.

Vertical shafts even have specially constructed cages around their entrances to allow entry to bats, but not tourists. While officials will help you if you’re stuck in a mine shaft or trapped by a rattler, they won’t be very happy (see this 2015 article on a trapped pair of hikers for proof). If you’re keen on experiencing historic mining culture up close, some local tour companies offer guided hikes of Eldorado Mine.

A Ghost Town Appears

When drought drained the lake’s waters down past record lows in 2015, a ghost town emerged in the basin. Once known as St. Thomas, the tiny Mormon settlement was founded in 1865. By the early 1900s it housed a permanent school and several prosperous merchants. The town was abandoned in the 1930s, shortly before the Colorado was dammed to make Lake Mead.

As ruins of St. Thomas were revealed, they painted a picture of a thriving hub that was a popular layover between Salt Lake and California. Visit today and you’ll see the large stone steps that once led to the town’s schoolhouse. In-between crumbling foundations are remnants of civilization: a heavy anchor, shells, and even semi-intact glass bottles.

Mining at a Distance

The safest way to explore around the mines and other archaeological ruins of Lake Mead is to grab a pair of binoculars and enjoy the view from the comfort of your houseboat. Anchor along the northern shore and take an off-road vehicle to see the ruins at St. Thomas, or book a scheduled tour of the mines during your stay.