FEATURE — Winter is the perfect time to explore Las Vegas’ history. The drive from St. George will take just short of two hours, and once there, visitors looking for something besides gambling will find the story of Las Vegas’ humble beginnings at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort Historic State Park just off Interstate 15 on Washington Avenue.
The fort is handsomely reconstructed as a reminder of the city’s beginnings. A museum and gift shop houses models of three different periods of the fort and various dioramas of the glitzy city’s past. A remaining portion of a ranch house built from adobe bricks, gleaned from the old fort and remnants of the first settlers’ existence stands as a memorial to the birthplace of Las Vegas.
Visitors will experience not only the fort but freight wagons, a fig orchard, vineyards and gardens. A spring and creek are neatly in place as if they had been there from the beginning.
Garrett Fehner, park interpreter at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, enjoys telling visitors the bygone story of the first settlers.
Brigham Young, then leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sent Orson Porter Rockwell to San Bernardino in December of 1847. His mission was to obtain seeds, tree cuttings and livestock. Rockwell, known paradoxically as gunslinger, vigilante and peacemaker, successfully traveled the Old Spanish Trail to California and back. He was the first to get a wagon through the mule pathway.
Though Rockwell could wolf across great distances of Iowa prairie, the party of 15 traveling the Mojave Desert nearly perished, Fehner said. Men exhausted by the heat hung on to their horses’ tails and plodded along. The party found relief at a spring-fed oasis among the Paiutes dwelling in the region. The shady oasis is now the city of Las Vegas.
Rockwell and other explorers took favorable reports of the oasis back to Salt Lake City. In April 1855, Young called 30 men, led by William Bringhurst, to establish a halfway station for travelers between the Pacific Coast and Utah and to “tame the Indians,” Fehner said.
Bringhurst and men built a 150-foot-square adobe fort – the first permanent structure in the valley. The Las Vegas Creek provided water for crops and orchards. The mission expanded to include mining and smelting of lead found in the mountains to the southwest.
However, in less than three years, the mission was disbanded. Other miners and ranchers settled into “the vegas” – Spanish for “the meadows” – digging wells that began to drain the aquifer, Fehner said.
In 1865, Octavius D. Gass bought the fort and surrounding property. He developed a ranch with a store and blacksmith shop to serve the community and trekkers. Gass defaulted on his loan – perhaps as a result of the northwest corner of Arizona Territory becoming the state of Nevada, Fehner said – and the ranch passed on to Archibald “Archie” Stewart and his wife, Helen.
“Now, Helen Jane Wiser Stewart was quite the lady,” Fehner said.
Archie Stewart thought the same thing after meeting Helen Wiser in Sacramento where she had been educated. Helen was just 18 and Archie was 20 years older when they were married. Archie was an established businessman living near Pioche, Nevada, at the time.
Helen Stewart bore three children and was pregnant with another when her husband decided to relocate his family to the remote “Los Vegas Ranch” – the post office insisted on that spelling. Helen didn’t like being away from civilization but, over the next 20 years while living at the ranch, she made friends with the Paiute women in the area.
The Paiute women told her the meaning of their work on baskets, which spoke the stories of their lives. Helen collected 550 baskets.
The Los Vegas Ranch, complete with a post office, had a nonstop flow of travelers. Often the Stewarts would awake to find travelers by the dozen camped on their property. Helen Stewart didn’t mind, especially if there were women among the travelers, Fehner said, as she longed for feminine companionship.
On a blistering July day in 1884, Archie Stewart pulled his freight wagon into Los Vegas Ranch. He had been away delivering produce and livestock to the Eldorado Canyon mines 45 miles away.
Helen Stewart was reluctant to tell her husband about an encounter with one of their ranch hands, Schyler Henry. Henry had abruptly quit his employment and demanded his wages. Helen Stewart refused, explaining that she did not know how much he was owed. Henry threatened and insulted her but she didn’t waver.
After Archie Stewart was fed and rested a bit, Helen told him the full story of the ranch hand, saying Henry had a “black-hearted slanderer’s tongue.”
Archie Stewart mounted his horse, shoved his rifle in its scabbard and road off to the Kiel Ranch, which was situated near the present location of Carey Avenue and Losee Road in North Las Vegas, Fehner said.
The Kiel Ranch had a reputation as a haven and hangout for outlaws and scoundrels, including men like Hank Parrish and Jack Longstreet and other sharpshooters, gamblers, troublemakers and men with their faces plastered on wanted posters.
After a shootout ensued and the smoke had cleared, Conrad Kiel sent a rider with a note addressed to Helen Stewart – misspelled as “Sturd.” The note read: “Mrs. Sturd send a team and take Mr. Sturd away he is dead. C. Kiel.”
Helen buried Archie in a coffin made from doors off her home, as lumber was scarce. He was the first of seven to be buried in a nearby family plot.
The grand jury in Pioche failed to indict Conrad Kiel and Schyler Henry.
Helen Stewart, with four children and another on the way, had no choice but to get busy and learn to run the ranch. Her father and brother moved from California to help. The ranch continued to be a resort for heat-weary travelers and miners, with its cooling water and tall cottonwood trees. The ranch grew to 960 acres, and through many years the vineyards produced as much as 600 gallons of wine. And the Stewarts sold it cheap.
In 1902 Stewart signed a contract for $55,000 that became the birth certificate for the city of Las Vegas. The sale of the Los Vegas Ranch went to the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, the first direct route from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The sale did not include the 4-acre family cemetery or a small allotment of water from Las Vegas Creek.
Helen Stewart and family were out of the ranching business, but knowing the railroad’s plans, she snatched up another 924 acres, including a 40-acre plot where she lived for the rest of her life. She became immersed in community service, contributed to Nevada’s Historical Society and helped form the area’s first Episcopal Church.
It was said of Helen Stewart that “she was a legendary lady who wrung a living from a harsh land and suffered hardships modern people cannot imagine. She ultimately prevailed and earned the title – The First Lady of Las Vegas.”
Visiting Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park
Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park is located off Interstate 15 at 500 E. Washington Ave., Las Vegas, Nevada. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. A donation of $2 is requested.
Springs Preserve Botanical Garden and Trails, just 4 miles away at 333 S. Valley View Blvd., is open daily from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas). General admission includes Origen and Nevada State Museums. Nonresident adult admission is $18.95, senior and students $17.05, children, 5-17, $10.95. There is an additional fee for signature events and activities such as the Butterfly Habitat and Holiday Express.
The Origen Museum comprises multiple galleries, theater and exhibits of natural and cultural history, including a flash flood experience and a large display about water’s pivotal role in the development of the city. Visitors explore native dwellings, a historic railroad car, a Hoover Dam exhibit and more.
The Nevada State Museum, also within the Springs Preserve, tells the story of Las Vegas from prehistory through the glitz and glamour, with multimedia and interactive displays. It is open Tuesday through Sunday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
According to the online Sperling’s Best Places City Compare, Las Vegas has 64.6 percent less rainy days and 14.2 percent more sunny days than St. George.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series with St. George News contributor, feature writer and photographer Kathleen Lillywhite. She said:
I write my stories for people who say, ‘What is there to do around St. George?’ and for new folks just moving into this area.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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