Las Vegas : An Oasis

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There isn’t, at first glance, much history in Las Vegas. What happened in the past has no value in the “City without Clocks”; what matters is the bet on the table and the dice in your hand. The present is king here.

But history does exist in Las Vegas, and once found, it helps explain a lot about this strange town in the middle of the desert. Visited by Pueblo Indians as early as 300 B.C. , Las Vegas was discovered by whites in 1829, when a trading party led by a New Mexican named Antonio Armijo thought to shorten its trip along the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles by traveling north of the Colorado River. Nearly running out of water in the vast desert that stretches from what is now northwestern Arizona up into Death Valley and the Valley of Fire, Armijo dispatched a young Mexican scout named Raphael Rivera to search for an oasis; he returned thirteen days later with news of a verdant spring covered with the rolling green fields the Spanish call las vegas . Meadows there were, and plenty of water too; the traders refreshed themselves and reached Los Angeles less than three weeks later.

You can guess at the relief Armijo’s men must have felt if you drive south from Las Vegas along U.S. 95 to the tiny town of Searchlight, get out of your car, and walk into the desert. Saguaro, the tall cactus of Western films and Charles Addams cartoons, is omnipresent, along with sagebrush and paloverde, an odd, nearly supernatural tree that looks as if it had died and been spray-painted lime green. The heat, even in fall, is relentless. It was ninety-five when I left town at 10:00 A.M. ; by noon the mercury easily topped one hundred. Be careful of desert residents who might be sunning themselves on nearby rocks—speckled rattlesnakes, collared lizards, and the like—but continue to walk around. In the distance Mount Potosi and Muddy Peak rise like a giant gray moonscape into the brilliant and almost impossibly large sky. Breathe deeply to feel the saliva in your mouth evaporate like a handful of water on a hot skillet.

It is important to perform this act of self-immolation if you’re interested in understanding the history of Las Vegas. For only in coming to Las Vegas from the cruel desert can you see that it is truly an oasis. The soil is richer and the landscape greener than anything in the surrounding area. Despite the garish neon of the hotels and the pseudo-adobe of the apartment complexes that house their employees, visitors can see the historical importance of the town: there is water here.

Soon after Armijo’s arrival in Los Angeles, other Western explorers took note of Las Vegas. In 1855 a missionary party sent by Brigham Young came to the springs. Young, whose Mormon Church claimed much of the land west of the Colorado River for the state of Deseret, saw Las Vegas as a perfect stopping point along the Mormon corridor from San Bernardino to Salt Lake City. There were few Indians, there was plenty of water, and it lay between the two cities. The settlers arrived in Las Vegas a month after they left Salt Lake City and immediately set to building a large adobe fort to protect and house themselves. Part of this fort—the oldest building in the state—remains, but going to see it is more depressing than visiting any nineteenthcentury frontier building should be. Off Washington Avenue, in the lee of the giant parking lots of Cashman Field Center (which the city built in 1983 to house a minor-league baseball field and convention hall), a dilapidated chain-link fence and a dirt road lead up a light grade to what a small sign indicates is the Mormon’s Monument. All that’s there is a sad-looking little rectangular adobe building with a rusty-hinged door. A hand-lettered sign asks for donations of a dollar.

For a more enlivening look at what old Las Vegas was like, go to the Clark County Heritage Museum, which lies off South Boulder Highway in nearby Henderson. This country museum has a number of fine exhibits about the history of the area, some old Union Pacific rolling stock, a few restored houses, and, inexplicably, a Sherman M-4 tank. Best of all is its ghost town, which contains relics of Las Vegas’s pioneer days. There is also a great deal of rusted-out farm equipment that appears out of place in the dusty, hot dryness of Henderson’s desert.

In fact, farming almost became an important part of Las Vegas’s history. The Mormons began working the fertile ground near the Las Vegas springs soon after they arrived. But the discovery of a seemingly profitable lead vein on Mount Potosi, thirty-five miles to the southwest, removed the possibility of the town’s ever becoming an agricultural settlement. Within two years of sending men to Las Vegas, Brigham Young had canceled the mission and moved his flock to the bleak foothills of Potosi. The lead ore there turned out to be virtually useless, but mining it gave the Mormons valuable experience that they put to use in the more successful mines of southern Utah.