- Islands in a History Desert: The Historic State Parks of Southern Nevada
Las Vegas doesn't wear its early history on its sleeve. Many of its popular museums reflect the city's current emphasis on gaming and tourism. Others commemorate its relatively recent association with organized crime or its proximity to federal projects such as Hoover Dam or nuclear weapons testing. Although a few capitalize on the natural history of the Las Vegas Valley, tourists can be forgiven for assuming that the city exploded out of the desert like an atomic bomb in the mid-twentieth [End Page 152]century. 1The Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park presents an important corrective to this assumption. It extends the story of Las Vegas back almost a century to reveal an era characterized much more by transience than dramatic urban growth. The Old Mormon Fort is among the best-preserved and earnestly interpreted remnants of early Las Vegas.
The namesake "Old Mormon Fort" dates to 1855 when a group of thirty Latter Day Saints arrived from Utah as part of the church's larger push to establish missions, settlements, and fortifications along the Mormon Road between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Located near a spring-fed creek, settlers constructed a 150-square foot adobe fort, planted extensive gardens, mined for lead in nearby hills, and proselytized amongst the native southern Paiutes. Internal leadership disputes and failed harvests led to the disbanding of the settlement only two years later. Euroamerican presence in the valley remained minimal in subsequent decades, especially relative to the Paiutes, and by 1884 the site passed into the hands of rancher Helen Stewart upon the death of her husband.
Stewart's tenure at the "Las Vegas Ranch" serves as the climax of the historic site's narrative. Called the "First Lady of Las Vegas," Stewart increased the size of the ranch to two thousand acres and eventually sold a portion to the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, which would establish the city of Las Vegas in 1905. The Bureau of Reclamation leased the deteriorating remnants of the fort to use as a concrete testing laboratory for the Hoover Dam in 1929. This last element of the fort's story is a fitting coda to this early phase of Las Vegas's history. No longer a remote outpost for transient settlers, miners, or missionaries, Hoover Dam inaugurated a period of explosive growth in Las Vegas's population and economic development that continues today.
Although the fort and its rural borderlands history stands apart from this later story of development, the Old Mormon Fort State Historic Site is very much a product of it. Threatened by the urbanization it helped initiate, local preservationists in the 1970s saved a portion of the original site, which the State Park System took over in the 1990s. Today, its urban surroundings remain a significant element of the park's character. It sits at the crux of two busy intersections in North Las Vegas. This increases its accessibility, but it also exposes the site to a variety of issues more remote historic sites easily mitigate. According to interpreters, noise pollution, litter, and trespassing remain practical challenges for the site.
Urbanization also dramatically altered the site's natural environment. Even the spring-fed Las Vegas Creek that attracted initial settlement no longer flows. 2This is [End Page 153]significant because the Mohave is an active agent in the historic site's narrative. The Paiute's use of local resources and the Mormon settlers' early farming failures underscore the limitations imposed by the desert and specific adaptations necessary for habitation. At the same time, the spring and its creek worked like a magnet drawing a steady stream of peoples across the desert. The park emphasizes the significance...