Old Mormon Fort preserves Las Vegas’ early roots

The oldest structure in Las Vegas stands near the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue in the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park.

The one-story adobe building is the last remnant of the first permanent structure built in the Las Vegas Valley by Mormon colonizers in 1855. The small state park provides glimpses of life on the frontier half a century before the town of Las Vegas began.

The Old Mormon Fort is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. You enter the little park through a modern visitor center with introductory exhibits and a gift store. The entrance fee is $1 for visitors 12 and older.

Leaving the visitors center, you walk through a courtyard overseen by a statue of Helen J. Stewart, an early ranch owner known as the “First Lady of Las Vegas.”

Trails lead from the courtyard to other parts of the park, inviting visitors to explore. A main trail leads to the entrance of the reconstructed fort.

Built of adobe bricks made on-site and dried in the desert sun, the original fort measured 150 feet on all four sides with bastions on the northwest and southeast corners. The Mormons were prepared for trouble.

All that remains of the fort today, the two-room original building holds exhibits and furnishings typical of the era.

Another trail explores a portion of Las Vegas Creek, the original water source for the old fort, re-created on-site with ponds and streamside vegetation. The creek and plants create a refuge that attracts birds, insects and small wild animals. Trees like those that occurred naturally or that the pioneers would have planted also grow there.

Other trails explore areas planted with vegetables, flowers and native plants. Bird feeders, water sources, shelter and vegetation encourage various winged visitors, to the delight of local birders.

The first inhabitants of the fort worked diligently from the day they arrived in mid-June 1855 to create a wayside for travelers reaching Las Vegas on the trail known as the Old Spanish Trail, the Arrowhead Trail or the Mormon Trail.

Their mission included making themselves self-sufficient through farming and raising livestock, establishing contact with the native people in the area and scouting the region for resources, which led to a mining venture on Mount Potosi.

The settlers encountered various difficulties, such as a failed mine, crops that did not prosper during the second season and squabbling among leaders, prompting Mormon leadership to recall the party after two years.

Octavius Gass bought the property in 1865 and developed a ranch on the grounds, using part of the foundation and building materials to construct a ranch house. He stocked a store and built a blacksmith shop that catered to the scattered miners in the area as well as travelers along the old wagon route that later became U.S. Highway 91.

Gass lost the ranch when he used it as collateral for a loan and then defaulted in 1881. Archie and Helen Stewart became the new owners.

After her husband was shot to death in 1884, Helen Stewart continued ranching, assisted by her father, native workers and others. She sold her ranch to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad in 1902.

In 1905, the railroad reached the valley and Las Vegas was born with an auction of lots in the future downtown. Helen Stewart became one of the emerging city’s most important early residents, a lady who encouraged civilizing influences and polite society.

Her birthday will be observed April 13 at 1 p.m. with a Victorian tea and a costumed re-enactment.

Park personnel schedule a variety of programs and activities. Call the fort for details at 486-3511 or check the Nevada State Parks website or the Old Mormon Fort Facebook page. The spring schedule includes crafts each Saturday with materials provided, including writing letters to veterans Feb. 9 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Learn the basics of backyard birding at the Old Mormon Fort in sessions scheduled for March 2, March 9 and April 6 from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m.

On March 16 and April 13 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., join expert Ray Richardson as he shares recipes and techniques in Dutch oven cooking, a skill perfected in the Old West.

Las Vegas Heritage Day takes place March 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission to this popular family event is $7. Many visitors wear Western hats and clothing as they enjoy a day of Wild West-themed food, skits, fast-draw competitions, music, Native American dance, games, pony rides, living history exhibits and demonstrations of old-time skills.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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