Richard Moreno: Finding traces of old Las Vegas
August 6, 2018
It's long been said of Las Vegas that the only real constant is change. That concept is perhaps best represented by the fact that very little remains of the original community, which was formally established in 1905, but which dates back even farther.
Interestingly, the name, Las Vegas, is one of the oldest place names in the state. In the late 1820s and 1830s, traders on the Old Spanish Trail camped in the grassy fields near natural springs in the area, which they called "Los Vegas," which is Spanish for "the meadows."
In 1844, explorer John C. Frémont visited the locale during his explorations. In his report, Frémont noted, "We encamped in the midst of another very large basin, at a camping ground called las vegas — a term which the Spanish use to signify fertile or marshy plains."
It was Frémont's descriptions of the area that attracted later travelers, including many who used it as a watering spot on their journey to California.
The oldest remaining building in Las Vegas is the Old Mormon Fort, located at 908 Las Vegas Boulevard North. Here you can see the last remaining structure of a complex of adobe buildings built by Mormon colonists in 1855. Tours of the simple adobe building on the fort site, now a small museum, are available.
The Mormon settlement was not a success and was abandoned in 1858. A few years later, the fort site was rebuilt and became the heart of the Los Vegas Ranch, established by Octavius D. Gass.
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The ranch flourished for the rest of the century under not only Gass (who owned it until 1881) but also under later owners. In 1902, the ranch was sold to Montana Sen. William J. Clark, who planned to build a rail line from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles via Las Vegas.
Later, Clark merged his efforts with those of the Union Pacific Railroad and in 1905, the line was built to Las Vegas. A town site was surveyed, lots were sold, and modern Las Vegas was born.
The railroad was a major influence on Las Vegas. The older buildings in the city date from this period, including a handful of historic railroad cottages on Second, Third and Fourth streets between Clark and Garcia streets (the railroad originally built 64 bungalows for its workers) and the Lincoln Hotel (now called the Victory Hotel) at 307 N. Main Street, both built in 1910.
Another old-timer in the downtown is the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino at 1 Fremont Street. The first two floors of the hotel opened in 1906. The property was expanded in 1931 and has been remodeled on several occasions.
The beginning of construction of Hoover Dam in 1930, which attracted hundreds of workers to the area, created a new boom in Las Vegas. Additionally, gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, which sparked a small boom in casino construction.
A handful of buildings can trace their roots to this period including:
The Post Office/Federal Building at 301 E. Stewart, constructed in 1933 in the neo-classical style popular for government buildings at the time. Big and impressive, this building, like Hoover Dam, is a good example of the simple yet elegant federal architecture of the 1930s. Today the old post office is home of the Mob Museum, dedicated to telling the story of the city's past involvement with organized crime figures.
Las Vegas High School at 315 S. Seventh, built in 1931, which is the city's only remaining example of the Art Deco architecture of the 1930s. This is a truly beautiful structure with its intricate terra cotta facing. While today it is the home of the Las Vegas Academy of Performing Arts, the building is in need of restoration and its future is unknown.
The Hitching Post Wedding Chapel at 226 Las Vegas Blvd. S., built as a residence in 1923, then converted to a chapel in 1934. This is one of the city's earliest and most tasteful wedding chapels and continues to serve as a chapel.
The Apache Hotel/Horseshoe at 128 Fremont, constructed in 1931. The original Apache still exists behind the modern Horseshoe's brilliant signage.
The El Cortez Hotel & Casino at 600 Fremont was downtown Las Vegas' first large-scale resort. The high-rise hotel was built in 1941 and its exterior has remained largely unchanged. It continues to serve as a hotel-casino.