FEATURE – Las Vegas has the reputation of bulldozing its old buildings in the name of progress to allow for the latest development, whether it is a new state-of-the-art casino, a high-rise condo tower or a sprawling shopping center.
Thankfully, there are bastions of historical preservation and interpretation such as the Clark County Museum, the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, and one that speaks largely towards its original water source and its birth as a railroad town: The Las Vegas Springs Preserve.
The 180-acre complex is “designed to commemorate Las Vegas’s dynamic history and to provide a vision for a sustainable future,” its website attests.
Early Las Vegas history
The Pueblo peoples and later the Southern Paiutes used the Las Vegas Springs as a water source until European American settlers began ranching in the area in the 1860s. Evidence of their presence in the area is in the form of the stone tools, clay pots and ruins of their dwellings that they left behind.
Las Vegas means “The Meadows” in Spanish and it received its name in 1829 thanks to an exploring expedition led by Antonio Armijo. The group traversed the banks of the Virgin River looking for a new trading route between New Mexico and California. During the excursion, a group of scouts set out to look for water sources and potential campsites. On Christmas Day, one teenage scout, Rafael Rivera, wandered away from the party and got lost. He traipsed down the Virgin River to the Colorado River, reaching Black Canyon, where he followed the Las Vegas Wash up to the mesa near where Craig Ranch Regional Park is now, the preserve’s website explains. From this vantage point, he could see the springs and meadows. Rivera eventually returned to his party and led them to the meadows and springs. The route they followed became known as the Old Spanish Trail and they gave the area and the eventual city that sprouted its name.
In 1855, settlers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints selected the Las Vegas Valley as a way station between LDS settlements in Utah and San Bernardino, California. They built a fort and ranched in the area but abandoned their efforts in 1858. Soon after James B. Wilson and John Howell filed for ownership of 320 acres of a property west of the fort, calling it Spring Rancho. These two ranchers raised cattle and horses, irrigated the meadows and planted fruit trees. These two later sold out to O.D. Gass, who by 1878, owned all the land watered by the creek, the website recounts.
Gass envisioned the Colorado River becoming a port for steamboats and invested heavily in property development near the Colorado River. These speculations went bust when the railroad proved to be a more reliable, easier shipping method. In debt, Gass borrowed money from Archibald Stewart, thinking he could pay off the loan with his next crop, but bad weather destroyed the crop and he turned the property over to Stewart, who moved to the Rancho with his family in 1882. After being killed in a gunfight in 1884, Stewart left behind his pregnant wife, Helen, and four children. Helen continued to run the ranch for the next 20 years, providing water, food and rest for travelers during their journeys through the area, the website explains.
It is fitting that a high-rolling gambler is the one who set in motion the establishment of Las Vegas.
The so-called “Midas of the West,” Montana Senator William A. Clark enjoyed success in mining and business ventures but was widely distrusted in his home state of Montana. It is widely reported that he essentially bought his one and only term in the senate, according to James Hulse in his article “W.A. Clark and the Las Vegas Connection” in the Winter 1987 issue of “Montana: The Magazine of Western History.”
“When the Montana Senator opened the southern tip of Nevada to development between 1900 and 1910, he unwittingly provided the setting for the permissive Las Vegas scene that later emerged,” Hulse noted. “Nevadans were among his leading admirers as his reputation was fading in regions that knew him better.”
In 1902, Helen Stewart sold the Stewart Ranch and its water rights to Senator Clark’s San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad for $55,000. The purchase included 1,864 acres of land and led to the formation of the Las Vegas Land and Water Company to operate the first water distribution system in the valley.
May 15, 1905 became the seminal moment in the establishment of Las Vegas when the company auctioned off the lots at Clark’s Las Vegas Townsite.
“The auction was a wild affair,” Glenn Dumke wrote in an article entitled “Mission Station to Mining Town: Early Las Vegas,” which appeared in the Pacific Historical Review in 1953. “Long before the scheduled auction day, hundreds of prospective settlers flocked into Las Vegas and set up a camp that resembled San Francisco in the palmy days of (18)49 . . . The weather was blazing hot, yet the sweltering bidders engaged in such fierce competition that the purchasing spree was not over until the afternoon of the following day.”
When the auction ended, 1,200 lots had been sold for $265,000. Businesses such as saloons, hotels, general merchandise stores, gambling houses and two banks were opened right away under canvas or shack quarters. Some quickly erected storefronts out of disassembled shipping crates. The first jail was constructed from sheet metal and railroad ties. Construction of the new town began on the morning of May 17 as lumber and other building materials rumbled in, Dumke noted. Until permanent dwellings were built, many residents lived in tents.
The city weathered a few “storms” early on with a fire sweeping through the business district only a few years after its establishment, an economic depression in 1907 and floods that washed out the railroad tracks north of town that suspended rail traffic for six weeks, Dumke explained. A later flood washed out 110 miles of track and halted railroad traffic for five months and led to the rebuilding of the track on higher ground to avoid the floods.
The most profitable economic activity in the area was mining and everything from gold to manganese passed through Las Vegas’s rails during this early period. With the digging of artesian wells, Las Vegas also prospered agriculturally, particularly its orchards, but Dumke explained agriculture was a secondary economic activity.
In 1909, city residents petitioned the Post Office Department to change the city’s name to just “Vegas” since there already was a Las Vegas, New Mexico. The petition had no lasting results but even today, many people refer to the city as “Vegas.” That same year, residents also got their request to establish a new county, since the county seat of Lincoln County was over 100 miles away. They named the new county after their benefactor, William Clark. The city of Las Vegas incorporated in 1911.
When first established in 1905, three newspapers served Las Vegas: the “Las Vegas Advance,” the “Las Vegas Times” and the “Las Vegas Age.” By 1906 only the “Las Vegas Age” survived. The “Clark County Review” began operations in 1909. In the early 1940s, the “Age” and “Review” merged. The newspaper is now known as the “Las Vegas Review-Journal.”
From 1909-1911, cottages built for railroad workers sprung up on four square blocks of the fledgling city. As the city grew, so did its diversity. The railroad provided well-paying jobs (such as porters and machinists) for African-American men at a time when good jobs for minorities were scarce, a plaque in Boomtown notes.
Women’s organizations were responsible for turning Las Vegas from a rough-and-tumble railroad stop into a real community. They were responsible for holding socials and parties. One prominent women’s group, the Mesquite Club, formed in 1911. In 1912, the club started an Arbor Day event in which sponsors pledged their support in planting nearly 2,000 trees. Plants in one of Boomtown’s gardens are representative of what was planted during that event, a plaque explains.
“To supply the railroad and the new town with water, the company laid redwood pipes and constructed protective houses over the springs to keep people, cattle and other polluting factors out of the water supply,” the Springs website explains.
In 1907, residents began drilling their own private wells, tapping into the underground aquifer. However, often, residents did not tap those wells, which allowed the precious water to gush out at a tremendous rate, causing the groundwater table to deplete much faster.
“People didn’t understand where the water actually came from, or why it came out of the ground with such force. They thought the water supply was endless,” the website notes.
As the city grew, the springs could not meet peak demands. Many townspeople were careless during the summer months, fleeing to cooler climes while leaving water running on their lawns and shrubs. The land and water company proposed metering the water but the Nevada State Legislature opposed such measures, the website explains.
“The water company asked people to conserve water, and in 1923, the company drilled Well No. 1 near the Las Vegas Springs to help meet the new city’s growing water needs,” the website notes.
It was the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s that would signal Las Vegas’s growth into the gambling and entertainment mecca it is today.
Springs Preserve Today
“Las Vegas has sometimes been considered a ‘city without history,’” Las Vegas Springs Preserve Archaeologist Nathan Harper explained. “In the past we’ve been more known for imploding historic structures rather than preserving them. As the city has matured more attention has been placed on historic cultures and structures and there has been a significant rise in cultural tourism with the Mob Museum, Neon Museum and others.”
The Las Vegas Springs Preserve is a reflection of the city’s maturity.
The preserve was conceived and constructed in the early 2000’s to protect the site of the valley’s original water source.
“Historically more than one and half million gallons of water came to the surface on this site and flowed into the Las Vegas Creek watering a significant portion of the central valley,” Harper said. “The site has been home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years, early Las Vegas Valley settlers, and serves as the North Well Field for the Las Vegas Valley Water District.”
The preserve’s wetlands area has seen significant archaeological activities over the years. A pit house representing an Ancestral Puebloan dwelling has been partially excavated, which unearthed artifacts such as ceramics, chipped and ground stone, charcoal and shells. Additionally, the three springs houses represent the early phase of water procurement and the four historic water derricks still standing on the site were constructed in Las Vegas’ early days to facilitate drilling.
One of the preserve’s missions is to educate the local population about water resources and conservation while appreciating native plants and animals. Another mission is to preserve and interpret the area’s early history. And in that respect, it is doing a wonderful job by recreating what the city looked like soon after its founding in what it calls “Boomtown 1905.”
Four city blocks of the original downtown Las Vegas contained 65 workers’ cottages built by the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad ((SPLASL). With development pressure over time, most of the cottages were either demolished or significantly modified. The preserve was able to move four of those cottages to the site in 2007 and restored them in 2013-2014.
“Our goal in restoration and the ultimate construction of Boomtown, was to discuss a period of time when Las Vegas was a railroad town,” Harper said. “It was a company town holding railyards and shops that employed over 400 people.”
The preserve was fortunate enough to obtain the original plans for the cottages with the original paint colors indicated to be able to restore them to their turn-of-the-20th-century appearance.
“We also had plans for the original 1908 depot from the archives,” Harper said. “We used those plans and historic images and accounts, to build display replicas of the Lincoln Hotel, the outdoor Majestic Theatre, the Arizona Club, (the Las Vegas Mercantile) and the First State Bank.”
Boomtown provides guests with the best glimpse they will get at what Las Vegas looked like in its early years, from 1905 to 1920.
Additionally, the preserve is home to two museums: the OriGen Museum and the Nevada State Museum. It is also home to galleries, a botanical garden as well as an interpretive trail system through wetland habitat. In 1978, the Las Vegas Springs Preserve was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Harper said the preserve prides itself on events. In fact, it’s “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) event has become its best attended event of the year.
For more information on the Las Vegas Preserve, visit their website.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series
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