Elementary school namesake designed ‘Original Las Vegas Townsite’

John Thomas McWilliams, the namesake of McWilliams Elementary School, 315 Hiawatha Road, the McWilliams Campsite on Mount Charleston and McWilliams Avenue, was a Las Vegas Valley pioneer in a number of categories.

“He was a combination of a colorful character, a gadfly, a visionary, and when it comes down to it, an unlucky guy,” said local historian Michael Green, a professor at UNLV.

“The First 100: Portraits of the Men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas,” by A.D. Hopkins and K.J. Evans, describes details of the man who helped shape the valley.

McWilliams was born in Canada in 1863 and lived in Detroit and Chicago before becoming a surveyor and following the railroad west in 1884, working with the Northern Pacific Railway’s engineering corps. There was a lot of work for surveyors in those days, and he moved about the West. Among the work he did was building the first water system in Flagstaff, Ariz., and surveying the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. By 1901, he and his family settled in Goodsprings.

In 1902, he was tasked with surveying Helen Stewart’s nearly 2,000-acre ranch for the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, which was considering purchasing the land for a new town and railroad division point.

“Because he did the surveying and knew the area so well, he had inside information,” Green said. “He bought some land from Mrs. Stewart and planned his own town site, west of where the tracks would come through the valley.”

McWilliams used his surveyor’s skills to neatly grid a town layout with wide streets on 80 acres of land in 1904, beating out the railroad. The land is in the area now bordered by Bonanza Road, Washington Avenue and A and H streets. In the winter of 1904 to 1905, the quickly constructed town was home to between 2,000 and 3,000 people.

“It started his long tradition of being a thorn in the railroad’s side,” Green said. “He took great pleasure in annoying Walter Bracken, the railroad’s agent. He was the town’s original gadfly.”

The railroad was never a fan of the town and did everything it could to see that it never thrived. Its trump card was the water rights to the area, and McWilliams made do poorly with a collection of wells. After the railroad held the land auction May 15, 1905, most of the inhabitants of McWilliams’ tent city literally pulled up stakes and moved to the company town of Las Vegas.

While McWilliams insisted his endeavor be called the Original Las Vegas Townsite, most of the residents across the tracks called it Ragtown. The area has been known over the years as McWilliams Townsite, Westside and today as historic West Las Vegas.

A fire in September 1905 burned down much of the town, and it never regained the prominence it had before the auction, despite residents’ eventual successful effort to gain water rights for the community in 1927. It became a community where minorities could acquire homes.

Trish Geran, author of “Beyond the Glittering Lights,” which chronicles some of the history of blacks in the valley, recalls that her aunt moved to West Las Vegas in 1942, followed within a few years by other family members.

“It was a very diverse community,” Geran said. “There were a lot of blacks, whites and Hispanics.”

McWilliams had the foresight to lay claim to 1,300 acres of what is now Lee Canyon in 1894, and it may have been that claim that drew him back to the area following his marriage. When his claims were revoked by political machinations and railroad influence in 1906, he telegraphed a long letter to President Theodore Roosevelt, laying out his case. Roosevelt wasn’t a fan of the railroads, and in four days, McWilliams’ claims were revalidated. By the early 1930s, that claim had expanded to 2,000 acres owned or controlled by him.

In his later years, McWilliams worked on his dream of making the canyon a tourist destination, or at least a place where Las Vegas residents could escape the hot valley. That dream came to fruition when he worked out a deal with the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era agency that employed workers to create public works projects and donated land for a public park for children.

The project eventually expanded, and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps built the road into Lee Canyon and other amenities, including the ski slopes and a mountain resort with cabins, a kitchen and hot showers. The county currently operates the resort as Camp Lee Canyon.

Contact East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at ataylor@viewnews.com or 702-380-4532.

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