Slow down, explore Nevada history along state Route 170

Serving mostly local traffic parallel to busy Interstate 15 near the Nevada-Arizona border, state Route 170, the Bunkerville-Mesquite Loop Road, runs less than 15 miles along the banks of the Virgin River. A peaceful side trip into history, the route approximates the Old Spanish Trail.

To reach the loop road, turn off I-15 at exit 112 as you approach Mesquite, Route 170 descends to cross the river on a bridge at Riverside about 3 miles from the exit. At a junction on the far side of the river, turn left to reach the small community of Bunkerville, about 6 miles from the junction. Beyond Bunkerville, the road crosses the river again to reach Mesquite.

Regional residents have always had a love-hate relationship with the Virgin River, which is subject to floods. Before 1920, travelers had to cross the river on a horse-drawn tow line. Nevada’s highway department built the first bridges at Riverside between Bunkerville and Mesquite in 1920, structures that lasted until a massive flood in February 1932. For a while after the flood, travelers had to rely on the horse-drawn tow line again. Temporary wooden bridges built that spring were wiped out twice that summer. Finally, two new long spans specially designed to withstand the torrents were constructed the following year. These bridges served for decades, well into the 21st century, before safety concerns and heavier vehicles required that the structures be replaced.

Slow down and enjoy quiet little Bunkerville, where shady streets still boast a sampling of charming structures from yesteryear. Bunkerville was settled in 1877 by pioneers from Utah. It was named for Edward Bunker, who moved his large polygamous family from Santa Clara, Utah, about 25 miles away. Bunkerville settlers practiced communal living under the United Order until it ended in 1880.

Upriver at Mesquite Flats, 15 Mormon families settled in 1878, establishing farms and building homes near the river. In June 1882, the river, swollen by heavy rains, flooded the settlement and destroyed 6 miles of vital irrigation canals. Mesquite Flats was soon abandoned. In 1887, the pioneering Leavitt family established residence at Mesquite Flats, struggling against the elements for four years before being forced to leave. In 1894, six families from Bunkerville relocated to try again, this time prevailing. They worked to grow cotton, grapes, alfalfa, wheat, cane, figs, pomegranates and vegetables. In 1898, the site was renamed Mesquite.

The small, agricultural community grew slowly, with several thriving dairies and businesses catering to highway traffic. Mesquite was incorporated in 1984 after I-15 created interest in developing the border town. Growing numbers of casinos, restaurants, hotel rooms and golf courses have made Mesquite a destination.

Modern Mesquite has not forgotten its pioneer past. The city invites visitors to learn more about the area’s history at the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum at 35 Mesquite Blvd. Built as a library in 1941, the structure later served for many years as a hospital.

Park off the busy street behind the flat-topped stone building that houses artifacts, memorabilia, photos and research materials. Collections include generous donations from families of early settlers. Sharing the parking lot is the handsome Mesquite Fine Arts Gallery, featuring local and guest artists. Visit the museum and the art gallery free of charge, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Mesquite celebrated its emergence as a city in 1985 with the first observance of Mesquite Days. This year the city marks its 30th annual Mesquite Days celebration April 29 to May 3 with events including a parade and a four-day carnival. Many activities will take place around the city’s recreation center at 100 Old Mill Road.

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

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