The abandoned Mormon Fort gained new life as "Los Vegas Rancho" when Octavius Decatur Gass of California developed the area.
Gass had traveled to California and Arizona in search of gold. He stumbled across the old fort during his travels. He and his friends restored the fort and developed small "ranches" near it.
With a steady source of water from the Las Vegas Springs, the ranch produced grain, vegetables and fruit. Los Vegas Rancho became a way station for people traveling to and from Southern California and Salt Lake City. The few who stayed in the valley lived in rooms at the old fort.
At the springs and upper Las Vegas Creek to the west of the fort, James B. Wilson of Ohio and John Howell of New York worked together and filed for ownership of the 320 acres, which they called the Spring Rancho.
Howell and Wilson raised cattle and horses on irrigated grassy meadows and planted fruit trees. In 1872, Gass filed on most of the water from the springs, citing prior water rights. All the other land owners soon sold out to Gass.
By 1878, Gass owned all the land watered by the creek. Wilson moved to another valley area with natural springs—the area now known as the Spring Mountain State Park. Howell settled in the Oasis Valley north of Beatty, Nevada.
Gass married Mary Virginia Simpson, a niece of Ulysses S. Grant, in 1872 and had six children. Imagining the Colorado River would become a port for steamboats, he invested money in property development near the Colorado River. His land speculations went sour when the railroad provided an easier shipping method in the southwest.
Unable to sell the ranch, Gass borrowed money from Archibald Stewart. Gass planned to use money from his next crop to pay off the loan, but bad weather destroyed the crop and he turned over the property to Stewart. In 1882, Stewart and his family moved to Los Vegas Rancho, which they referred to as the Upper Rancho.
An old-fashioned western gunfight with a hired-hand from another ranch killed Archibald Stewart in 1884. Stewart left behind his pregnant wife, Helen J. Stewart, and four children. Travelers continued to come to the ranch in search of water, food and rest during their journeys, and Helen continued to run the ranch for the next 20 years.
In 1902, Helen Stewart signed an agreement with Senator William A. Clark of Montana to sell the Stewart Ranch and its water rights to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroads (later known as Union Pacific). The $55,000 sale did not include the family cemetery or a small part of the water from the Las Vegas Creek.
Photo courtesy of the UNLV Lied Library Special Collections Department.
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