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Lost history treasures revealed as waters recede in Nevada

The devastating drought that has ravaged the West has had an upside: it has made never-before-seen sights accessible. At Lake Mead in Nevada, recreational history hunters can now dive to see a B-29 bomber, and as special correspondent Sandra Hughes reports, more evidence of a long-buried era may yet be uncovered.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As the drought drags on in the Western part of the country, Lake Mead in Nevada is sitting with water at its lowest point since the 1930s. But there has been one silver lining of late for that area: Lake Mead has been revealing some of its deepest secrets as the water levels drop.

    Special correspondent Sandra Hughes has the story.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    On a cloudy day in Nevada, this boat and its passengers launch into Lake Mead. They're on a treasure hunt, not for gold or silver, but history. And it's all because of the devastating drought.

    JOEL SILVERSTEIN, Vice President, Scuba Training and Technology: The lake is down almost 150 feet from when we started diving it. And what's that's done is, it's exposed other dive sites to it.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    The bathtub ring around Lake Mead shows how low the manmade reservoir has dropped from its high point of 1,220 feet above sea level. Some 30 million people in the U.S. rely on the water system from the Western reservoirs, from Arizona to California to Mexico, and some of the country's most productive agricultural lands.

    Already, communities have been put on water restrictions. In Las Vegas, you can not have grass in your front yard. In Los Angeles, water prices are going up and watering is assigned to certain days of the week.

    But the drought has had an upside: It's made sights accessible that were never seen before. Because the water level is so low now, these underwater history hunters, who are just recreational divers, are going to scuba dive in Lake Mead to see a vintage B-29 bomber from World War II that crashed in 1948. The war was ending, but the bomber was on a mission when it crashed into the water at 230 miles an hour.

    The crew survived, but the bomber sank to the bottom.

  • PATRICK SMITH, Life-long Diver:

    The instrument they were testing was considered secret, and so information about the crash, although the locals kind of knew about it, nobody really knew exactly where or what. The information was considered classified until 1998, when it was declassified. And then divers began looking for it and ultimately found it.

    Just a few years ago, the average recreational scuba diver couldn't visit this site.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    But the severe drought level water means recreational diver Cindy Shaw (ph) can now see the wreck for herself

  • CINDY SHAW:

    I'm just really jazzed.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    Joel Silverstein's company has the only Park Service permit to take a limited number of divers to see the sunken bomber. The National Park Service wants to keep the location of the bomber quiet. Very few people will get to see what lies below these waters.

    That's because it's been at the bottom of Lake Mead for almost 70 years and is very vulnerable. Three of the engines flew off on impact. Still, there is so much to see, where the pilot sat, the control panel. It's an underwater chapter of history that cannot be touched.

  • JOEL SILVERSTEIN:

    Some of the areas are actually made of fabric and extremely thin aluminum. And you could just touch it and it could pop right in. And so the goal is to not touch it at all.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    What was the best part about it?

  • CINDY SHAW:

    When we first dropped down, you couldn't see the whole plane this time. But we dropped down by that tail. And the tail is just — it's like 12 feet, 15 feet up. And then you look into the cockpit and you see the pilot's seat and the steering wheel and it's just like, oh, my gosh, this is where those guys were when this happened. It's so cool.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    It's like going back in time?

  • CINDY SHAW:

    It is. It's like you're back there, and you're not just on a plane wreck. You're living part of like, wow, here is where they had to climb out. This is their legacy.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    Sometimes, dives are murky because this is a lake. Other times, the sun shines bright enough to reveal a view of the entire aircraft from nose to tail.

    The B-29 bomber is not the only artifact that's been revealed by receding waters. Lake Mead is a manmade reservoir, formed after the Depression-era construction of the Hoover Dam. It was created to help serve the Western United States with water.

    When the dam was completed in 1936, areas of Nevada and Arizona were flooded to store water, burying entire towns like St. Thomas, Nevada.

    So where we're walking right now, would we be underwater?

  • CHRISTIE VANOVER, National Park Service:

    At certain points in the reservoir's history, this would be a point where would be underwater.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    The ruins of what was originally a Mormon outpost created by Brigham Young himself have emerged. St. Thomas started as a cotton farming community.

    This is the tallest structure that is left?

  • CHRISTIE VANOVER:

    That's right. There were taller structures that were constructed back then, but this is the tallest remaining structures. This wall hasn't fallen yet. So, this is kind of iconic St. Thomas, and it's the ice cream parlor.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    After the Mormons moved out, prospectors and outlaws moved in.

  • CHRISTIE VANOVER:

    The stories and the history that we hear, that it was like an Old West movie. It wasn't necessarily safe. It was the guys out here with their guns, and there was some heavy drinking. There was prostitution. There was a mix of things that happened in this area.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    But by the early 1890s, a community had emerged. Then, in 1936, the Hoover Dam was completed.

  • CHRISTIE VANOVER:

    Most were opposed to it. They weren't looking forward to moving up after everything they had settled here, the community and families that they had built here, but some of them stayed until the very last end.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    Then the water came, and St. Thomas was no more.

  • CHRISTIE VANOVER:

    Some of them were stubborn and they didn't want to go.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    People were paid for their property, but not their memories. And as this drought continues and Lake Mead recedes, more evidence of a long buried era may yet be uncovered.

    For the PBS NewsHour, this is Sandy Hughes in Lake Mead, Nevada.

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