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Our history

Photo courtesy of UNLV University Libraries Special Collections

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, the Springs Preserve is a 180-acre cultural institution designed to commemorate Las Vegas' dynamic history and to provide a vision for a sustainable future.

The Preserve features museums, galleries, outdoor events, a colorful botanical garden and an interpretive trail system through a scenic wetland habitat.

Before it opened to the public in June 2007, the Preserve was home to many other Southern Nevadans over the past centuries. Learn more about the area's rich past:

Early history (9000 BC to 1776 AD)

After the last glacial age ended in the Las Vegas Valley some 12,000 years ago, this area slowly became a desert. Small streams and springs provided life-sustaining water to the few people who lived here.

Spanish maps of the period called this area "The Land of Northern Mysteries." American map makers simply put the word "unexplored" on the territory.

The area was not completely uninhabited, though. The Pueblo Peoples, Patayan (ancestors of the Yuman groups) and Nuwuvi (Southern Paiutes) used the Las Vegas Springs and Las Vegas Creek until European American settlers began ranching in the valley in the 1860s. They left behind remains of their campfires, stone tools, clay pots, houses and foodstuffs.

Exploration (1776 to 1847)

In 1776, Friars Athanasio Dominguez and Velez de Escalante tried to find a path from New Mexico to California. At the same time, Father Francisco Garces left Arizona and traveled up the Colorado River to present-day Needles, California.

Neither expedition entered the Las Vegas Valley, but this marked the beginning of the end of isolation for the Native Americans who lived here.

In 1829, New Mexican merchant Antonio Armijo led an expedition along the Virgin River to find a new trading route between New Mexico and California. During the trip, a group of scouts set out to find water and camp sites.

A teenage scout, Rafael Rivera, wandered away from the scouting party on Christmas Day and got lost. For two weeks, he wandered down the Virgin River to the Colorado River to Black Canyon.

He followed the Las Vegas Wash up to a mesa where the Southern Nevada Vocational Technical Center is now located. From this mesa, he could see springs and meadows.

Rivera returned to his caravan and led the party to the lush meadows and springs. The route they followed became known as the Old Spanish Trail. The area Rivera discovered was named Las Vegas, meaning "the meadows" in Spanish.

Captain John C. Fremont led a U.S. military expedition through the valley in 1844. He made a complete circle of the huge, unknown inland desert and was the first to describe it as a Great Basin. He was the first to map the "Old Spanish Trail" route, which linked California and New Mexico. Fremont is credited with putting Las Vegas on the map—literally.

European American settlement (1847 to 1858)

Hundreds of wagon trains moved through the valley and camped by the springs. Thieves drove livestock through the valley in the 1840s and thousands of sheep and horses were driven across the Mojave Desert to California. The livestock quenched their thirst at the springs and fed on the surrounding meadow grasses.

The Las Vegas Springs became a major campsite along the Mormon Road. In 1852, Mormon mail contractor George Chorpenning built the first non-Native American structure in Southern Nevada.

Mormon missionaries took the structure apart in 1855 and used the materials to build a 150-square-foot adobe fort with eight two-story houses.

The missionaries built the fort, known as the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, downstream of the springs near Las Vegas Creek. They planted fruit and shade trees and established friendly relations with the Paiutes.

As part of the Mormons' plan for a "State of Deseret," they selected the Las Vegas Valley for settlement to offer a safe way station beside the long Mormon Road between San Bernardino, California and Salt Lake City, Utah. The Mormon missionaries used water from the Las Vegas Creek to help smelt lead from Mt. Potosi, Nevada's first lode mine. The lead contained so much zinc that it did not make good bullets, and the mine and fort were abandoned in 1858, when the missionaries were called elsewhere.

Early ranching (1867 to 1905)

Los Vegas Rancho

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.

Spring Rancho

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.

Stewart Ranch

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.

Las Vegas town site (1905 to 1928)

Senator William Clark from Montana created the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (later known as Union Pacific). The railroad needed way stations with access to water for their steam locomotives, and the watering hole known to travelers as Las Vegas was a good location between Utah and California.

Clark purchased 1,864 acres of land and water rights from the Las Vegas Springs from Helen J. Stewart in 1902.

The railroad created the Las Vegas Land and Water Company to operate the first water distribution system in the valley. In May 1905, the company auctioned off land, creating the town site of Las Vegas. The City of Las Vegas was officially incorporated in March 1911.

To supply the railroad and the new town with water, the company laid redwood pipes and constructed protective houses over the springs to keep people, cattle and other polluting factors out of the water supply.

Beginning in 1907, residents began drilling privately-owned wells, tapping into the underground aquifer. Many times, well owners did not cap the wells, allowing precious water to gush out at an enormous rate. This huge waste of water helped deplete the groundwater table so quickly that, within 40 years, the Nevada State Water Engineer declared Las Vegas overdrawn.

People didn't understand where the water actually came from, or why it came out of the ground with such force. They thought the water supply was endless.

As the town grew, the Las Vegas Springs could not meet peak demands. The Las Vegas Land and Water Company complained about water waste, especially during summer months, when townspeople fled to cooler mountain retreats, but left water running on their lawns and shrubs. The company proposed metering water, but the Nevada State Legislature opposed such measures.

The water company asked people to conserve water, and in 1923, the company drilled Well No. 1 near the Las Vegas Springs to help meet the new city's growing water needs.

Midcentury boom (1929 to 1952)

The Great Depression actually brought growth to Southern Nevada, an unlikely candidate for urbanization due to its arid climate and limited water resources. But the U.S. government's Hoover Dam project brought a huge influx of people to the area from 1928 until 1936.

Drought and heavy demand for water put great pressure on the railroad's Las Vegas Land and Water Company. In 1935, Las Vegas Creek, which flowed from the springs, dried up in the summer and no water was available to irrigate the Stewart family ranch.

In 1936, the Las Vegas Land and Water Company drilled Well No. 2 into the spring mound south of the Las Vegas Creek, and piped the water to a reservoir. Only two years later, a major water shortage occurred despite predictions that water use would decline because people would leave town after Hoover Dam was completed.

The invention of water-cooled air conditioners (swamp coolers) became a major problem in 1938. Most were homemade and not built to recycle water.

The City of Las Vegas and the railroad teamed up to curb water waste by encouraging conservation. The city adopted an ordinance punishing water wasters, assigned a patrolman to police the town's gutters, and the water company surveyed houses to identify problem faucets, toilets and coolers.

By 1940, Las Vegas' population had grown to 8,422. The outbreak of World War II brought the defense industry, including the U.S. Army Aerial Gunnery Range (now Nellis Air Force Base) and Basic Management, Inc. (BMI). The 1922 Colorado River compact known as the "Law of the River" had given Southern Nevada rights to 300,000 acre feet of water from the river. BMI was the first to import Colorado River water from Lake Mead. Prior to this, the valley relied solely on groundwater.

Residents went through another water shortage in 1947. Frustrated with the Las Vegas Land and Water Company's inability to provide water as fast as the town grew, the people convinced the Nevada State Legislature to authorize the purchase of the entire water system.

In 1953, the Union Pacific Railroad sold the Las Vegas Land and Water Company to the newly-created, public Las Vegas Valley Water District for $2.5 million. The sale became final in 1953.

Urban pressure (1952 to present)

Southern Nevada's population increased to 41,000 by 1950. Groundwater use increased to 35,000 acre feet per year, exceeding nature's ability to recharge the groundwater aquifer naturally. Residents still relied mainly on groundwater. The Nevada Legislature agreed to create the public Las Vegas Valley Water District in 1947 to minimize the decline of groundwater due to overpumping.

The legislature also wanted to import Colorado River water from Lake Mead to the valley. The new Water District purchased the Union Pacific Railroad's Las Vegas Land and Water Company in 1953 and began official operations in 1954.

By 1960, residents had drilled nearly 3,000 wells in the Las Vegas Valley. However, more than half of the groundwater came from less than 25 wells located within a mile of the Las Vegas Springs. By then, the population had increased to approximately 119,000. Increased well water use caused the groundwater level to decline about two to four feet per year.

The Las Vegas Springs flows, once a hallmark of the valley's geography, stopped altogether by 1962.

With declining groundwater levels and a growing population, Southern Nevada needed to tap into additional water supplies. The state had rights to 300,000 acre feet of Colorado River water, but it did not have a water treatment and delivery system in order to use its annual allocation.

In 1968, the state and federal government began constructing the Southern Nevada Water System. Nevada was not financially prepared to take on such an expensive project, so the federal Colorado River Commission (CRC) entered into an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to build part of the new system as a federal water project. The Southern Nevada Water System began treating and delivering water to the Las Vegas Valley Water District and other customers in July 1971.

In the 1970s, the springs came close to being paved over by the transportation department's plans for an expressway. Dr. Claude Warren of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas conducted an archaeological survey in 1972 that found long-term human occupation of the site. His discoveries helped reroute the new Oran K. Gragson Expressway (US 95) around the site. Concerned citizens and the Las Vegas Valley Water District petitioned to add the springs to the National Register for Historic Places.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Las Vegas Springs were designated an archaeological site and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. To further preserve the historic site, the Water District Board of Directors approved a plan in 1997 to develop a preserve to protect and manage the cultural, natural and water resources of the site. The Springs Preserve opened in June 2007.

A team of researchers continues the work of others to learn more about the history and habitat of this special place.

Video: Water Course

It only takes a short hike with Springs Preserve archaeologist Nathan Harper to become completely immersed in the force that formed the Springs and is so essential to its future: water.

Video: Celebrating 10 Years

It’s been ten eventful years since the Springs Preserve first opened its doors in 2007 to reveal an ideal combination of monument, museum, campus, park and garden. Take a look back at some of our cherished memories.