Southern Nevada’s history is intertwined with that of the Church of Latter Day Saints. In 1855, Mormon settlers were the first non-Indians to settle in Southern Nevada with the construction of a small adobe fort in a place known as Las Vegas (Spanish for “the meadows”).
Church leaders had mapped a trail between Salt Lake City and California, and believed Las Vegas served as a good rest stop along the way. However, because of its remoteness and other factors, the Las Vegas mission failed after only a few years.
About the same time, Mormon colonists also settled in Callville on the Colorado River and along the Muddy and Virgin Rivers, in areas that appeared to have agricultural promise.
Ultimately, these farming colonies proved unsuccessful and, by 1870, most had been abandoned. However, in the late 1870s and 1880s, a second wave of Mormon settlers journeyed to Southern Nevada to try to establish communities in Mesquite, Logandale and Bunkerville.
The latter, located about 90 miles east of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and State Route 170, was one of the most unusual and unique of the colonies. Founded in January 1877, Bunkerville was originally settled by followers of the United Order of Enoch, an offshoot of the main Mormon Church that espoused a communal lifestyle.
Town founder and namesake, Edward Bunker, settled on the south bank of the Virgin River with 27 relatives and friends, and set out to create a community in which residents would share equipment, property and work.
The colonists immediately attempted to tame the Virgin River, building an earthen dam and irrigation canal. Within a few months, alfalfa, corn, cotton, grapes and vegetables had been planted.
Unfortunately, a flash flood destroyed the dam in August 1877 but it was rebuilt in time to save that year’s crops.
Perhaps not surprisingly, life in early Bunkerville wasn’t easy. Despite the dam and canal, the river refused to cooperate. Additionally, the soil proved to be very alkaline, the water quality from the river was dreadful and there was dissension among the colonists over the fair division of labor and crops.
By 1881, the United Order was abandoned and the land was parceled to individual families. Despite the obstacles, it turned out the region could be farmed and the area soon developed into a reasonably productive agricultural district, which much of it remains to this day.
In addition to the difficulties in developing an agricultural base, other problems cropped up because many of Bunkerville’s founders were polygamists, which was acceptable in the Mormon religion but illegal.
During the early years, town fathers were frequently forced to hide from federal marshals, who would periodically raid the town looking for multiple-married offenders. Things finally quieted down after 1890, when church president Wilford Woodruff banned the practice of polygamy among church followers.
Over the years, more substantial homes were built in Bunkerville. Perhaps the most impressive is the two-story red brick Edward Bunker house. Still standing, the home has two large porches, a pair of fireplaces and clean, classic frontier architectural lines.
Driving through Bunkerville, you can find other glimpses into the hamlet’s past. A pioneer cemetery at the edge of town contains monuments to the town’s founders, including Edward Bunker.
State Route 170 is a loop road that runs parallel to I-15 for about 12 miles, between Mesquite and Exit #112. This is a pleasant short drive that runs next to the Virgin River (which usually looks pretty brackish) and neat rows of crops. Additionally, the area is home to a number of small dairy farms.
For more information about Bunkerville, contact the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum in nearby Mesquite, 702-346-5705.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.