As Lake Mead dries up, its history and dark secrets are being uncovered

As we lose water in the southwest, we gain something. Access to the land that was once home to dozens of different groups of people over hundreds of years.

That means finding artifacts, towns once underwater, and bodies.

As you walk down to the shoreline at Lake Mead, you'll pass by signs placed strategically by the National Park Service used to document where the water level was from 2002 to 2008, and 2021. You'll realize it takes just a few more steps to get to the water every single year.

If you look at the rocks, you can tell from the color differences just how far the water level has receded.

Artifacts in Lake Mead

The archeologists that are responsible for searching for the artifacts around the lake say every time the water level drops, new artifacts are exposed.

"We have a lot of different artifacts that indicate the type of life that would have been lived, as well as the type of structures that would have been there," said Jessica Bitter, the Lake Mead Internal Museum Curator.

Long before Lake Mead was created to supply water to modern-day western states, it was just another piece of land. Over the years, tenants came and went, some with a history so far back that we'll never fully know it.

"There were at least 18 tribes who have lived here since time immemorial, who are still visiting these lands. We also have nonindigenous explorers that came through the area on various trails, miners, the LDS communities," said Chris Nycz who heads the archeological team at Lake Mead.

They all had one thing in common. They all left behind small traces of life showing who they were.

"Every artifact that we have has been touched and utilized by someone in the past. They have led their own extraordinary lives. My job is to protect those artifacts and preserve their histories and their stories," Nycz said.

Nycz is responsible for searching possible sites at the lake and responding to calls when visitors stumble upon artifacts. Many of the items are everyday dishes, tools, or pieces of a home or building. 

"Most of the things we find don’t really have monetary value. They’re more research potential, and they tell us, they’re pages of our history book," Nycz explained.

In the early 1900s, construction of the Hoover Dam began and workers moved in temporarily.

"There was a shanty town near Hoover Dam that was made for the construction. That is still submerged underwater. I don’t know that there’s anything findable from that because it was a shanty town," Nycz said.

Others who called the area home were forced to flee.

"So we’ve got 1938, evacuating Saint Thomas, Nevada, which was covered by the rising waters of Lake Mead," Bitter explained. "It was a momentous event. All of these people had to leave their homes. I think that there was a concerted effort to document quite a bit of what we knew we were going to lose when the lake was coming in."

Around 2002 as the water receded, the town that hadn't seen daylight in decades reemerged.

"Saint Thomas has been exposed for at least 20 years now and there are a lot of foundations from houses from businesses. There’s tree stumps still in place along the main street," Nycz said.

Park archeologists got to work piecing together the stories of what is now a ghost town.

"This is not the only fired bullet casing that we found on the site for instance, so every little piece tells a story about what life was like in the area," Bitter said

Although some artifacts get cataloged and enter the park's internal museum collection, a majority of artifacts simply stay exactly where they were found.

"That’s important to us because these pieces that are part of the museum collection get to be part of the museum collection because they have context. What that means is we know exactly where they came from. An archeologist is very cognizant of taking a point and documenting exactly where they got something, as opposed to just taking the artifact itself," Bitter explained.

Exploring is encouraged for park visitors on the main trails and even off, but removing anything is not only discouraged, it's against the law.

"All of the items within Lake Mead are federal property. Whether they originated from the Native American tribes who lived here since time immemorial, to somebody who lost a watch in the lake two years ago, or yesterday. All of them become federal property," Nycz said.

The park service says you'll likely discover something on your travels. You're asked to leave it undisturbed, ping your location on your phone, and send that location to the archeologists, so they can map out their next site.

"Probably less than 5% of the park has been surveyed for cultural resources. With our over a million acres that we have, there’s thousands of sites that we know about both on dry land and submerged," Nycz said.

Archeological sites are slowly revealing themselves and writing the history book of the park.

"There’s probably a lot of sites that we don’t know about as well that are going to come out of the water as the water levels recede," Nycz said.

This could be considered the tiniest thread of silver lining as the lake dries up amid the ongoing severe drought.

Bitter explains, "Once the dam was built, as you can see from these photos, come 1938, the floodwaters came in pretty quickly, and the entire site was underwater. So, if the waters had not receded, then these wouldn’t have been revealed, and we wouldn’t have collected them."

Dwindling water levels reveal bodies

As the water levels at Lake Mead continue to drop, authorities have uncovered something much more gruesome.

"In May, when there was a body that was discovered inside a barrel, they believe that it was a homicide because it was a gunshot to the head," said David Kohlmeier.

Almost as quickly as the first body appeared, officials with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department labeled it a homicide investigation.

"It did showcase that probably from 1975 to 1980, due to the clothing that was on the actual victim. That goes back to the original brand of KMart, their company brand. From there, they’re trying to identify the body," said Kohlmeier.

Kohlmeier is retired from the police department in Henderson, Nev., but he is still making it his mission to help solve the case, with tips from the public. He turned his podcast, titled ‘The Problem Solver,’ into a television show, and offered a reward of $5,000 to any certified diver who discovers another body in a barrel in Lake Mead.

In the months following, a second body turned up, then a third, a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth.

"Recently, in Callville Bay, which is north of Hemingway, which is where the body in the barrel was located, they did locate some other skeletal remains," said Kohlmeier.

Only the first body was actually found inside a barrel. When the discovery was made in May 2022, a lieutenant on the homicide unit told us about the challenges a discovery like this poses, since all that is left are bones.  

"It's going to be an extremely challenging case for an investigation to begin with, because: one, we have to determine can we even extract DNA," said Ray Spencer. "You have to think to the 1980s. None of the databases that are in existence today even existed back then. So it's not like we're going to have this person's DNA on file."

Police officials in Las Vegas have not labeled any discovery since as a homicide investigation, but Kohlmeier is not convinced.

"We do believe that these other bodies that have been located, of course local law enforcement will say that we don’t suspect foul play, but what’s very interesting about that statement is if I was to choke you, or I was to cut you, and there’s no flesh on the bones, how do you truly know what took place?" said Kohlmeier.

Kohlmeier says the second body found has been identified as a drowning victim, but questions surrounding the other bodies remain.

"If you look at a bone and there’s no gunshot, or let’s say stab wound in the bone, then you would say there’s no foul play. But the truth is you don’t know what took place," said Kohlmeier.

With the water level still steadily dropping, things, along with bodies, are starting to surface. Kohlmeier thinks this is just the beginning.

"There’s over 100 barrels inside Lake Mead, which doesn’t make sense, right?" said Kohlmeier. "When they built Hoover Dam back in the day, they must have left supplies and barrels inside Lake Mead instead of moving them back in the day. It probably was easier just to [flood it]. A lot of people have some conspiracy theories about that. What’s inside these different barrels? If you find one body in a barrel, is there a second? Is there a third?

These questions led Kohlmeier to spark a deeper conversation on his podcast and TV show, and he says the mystery at Lake Mead has gone viral.

"There are almost 20 to 25 bodies a year that are drowning victims, so we really truly don’t know," said Kohlmeier. "If this was the stomping grounds of organized crime or the mafia, or it could have been motorcycle gang-related. Who knows? Lake Mead would always be known as a place that would be a great place as dumping grounds."