Located at the bottom of a slight hill, just beyond Las Vegas landmarks like the Neon Museum and Cashman Center, sits a small state park at the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Washington Ave. Despite its rather humble appearance when seen from the street, the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort represents the birth of the city and the amazing change it has undergone since its pioneer beginnings.
The state historic park is home to a museum, which features exhibits on the history of Southern Nevada. Outside, beyond the museum’s back doors, visitors will find the site of the city’s earliest permanent structures.
Las Vegas has a long history of being a stopover for travelers thanks to its flowing springs and abundant grass and wildlife. In 1855, a group of Mormon settlers arrived in the area and attempted to make themselves a permanent home. They built an adobe fort and a post office and used the nearby springs to irrigate their extensive gardens and orchards. However, disagreements within the group led to the sale of the settlement to Octavius Gass. Financial troubles led Gass to hand over the ranch to Archibald and Helen Stewart in 1881.
Helen, after whom this journal is named, lost her husband in 1884 when he was killed in a gun fight. Despite being pregnant with their fifth child at the time of Archibald’s death, Helen was determined to continue to operate the ranch until it could be sold. Even after selling the ranch in 1902, Helen remained in this corner of Southern Nevada and became an active member of the growing community, which was known as “Los Vegas” at the time.
Today, visitors to Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort will find a convergence of these various phases of Las Vegas’ settlement, including a reconstruction of the fort’s gates and the site of the original ranch house. Most noteworthy, though, is the remaining portions of Las Vegas’ first permanent building. Just two sections of the old adobe fort are all that is left of the city’s first non-native settlement, built in 1855. Inside the small structure, a sign explains that the rest of the original walls were worn away by weather and time.
Standing in this spot, looking at those humble blocks, it is hard not to think of the Neon Museum just up the street, and Downtown Las Vegas and the Strip beyond that. Surely the original Mormon settlers and those who followed soon after could not have imagined the bright lights, casinos, and millions of tourists that make up today’s Las Vegas landscape. However, they must have known that Las Vegas had potential. I’d like to think that Helen, in particular, knew that the city was destined for great things.
Admission to Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort is $1 for adults. Children ages 12 and under are free. The park is located at 500 E. Washington Ave. and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Sarah Vernetti loves to write. When she isn’t writing about travel and the family-friendly side of Las Vegas, she’s busy crafting short stories and flash fiction. In her free time, Sarah enjoys hiking in the desert and spending time with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter @SarahVernetti.