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Roger Arave
The re-creation of the fort with a replica U.S. flag.

LAS VEGAS — Probably the most overlooked tourist site in Las Vegas is also its lowliest in terms of glamor, glitz, size and neon. However, the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park is worth a visit for a priceless lesson in pioneer history and as a contrast to the modern Las Vegas.

Located on the extreme north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, at Washington Avenue — in downtown Las Vegas — this is where the settlement of Vegas began. If you blink, you might miss this corner of rural flavor amidst the heavy traffic and all the new buildings in the area.

Seasonal camps of native people probably existed here for thousands of years prior to the coming of the Mormons. Las Vegas Springs and Creek — a year-round source of water — made life possible here. Water rose from underground aquifers about four miles west of the fort.

Las Vegas, Spanish for "the meadow," was an oasis in the desert, and native Paiutes, miners, traders and others all passed through here and relied on the water, shade and native grass fields.

In 1855, William Bringhurst led 29 Mormon men from Utah, sent by Brigham Young to establish an outpost of Mormon territory. It took them 35 days to travel from Salt Lake City with 40 wagons and oxen, 15 cows and a few horses — arriving on June 14. They constructed a 150-foot-long adobe fort near the creek. They used flood irrigation from the creek to water their crops.

The development included a post office. It was also a rest stop for travelers, with the only running water for miles around. About 2,000 Indians also lived in the area at the time.

In 1856, women and children arrived to create a peak population of 103 people.

Why did the Mormons abandon the fort in 1857? Turns out Bringhurst and Nathaniel Jones, another LDS Church leader there, had a power struggle that eventually led to the entire pioneer group returning to Utah after only two years.

Ownership of the fort changed a lot over the next 50 years, from homesteader to homesteader. By 1902, the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad had acquired it as an important way station for trains. By 1905, when the train line was operational, the official town of Las Vegas was founded.

(In 1902, there was a movement to use the name "Los" Vegas, so as to not conflict with Las Vegas, N.M. However, that variation of the name did not stick.)

In 1929, the Bureau of Reclamation used the fort's ranch house as an office/laboratory for the preliminary construction of Hoover Dam.

Today, the fort is mostly a reconstruction, but it is on the same site and boasts some valuable artifacts.

The adobe building closest to the creek, where the reclamation office was, is the only surviving part of the original fort structure. There you'll find pioneer artifacts — an old pump organ, a "bishop's couch," a spinning wheel, butter churner, a replica of the first U.S. flag to fly in Nevada with 19 stars and 13 stripes, among other things.

The creek itself had long since dried up, after being diverted into the city's water supply in the early 20th century. However, a segment of the creek has been re-created to provide a glimpse of what was.

"It's obscure because of its location," said Chris Macek, supervisor at the Mormon Fort State Historic Park. "It's away from most of the tourist areas."

The fort attracts only about 12,000 visitors a year.

Still, Macek agrees this is where Las Vegas began and is well worth a visit.

"If you want to see how Las Vegas was born and get a sense of it all ...," he said, then this is the place to come.

He said 30 minutes is probably the minimum time required for a quick tour.

Nevada State Parks recently spent $4.5 million to add a new visitors center and enhance the park's re-creation of the past.

The Daughters of Utah Pioneers installed several plaques in the fort. One commemorates the first post office in the state, while the other focuses on the fort.

This historic park helps visitors outline the history of Las Vegas through five distinct eras: (1) A home for American Indians and perhaps explorers; (2) an outpost of Mormon territory; (3) a railroad stop; (4) a boomtown in mining and dam building; and (5) today's tourist mecca.

Future park development may include the re-creation of more historic features and a full-scale visitors center. Historic interpretation is and will remain the focus of the park.

Because it can be plenty hot here in the afternoon, a morning visit is best. Because of its location near the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, visitors could see the park in the early morning and then travel south to Fremont Street and then to the Strip.

For children and teens, a scavenger hunt list is available from the visitors center. Kids will be searching for specific items within the park.

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The park and visitors center are open year-round, from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, Closed Sundays. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children, ages 6-12. Under age 6 free.

To visit the park, take I-15 Exit No. 44 (Washington Avenue) and go east. After crossing North Las Vegas Boulevard, turn right into the fort's parking lot. Cashman Field Center Stadium is just southeast of the fort.

The Mormon Fort is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is owned and operated by the Nevada Division of State Parks.

For more information, call 702-486-3511, or go to parks.nv.gov/olvmf.htm or www.vegas.com.

Friends of the Fort provides a series of special programs. Go online to www.friendsofthefort.org for details of its events.

Sources: park brochure; www.lasvegas.com, www.friendsofthefort.org and the Deseret Morning News archives.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com