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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Ranching Years

The first ranching activity in Las Vegas began in the fall of 1865 when Octavius Gass, a miner, settled on the site of the abandoned Mormon mission and began development of the Las Vegas Ranch. The property was situated in Arizona Territory until 1867 when Congress transferred the area to Lincoln County, Nevada. Gass called his ranch Los Vegas Rancho--deliberately changing the spelling so as not to be confused with Las Vegas, New Mexico, another settlement about 500 miles east. He soon became the principal landowner in the valley. He took an active role in politics and served as head of the Arizona Territorial Senate. His career was cut short because Congress in 1867 carved up all land north of the Colorado River and gave it to the new state of Nevada. Gass, now a resident of Nevada, became Justice of the Peace of Lincoln County.

Gass constructed his ranch house at the southwest corner of the old fort's quadrangle and may have incorporated walls of the old fort. He might even have torn down some of the Mormon buildings to use the adobe and stone. Completed in 1873, the ranch house was a flat-roofed single story building inside the corner of the Las Vegas Mormon Fort's walls. Gass added a fireplace at the southern end of the western wall. There was a large living room. He also expanded the irrigation system. By 1876 he had consolidated many of the small farming plots left by the Mormon missionaries and constructed new buildings. A painting of the Las Vegas Mormon Fort from that year shows a building divided into three portions. The north end was formed by a single story gabled structure; the center consisted of a flat roofed portion, also one story high, while the south end incorporated the surviving southeast blockhouse. At that time the south and west fort walls were still standing along with at least a portion of the northwest block house. Gass lived at the ranch until June 1881. After bad weather and bad business decisions in tin mining investments, Gass obtained a loan from Archibald Stewart. When Gass was unable to repay the loan, Stewart took possession of the Los Vegas Rancho. Gass and his family moved to California where he died in 1924.

Although Archibald Stewart now owned the ranch, he only hoped to use it as a business venture to raise horses, cattle, and crops. He met his wife, Helen Wiser, in California in 1872. According to Stewart family lore, the Wisers hoped to find successful older men for their daughters and Stewart satisfied these requirements. He was 20 years older than the 18-year-old Helen and was operating a successful freighting business near Pioche, Nevada. He later decided to move, and Stewart and his family arrived in Las Vegas in April 1882. His family consisted of his wife Helen, and his children William, Hiram, and Eliza (Tiza) with a fourth child, Evaline, born shortly after the family arrived. Mr. Stewart told his family that they would only live there for two years. Mrs. Stewart moved reluctantly and longed to return to an established community which provided stimulation and schooling for herself and her family.

The Los Vegas Rancho now included the original ranch--640 acres obtained by Gass from the United States under the Desert Land Act of 1877--and the Spring Ranch of some 320 acres, for a total of approximately 960 acres. However, shortly before the two years was up, a neighbor shot and killed Mr. Stewart. Helen Stewart buried her husband on a knoll west of the ranch house in a coffin made from the doors of the house. A few weeks later, she gave birth to Archibald, named after his father.

Helen Stewart continued to operate the ranch with the help of foremen and her father, Hiram Wiser. By 1888 rumors had spread throughout Lincoln County that a railroad would be built through the Las Vegas Valley. This brought a surge of land acquisition. Continuing through the 1890s Helen and her father bought large tracts of land in anticipation of this event. Helen dealt in real estate with her father until she was the largest property owner in Lincoln County.

Although there was talk of a railroad for years, the appearance of surveyors in the area of the Las Vegas Ranch sparked further interest. Senator William Clark (for whom Clark County, Nevada is named) of Montana requested a survey of the Las Vegas Valley for a proposed railroad route. The railroad's principal interest in the ranch lay in its water supply, so necessary to steam-powered locomotives. The ranch could also provide beef for the railroad workers. The railroad picked an area southwest of the ranch as the site for a town that would serve as a division point on the line. Helen, a woman of vision, sold 1,834 acres of the ranch--including the springs and water rights--to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad (later Union Pacific) in 1902 for $55,000.00. The bill of sale described the structure as "one adobe dwelling "L" shaped with 5 rooms with frame lean to." Helen kept the Stewart burial plot called Four Acres. Then she bought an additional 280 acres next to the Four Acres and built a second home, remaining in Las Vegas on the outskirts of the booming railroad stop. In 1903, Helen married a ranch hand, Frank Stewart--no relation to her first husband.

With the coming of the railroad, Las Vegas became a town. The railroad officials laid out a grid for the new city and auctioned off building sites south of the old fort and Stewart ranch in 1905. A tent house resort opened at the ranch in 1905, followed soon after by a meat market, supply store hotel, dance floor, and primitive swimming pool near the creek. Also, in 1905 railroad service opened to the East and Las Vegas was a point on the line. By now 1,500 people lived in the tent town and the old ranch was a recreational area. Thus the Las Vegas Mormon Fort gave birth to the new town of Las Vegas, Nevada on May 15, 1905 as lots for the town site were sold off in a public auction. There were 176 lots bought for $79, 566 on the first day. Many of the buyers were wealthy Los Angeles speculators who bought the lots as investments and never returned to the area. By 1909 the ranch was the home of Vegas Park Plunge, featuring a primitive swimming pool created by diverting the creek to a pool behind the fort. As more people came, more farms and ranches were settled.

After retiring from ranching, Helen Stewart continued as an influential member of that new town she helped start. Her nickname became "the first lady of Las Vegas." The new town brought many people to the area including more women, whose company she enjoyed as she became the grand dame of the Las Vegas society. She was considered an authority on the history of the southern part of the state and served as a member of the Nevada Historical Society and Society of Nevada Pioneers. She was active in furthering the education not only of Las Vegas children but the children of the Paiute Indians, who had been her friends, companions, and helpers throughout her adult life. Helen contributed a parcel of her land for a Paiute colony. She had a collection of their baskets and helped establish a school for them. She was also the first woman elected to Clark County School Board, and was the first woman to sit on a jury in Nevada. She also served as the first postmaster of Las Vegas from 1893-1903. She was buried in the Four Acres area when she died in 1926, survived by three of her five children and six grandchildren. Her funeral was attended by many well-known people.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What physical changes were made to the fort after the Mormons left? How did its use change over time?

2. How would you describe Gass's experience at the fort? What problems did he encounter?

3. How would you describe the Stewarts' experience? Would you describe Helen Stewart as a woman of vision? Why or why not? What was her legacy? Do you think she was an important woman in Nevada history?

4. How did the railroad change the character of the Las Vegas Valley?

Reading 2 was adapted from Archeological Reconnaissance of the Las Vegas Mormon Fort (Las Vegas, Nevada: WESTEC Services, 1981); Robert Elson and Alvin McClain, Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort: Historical and Archeological Perspectives (Silver City, Nevada: Intermountain Research, 1993); James Hinds, One Hundred and Twenty-Five Years at Las Vegas' Old Fort: A Historic Structures Report on Las Vegas Fort and Ranch (Las Vegas, Nevada, n.d.); Las Vegas Fort: Old Values, A New Meaning (Clark County, Nevada: Preservation Association, October 1980); Stanely Paher, Las Vegas as It Began-As It Grew (Las Vegas, Nevada: Nevada Publications, 1971); James Ryan, docent, Nevada State Museum and Historical Society (Las Vegas, NV: docent notes); Carrie Miller Townley, Helen J. Stewart: First Lady of Las Vegas, (Carson City, Nevada: Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Winter 1973).

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