By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
One day in 1938, eleven-year-old Henry Lord hurriedly left the only home he had ever known. He had grown up in the town of St. Thomas, Nevada, and probably would have spent his entire life there. But the gradually rising waters of Lake Mead coming up behind the newly built Hoover Dam would change all of that.
Henry’s family were the last holdouts to leave St. Thomas. But when they finally did, young Henry left something behind in the flooded town; something that no one else knew about.
Decades later, the adult Henry Lord, now 76, returns to St. Thomas after having learned that the old town has risen again from the receding waters of the drought stricken lake. He is compelled to reconnect with the past that he left behind in his childhood. When he does, he unexpectedly finds answers to life questions that he’d long stopped asking.
This is the overarching premise of a new work of historical fiction called “Lords of St. Thomas.” The book is the first novel written by Jackson Ellis, who hails from the little town of Plymouth, Vermont.
Though Ellis grew up in the woods of northern New England, he actually lived for a time in southern Nevada. Between 2011 and 2013, his wife Nathalia attended graduate school at UNLV. This brought the couple to Las Vegas.
In a recent interview with the Progress, Ellis said that he has always enjoyed the outdoors and hiking. During his time living in Nevada, he loved to explore the vast areas of desert stretching far out from the city.
“While I was there, I was always on the lookout for new places to go,” Ellis said.
One time, while thumbing through a copy of Desert Companion, a magazine published by Nevada Public Radio, Ellis found a two-page spread featuring St. Thomas. The piece piqued his interest and he planned a trip to the area. What he found there fascinated him.
“We used to go exploring to old ghost towns in Vermont where I grew up, but they were a lot different,” Ellis said. “Because the years of forest growth had come in and reclaimed them, you had to really look to find any remains of a settlement. But the St. Thomas site was relatively new and the foundations and buildings were easy to locate and visualize how things had been there.”
Ellis spent a day hiking out to the old town site and poking around the ruins. One of the old cement foundations in particular caught his attention. It had a low crawl space under what had been the main floor of the house. Peering through openings that had once been windows, Ellis said his imagination was transported back in time.
“I thought, if I was a kid in St. Thomas, this (crawl space) is where I would have spent a lot of my time,” Ellis said. “I wondered how I would have felt coming back to this place after, say, 70 years of it being underwater. And what if, as a boy, I had left something behind in that little crawl space – something that could be retrieved. What would I find if I came back for it?”
From that thought, a rough outline of a story started to form. Suddenly, Ellis was hooked! He began to vociferously research the history of St. Thomas and its people. He spent a lot of time at the UNLV library, poring over old maps, photos, newspaper clippings and histories of the area. He became familiar with the layout of the town: who lived on which parcel, the names of the streets, where the various businesses were located and more.
Ellis also became familiar with the personalities of old St. Thomas. He incorporates many of the old family names into the book. Many of these names will be familiar to old-timers in Moapa Valley and to others who have studied the history of St. Thomas – names like Whitmore, Hannig, Gentry, Perkins and, of course, that of the main characters of the novel: Lord.
Ellis said that he had been impressed with the stubborn determination of real-life St. Thomas resident Hugh Lord. Lord was reportedly the last holdout. He rejected the idea that the waters of the far-off Colorado River would ever reach as far as his home. He refused to sell his property to federal agents when they came around. In fact, Lord did not leave his home until the water was lapping up over his front porch and into his house. At that point, he reportedly got aboard a little boat and rowed quietly away.
“The last thing he did before leaving was to set fire to his house,” Ellis said. “When I read about him, his personality just popped off of the page. I thought that he was a great person on which to base a character.”
In Ellis’ fiction, that character becomes Henry Lord, patriarch of a family that includes an adult son, a daughter-in-law and a grandson, the young Henry who will eventually make his return almost 70 years later.
Like the real Hugh Lord, the senior Henry also stubbornly refuses to leave his lifetime home. That dry, hardpan decision is what drives the plot of “Lords of St. Thomas” and eventually has vast implications for each member of the Lord family.
The story is a sensitive, and historically accurate, depiction of the depths of sacrifice forced upon an entire community in order to provide room for the inevitably grinding wheels of progress and to allow the harsh Nevada desert to blossom and grow.
But “Lords of St. Thomas” also delves into deeper human themes like loss, suffering, death, loyalty to family and the psychological depths in our sense of belonging to a place, a home, a community.
The plot of the story unfolds naturally and captures the reader’s attention from the beginning. The pages and chapters seem to fly by building momentum all they way to the finish.
The characters are well developed and come to full life before the reader. The relationships between them are well-attuned to reality – at times warm and gentle, at others gruff and severe; but always true to life.
Ellis has done his homework. There is careful attention to historical accuracy. The depiction of the Moapa Valley setting and geography is usually spot on. Those who live in the Moapa Valley may find one or two minor details that are slightly exagerated or out of place in the landscape of the story. But for the most part, the setting will be familiar and will ring true.
Ellis said that he really wanted to express his fondness for the beauty of the deserts of southern Nevada in the telling of his story.
“I really do miss that area!” Ellis said. “I loved living there and learning about it. In a lot of ways this book is my love letter to that area. I have put a lot of the things in the book that I really treasure about it. I hope that it comes through.”
Indeed, it does!
“Lords of St. Thomas” will be a great book for local residents to add to their summer reading list. The book is now available for purchase locally at the Lost City Museum gift shop as well as at other booksellers.