Wednesday, January 09, 2008
A Glimpse of Early Las Vegas
It was tough living in Las Vegas in 1855. That’s the year that 30 Mormon missionaries from Utah established a small colony in the remote Las Vegas Valley.
Creating the settlement wasn’t an easy job. In addition to having no air conditioning or room service, colonists had to plant crops for food, erect their own places in which to live and cope with intolerably hot temperatures.
In fact, one colonist, George W. Bean later reported, “we started to clear off the land to plant the crops forthwith, but the heat was terrible.”
The purpose of the colony was to educate the native Paiutes about Christianity and to establish a halfway station between Utah and Southern California’s port cities. Las Vegas (which is Spanish for “the meadows,” was selected as the site because it was located on the Old Spanish Trail, had plenty of water from natural springs and abundant meadow grasses.
In addition to planting squash, melons, corn and other crops, colonists soon constructed an adobe fort. Each side of the enclosure, built adjacent to the Las Vegas Creek, was about 150 feet with taller towers or bastions at the northwest and southeast corners.
The Las Vegas Mission or, as it later became known, the Mormon Fort, managed to operate for about two years. In late 1855, a post office was established at the fort, which was named Bringhurst, after the mission’s leader, William Bringhurst.
In late 1856, however, differences in philosophy between Bringhurst, and other colonists resulted in its being abandoned. On February 23, 1857, Brigham Young, president of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) officially terminated the mission.
The adobe buildings of the old fort were acquired in 1865 by Octavius Decatur Gass, a miner from El Dorado Canyon (south of Las Vegas). Gass incorporated parts of the fort into a larger ranch house compound and eventually built a store and blacksmith shop to serve travelers passing through the area, which became known as the Los Vegas Rancho.
Gass greatly expanded his land holdings in the Las Vegas Valley during the next few years but in doing so over-extended himself financially. In 1881, Archibald Stewart, who had loaned money to Gass, gained ownership of the property after Gass defaulted.
Three years later, Stewart was killed in a dispute with neighbors and his wife, Helen, assumed control of the rancho. She developed it as a way station for travelers, providing them with food and shelter.
In 1902, Mrs. Stewart sold the ranch to the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad (later part of the Union Pacific Railroad), which, in 1905, developed the property into the city of Las Vegas.
Today, the site of the Old Mormon Fort, located a few blocks from the center of downtown Las Vegas, is an historic state park. Over the years, all but one of the original fort buildings has disappeared. That structure has been changed considerably; in 1929, it was leased and renovated by the Bureau of Reclamation for use as a lab during the construction of Hoover Dam.
The rectangular adobe structure that still stands now houses a small museum featuring displays and exhibits detailing the fort’s history. Additionally, one of the rooms contains 19th century furnishings—not the originals—that show how the building was probably furnished near the turn of the 20th century.
Additionally, the park contains reconstructions of the fort’s north and south walls, one of the bastions, the corrals, and a replica of the Pioneer Garden, complete with various crops like those planted 150 years ago.
A segment of the Las Vegas Creek, which once flowed naturally through the property, has been re-created adjacent to the adobe building. The original spring that fed the creek was diverted in the early 20th century and the creek largely dried up.
In recent years, the state parks have also added a fine new visitor center. Inside, you can find a small gift shop as well as displays describing the natural history of Southern Nevada.
Rangers also offer guided walking tours on request. The site is also occasionally excavated by archaeology groups attempting to study the foundations of the original fort structures and later ranch buildings to get clues about living conditions, etc.
The Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park is located at 500 East Washington Avenue in Las Vegas, adjacent to Cashman Field and across the street from the Sawyer State Office Building.
The park is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There is a small admission charge of $3 for adults and $2 for children under 12. Under 6 free. For more information call 702-486-3511.