Las Vegas History

Suzanne Harrison - Broker-Salesperson, REALTOR®  


A Brief History of Las Vegas

Excerpt from the City of Las Vegas Historic Properties & Neighborhood Preservation Plan Element of the Las Vegas 2020 Master Plan

Prehistoric Las Vegas

Several scientific studies have been conducted in the northwest area of the valley at what is now known as the Upper Las Vegas Wash. A report titled, “Pleistocene Studies in Southern Nevada", completed by the Nevada State Museum in 1967, states that mammoths, horses, camels, bison and sloths inhabited this area until as late as 11,000 years ago. Significant fossil evidence has been found concentrated in this area and others near historic sources of natural water or drainage pathways.

Although several different cultural sequences have been proposed for the Mojave Desert, most archaeologists agree that the earliest cultures were Paleo-Indian. By the beginning of the Early Archaic, around 7,000 years ago, deserts had become extremely dry. This period was marked by new smaller projectile point styles that were being manufactured along with the previous styles.

Around 3,000 years ago, towards the end of the Archaic Period, increased moisture due to climate change allowed populations to capitalize more on wild plants such as grains and seeds as suggested in the increase of grinding stones and other milling equipment. Intensification of subsistence indicates increased population across southern Nevada and surrounding areas. Underground storage of food was typical during this period until the introduction of ceramics allowed for more efficient storage capabilities.

The Ceramic Period began roughly 1,000 years ago, and is marked by the introduction of pottery, as well as the adoption of the bow and arrow. In the Moapa and Virgin valleys, the Virgin Anasazi initially built pithouse structures, but later house structures consisted of above-ground buildings. They practiced irrigation farming along the rivers and collected wild food resources as a supplement. Although Puebloan influence was mainly concentrated along the Virgin and Muddy rivers, their presence was felt in the Las Vegas area.

Similar in nature to Anasazi cultural developments, the Patayan Tradition (Mojave) evolved from the previous Archaic Period. Between AD 1000 and 1500, these Mojave people lived and made pottery in the Las Vegas Valley.

The third culture group inhabiting this area was the Southern Paiutes, who were the only residents remaining here at European contact. They occupied this region and engaged in hunting, gathering, and foraging, supplemented by horticulture. Fields were commonly found at many of the major springs throughout Las Vegas Valley. The Paiute played important roles at the early ranches of the area, and today maintain a base in the City, the Las Vegas Paiute Colony, on land provided to them by Helen Stewart.

Historic Las Vegas

The first successful European crossing of the Mojave desert was done by Spanish missionaries and explorers in 1776. They forged a trail beginning in present day Santa Fe, New Mexico and ending in Los Angeles, California. The trail through Southern Nevada, now called the Old Spanish Trail, was completed in 1826 by Jedediah Smith.

Mexican trader Antonio Armijo led a 60-man commercial caravan along the Spanish Trail to Los Angeles in 1829. This was the first caravan to pass through the Las Vegas Valley. The abundant artesian spring water discovered here shortened the Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, and eased rigors for traders. On May 13, 1844, John C. Fremont camped at Las Vegas Springs as he led an overland expedition west. Fremont was the first to record Las Vegas, which means “The Meadows” in Spanish, on an American map.

A rough wagon road soon developed along the Spanish Trail between Salt Lake City and southern California often used heavily by wagons to deliver mining supplies and equipment. Located roughly midway along the trail, the Las Vegas Valley became a natural stop-off point for travelers to re-stock supplies and water from the Las Vegas Springs. Today, the Old Spanish Trail is disappearing in Las Vegas due to development, but portions of it have been recorded as being significant archaeological and historic sites in the Las Vegas Valley. The locations of these sites are restricted to protect the resource. In 1855, a group of Mormon missionaries established a settlement about four miles east of Big Springs, now the Springs Preserve, where they constructed an adobe brick fort. The mission was terminated in 1857 due to internal dissension and difficulties in converting the native population.

Until the early 1900s, mining and agriculture were the predominant industries in southern Nevada, although there were a few large ranches in the area. Octavius Decatur Gass had developed a marginally successful ranching and farming operation around the abandoned Mormon Fort that had been built in 1855. In 1879, after struggling for several years with the desert environment, Gass had become significantly in debt. He persuaded a man named Archibald Stewart to loan him $5,000 which Gass never paid back.

Archibald and his wife, Helen, became the new owners of the ranch in 1880 and ran it quite successfully until Archibald was murdered at the nearby Kiel Ranch over an unsettled dispute. Helen Stewart suddenly found herself alone with four children, another on the way, and a 960-acre ranch to manage.

The Railroad

In anticipation of a railroad passing through town, Helen began to purchase more land, and in 1902, Montana Senator William Clark, soon to be owner of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad Company, purchased the 1,800 acre Stewart ranch to make way for the completion of the tracks between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Speculators began purchasing vast amounts of land resulting in two competing townships. The first township was established by an engineer and surveyor named John T. McWilliams, who purchased eighty acres of government land just west of the railroad tracks. In early 1905, the town, advertised as “The Original Las Vegas Townsite,” consisted of approximately 150 buildings including saloons, boarding houses, homes, and stores stocked with mining supplies as well as an ice house.

The second site was located on the east side of the tracks and was named Clark’s Las Vegas Townsite for the new owner of the railroad, Senator William Clark. The railroad held a land auction in May of 1905. The lots included the area between present day Stewart Avenue, Garces Avenue, Main, and Fifth Streets. Approximately half of the available 1,200 lots were sold within the first two days, many purchased by speculators from Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. The most valuable lots included those closest to the train depot located at the intersection of Main and Fremont Streets.

The railroad company soon built permanent structures that included the Mission style Railroad Depot in 1906, and several workshops and auxiliary buildings (all demolished). Between 1909 and 1911, the railroad company also constructed 64 cottages in a modest bungalow style for mid-level employees on four square blocks in downtown. The cottages represented the earliest “company housing” in Las Vegas. Most of the cottages have been demolished; however, four have been moved to the Springs Preserve, and one has been moved to the Clark County Heritage Museum.

During this time, development was slow on the west side of the tracks. The depot, and consequently the freight loading and unloading ramps, was located on the east side of the tracks, making it difficult for carts to cross over the embankment. Children from McWilliams’ Townsite had to cross the railroad tracks to get to school in Clark’s Townsite, prompting the construction of the Westside School in 1922. Competition from Clark’s townsite and the inconvenient access to transportation and necessary mining and ranching supplies caused the McWilliams’ townsite to lose favor and eventually dwindle to a few small tents and buildings. Today, the original townsite area is known as the “Old Westside,” which is located to the northwest of the I-95 and I-15 freeway interchange. The Pioneer Trail, a vehicle and pedestrian trail with interpretive markers, winds visitors through this historic area.

Fremont Street became the town center with a bank, post office, retail shops and hotels occupying approximately the first two and one-half blocks. The remaining buildings from this time include the Nevada Hotel (1905), now the Golden Gate, and the Victory Hotel (1910), formerly the Lincoln Hotel. The remaining blocks of Fremont Street between Third and Fifth Streets were developed as Las Vegas' first exclusive residential area. These homes, built mostly in the Bungalow style with Craftsman details, were demolished during the 1930s and 1940s for commercial expansion. The industrial and commercial district developed mostly along the railroad tracks while the rest of the city consisted of quiet residential streets.

However, it was not long before the city began to expand, extending the original grid eastward. Developers began to plat subdivisions as early as 1905, selling individual lots as they were purchased. Many of these homes were built in the popular Bungalow style, as well as Spanish Eclectic, Tudor and Colonial Revival styles. Some of the early subdivisions include the Bucks Subdivision, Fairview Tract, and the Grandview, Wardie, South and Hawkins’ Additions. Building within these subdivisions was slow with minimal population and water facilities to support them until the building boom period in the late 1920s.

The Federal Years

In the late 1920s, talk of building the Boulder Dam enticed thousands of laborers and their families to relocate, looking for work on the dam. This project was the largest in Las Vegas to receive federal funding. Construction began in 1931 and was to have a significant impact on the economic and physical development of Las Vegas. While the rest of the country was suffering heavily during the Great Depression, Las Vegas boomed in 1931 as Nevada repealed gambling prohibition and liberalized its divorce laws, shortening residency requirements from three months to only six weeks. Las Vegas’ new residents spent their hard-earned pay in gambling clubs, called “sawdust joints” that began to open up on Fremont Street. So much growth was anticipated that the Las Vegas High School (now Las Vegas Academy) was built far from town on Seventh Street and Bridger Avenue in 1931. The Las Vegas High School is extremely important as a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture and Las Vegas’ only large scale building of this kind.

Other federal funding allowed for the paving of public streets, improvements and expansions to the city’s infrastructure, and recreational and public facilities in and near the downtown area between 1933 and 1934. Remaining examples are the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse (1933) and the Bonanza Road (Clark Ave) railroad underpass (1936). All of these factors served to extricate Las Vegas from its economic dependency on the railroad.

Significant architecture flourished in the 1930s in Las Vegas. Spanish Eclectic and Mission styles, then popular in the West and Southwest, are represented by the Fifth Street School (1936) and residences such as the Henderson (1930) and Smith (1931) homes.

The Tudor Revival is represented best in the area surrounding the Las Vegas High School, showcased by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) Las Vegas Regional Family History Center (1932).

Also in the 1930s was the beginning of the signature style of neon signage in downtown Las Vegas. On Fremont Street, signs reflected the architectural and cultural trends of the day rather than the buildings, which tended to have narrow fronts with modest decoration. Competition for the pedestrian eye forced signage to evolve from a simple painting on the wooden storefront to entire neon “wraps” which covered whole facades of Fremont Street businesses by the 1950s. The exuberant clustering of animated neon and lights gave Fremont Street its distinct urban identity not experienced on “the Strip.” This era is considered to be the highlight of Las Vegas’ neon, with the Binion’s hotel and casino being one of the survivors.

World War II

During World War II, the population of Las Vegas again increased significantly as people came to find work at the military bases and industrial plants in the area. The Las Vegas Army Air Force Gunnery School (later Nellis Air Force Base), opened in 1941, and Basic Magnesium Incorporated in the Basic Townsite (Henderson) opened in 1942. Housing construction could not keep up and families were doubling up in houses, apartments and hotels. In West Las Vegas, churches, businesses, nightclubs, hotels and casinos were built. As African American entertainers performing on the Strip were not allowed to stay there, boarding houses on the Westside served as hotels.

In 1941, President Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Federal Housing Act creating Title VI, making possible the mass construction of FHA financed homes. In order to qualify for Title VI, a town had to be declared a defense area, which Las Vegas was in 1941. The three major Las Vegas neighborhoods built with Title VI financing are the Biltmore, Huntridge and Mayfair, all located near downtown. These neighborhoods were built specifically to house non-commissioned officers, civilian employees of the air base and Basic Magnesium, and their families.

Residential architecture in the 1940s and 50s evolved from the popular Revival styles of the 1930s to the more modest Minimal Traditional and Ranch styles. Minimal Traditional style homes were small with very little decorative detailing or exaggerated features. A natural progression was the Ranch style, the ultimate in streamline residential design. Although the Ranch style took its early cues from the Craftsman and Prairie styles, the Ranch is recognized as a sub-category of the International style, or Modern Movement, so popular for commercial and public buildings. Long and low with wide overhanging eaves and ribbon windows, the “rambling” Ranch style was well suited to the sprawling suburban subdivisions and the more casual lifestyle of the postwar era. Many remaining examples of Minimal Traditional and Ranch style homes are located in the John S. Park Neighborhood Historic District. Good examples of a modest version of the Modern Ranch can be found in the Berkley Square Neighborhood Historic District.

Post War

By 1950, the population of Las Vegas had increased to 24,624, tripling again from 1940. The downtown commercial area was no longer considered to be the central focus of community life. Residents became more dependent upon the automobile and motor court style motels, still seen today on East Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, began to spring up along major thoroughfares, catering to tourists. It was during this time that the Strip began to develop in a large way, mainly because at that time it was the main highway to Los Angeles. The popularity of gaming, dependency upon the automobile, limited downtown parking, smaller lot sizes, and lower tax rates resulted in larger resort casinos locating along the Strip.

During the 1950s the city was focused on growth, looking for additional ways to increase jobs and attract tourists. In 1950, the government announced plans to begin testing nuclear weapons on a portion of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range at Frenchman and Yucca flats, approximately ninety miles north of Las Vegas. Aside from providing employment, the city invited tourists to stay and visit the blasts. Hotels sponsored all-night parties and a myriad of attractions from specialized drinks to business establishments were prefaced with “Atomic.”

The 1960s and 1970s brought more residential development throughout the City. A leapfrog pattern of development left large areas of vacant land. This was a result of the improved network of roads and has led to the diffusion of housing, employment and services. Present day downtown Las Vegas has a different appearance than 40 years ago. The function of the downtown area (Fremont Street) has shifted from commercial uses to tourism. Many residential areas were eliminated for commercial development and transportation.

Las Vegas Today

Rising property values, changing development patterns, and rapid growth in the downtown area provides a continual threat to many original historic structures, along with the overall historic context of the area. It is important for the City to identify significant historic buildings, sites and structures so that available resources can be assigned to the preservation of our community gems. An important step toward this direction is the current focus on neighborhood preservation. The City of Las Vegas Department of Planning and Development and the Department of Neighborhood Services are continually working with registered neighborhood associations to inform property owners about historic designation. If the residents support such a move, the city will assist them in determining the potential eligibility of their neighborhood to be listed as an historic district.

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Suzanne Harrison
Broker-Salesperson, REALTOR®
Nevada Real Estate License BS.0144512
(702) 419-1888
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