It was an oasis in the desert. The pioneers’ wagons would stop in the valleys. The horses would drink from the creeks, the pioneers would find a refreshment from the scorching sun and replenish their water supplies. After the rest, their long, hard voyage would be resumed. They headed towards their dreams in California or Oregon. Traders, gold seekers, or horse thieves would also traverse the desert and roam those areas.
In the early 1800’s, what later became the State of Nevada, was Mexican territory. Mexico lost the territory in 1848, and all that area became part of the territory of Utah. It became a territory on its own, in 1861, named Sierra Nevada. At that point, Mormon missionaries had settled in the Las Vegas Valley, building a fort. They chose that area because of the spring-fed creek. That same creek provided them with water for their fields and orchards. Their outpost served the tired passing travelers and Mormons heading to the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City.
The Mormon settlers would abandon the fort, in 1857, due to crop failures, conflicts among the group’s leaders, and low success in lead mining. The Fort, however, would continue to be used, first as a store, and later as a ranch.
The ranch and the land were sold in 1902 to the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake City Railroad, and downtown Las Vegas started to be formed. In 1905, the railroad tracks reached the area.
When in 1910, the state of Nevada banned gambling, organized crime started to develop with speakeasies and illegal casinos. The construction of the Boulder Dam brought thousands of workers and with them casinos and showgirls, to entertain them, and, of course, make a profit.
The fort remained to be used as a concrete testing laboratory for the construction of the Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam), from 1929 to 1931. The remaining buildings were used as residences for several families.
After 1941, the hotel and casino businesses thrived, helped by the military facilities opening in the area. However, Las Vegas was not only built with money from mobsters, but also by shrewd investments from Wall Street banks, union member funds, Princeton University endowments, and even from the Mormon Church, which has a strong presence in Las Vegas still.
As time went by, mob interests and investments were substituted by corporate conglomerates. The old casinos were tore down over the years to give place to massive complexes, resembling theme parks, inspired on foreign lands and aesthetics. Now, there are multiples cities and scenarios within on single city, from Venice, the New York skyline, Egypt, Paris. You can go to Las Vegas and have a glimpse of the whole world, or rather a luminous cacophony of replicas, but still impressive and majestic.
Incredibly, this luminous city, which feeds a number of vices, was born from a Mormon Fort, and grew from the railroad. The Fort is still there, as a testimony of the old days.
Las Vegas had a fascinating evolution from a railroad service center into a flashy, flamboyant city. The financial and architectural growth in the desert was due to a combination of investments, access to water, a good transport network and tolerant state laws.
The City of Las Vegas bought the Fort, in 1971. The Nevada Division of State Parks acquired the site, in 1991, and did a partial reconstruction of the fort, added to a modern visitor center and a re-creation of the Las Vegas Creek.
Las Vegas is not just made of casinos, hotels, clubs, and parties, all adult-oriented, there is so much more to do. Las Vegas has history and amazing parks, natural attractions and adventures.
Calisphere: University of California. www.oac.cdlib.org
Nevada State Parks. <parks.nv.gov>.
Jacob Sconyers’ photography at Google Maps.