Monday, May 24, 2010



Do the roots of my western adventures go back to my Irish grandfather? An engineer of a New York City train, he had been the driver and valet for Bret Harte, a famous writer of western-pioneer stories and plays. Were my grandfather’s dreams influenced by his employer’s literary portraits of the American west? Such questions linger and drive my curiosity in the stories we tread upon in our daily lives…including the origins of Las Vegas.

Today is an anniversary for Las Vegas, for one-hundred and five years ago the first sale of land lots by William A. Clark and brother J. Ross Clark took place. William was a newly elected U.S. Senator from Montana with wealth from copper mines in his home state when he purchased the eighteen-hundred-acre Stewart Ranch in the heart of our verdant valley.

There was no railroad linking the largest community in the Great Basin—Salt Lake City—to the important trade center of Los Angeles, when the 1900 Census listed just 30 residents here. With plans to build that link between LA and Salt Lake, one-term Senator Clark and his younger brother bought the Angeles Terminal Railroad.

The Clarks raced the Union Pacific in developing their rail line only to become equal partners in the newly name San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad: named San Pedro for the port that, even today, ranks as the 4th largest trade gateway in the world.

The birth of Las Vegas township dates to that first land auction on May 15, 1905. The auction had been touted with special low train fares and a rebate for buyers. One thousand turned out in the high heat.

The Clarks fed Las Vegas’ growth by adding a rail line to serve Goldwell and Tonopah, during the mining boom period that revived Nevada’s national stature. That rail bed now lies beneath Highway 95 north to Beatty. Dozens of spurs lines once connected Nevada mines to the Northern, Central and Southern rail lines crossing the state.

Their legacy was sealed with the newly named Clark County in 1909. With the building of Hoover Dam, our region enjoyed prosperity while elsewhere the Great Depression was endured. Steam engine trains bustled with supplies converging on Las Vegas en route to Boulder City and the Dam.

We are one of only two states with a train in our state Seal. And it was placed there before we even had a railroad—call it wish fulfillment.

Las Vegas grew on the shoulders of boomtowns it came to eclipse. But, railroads, ranches, and mines remain our legacy. Today, gold is king again, and coal ore is the number-one commodity transported by rail.

William Clark retired to a lavish mansion in Manhattan, while my grandfather had his hand on the throttle of the Bronx to Coney Island train. Ross Clark, whose idea it was to build the Salt Lake to LA line, remained a formative leader in land and water rights here; through his public legacy is over-shadowed by his big brother.

We are all given opportunity to peer at what lies buried, to remember how this world of ours evolved, even if but to turn over a rock and look at our community’s origins and our place in it, more closely.

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This essay originally ran on KNPR Network

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