North Las Vegas founder recognized by street, elementary school

It might seem surprising that the road in North Las Vegas named for Tom Williams, who created that city, is such a short and unheralded thoroughfare. It may be more surprising that an elementary school is also named for the man who championed having as little government as possible in the new city and keeping out black people.

Williams came to the Las Vegas Valley late in 1917 from Eureka, Utah. He discovered he liked the valley but didn’t care for Las Vegas. It’s unclear whether he was put off by the young town’s rowdy nature or its early attempts at governing. By all accounts, Williams was a man who believed strongly in his religion and didn’t care for government telling him or anyone else what to do.

“He really didn’t have much interest in government,” said UNLV associate history professor Michael Green. “Frankly, there is evidence to suggest that the tradition he established in North Las Vegas may have percolated down to the present. The town has a history that you could call tortured or interesting, or some combination of the two.”

He purchased 150 acres at $8 an acre from Las Vegas matriarch Helen Stewart and built a home for himself and his family to farm and ranch from near the corner of present day Oxford Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard North. He drilled a well, built a water tower and then subdivided 100 of his acres into 79 lots in the area near what is now Jerry’s Nugget, 1821 Las Vegas Blvd. North.

“The lots were offered at $10 down, which included water and power,” said the article about Williams published in “The First 100: Portraits of the Men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas.” “Williams was especially eager to attract churches. Free sites were offered to any church willing to locate in the townsite. His view was that churches and church people, not civil authorities, should govern the town and keep the peace.”

People came to the subdivision he named Vegas Verde, drawn by the water and lack of legal authority. The community flourished during Prohibition, with reports of 31 of the original lots being sold to bootleggers. While federal authorities managed to maintain some control over illegal alcohol distillation and distribution in the city of Las Vegas, the new community — quickly renamed North Las Vegas — remained hard to stop, aided by tips via telegraph about when authorities were headed into the area from Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, and what was believed to be an elaborate network of tunnels.

“The First 100” also notes that when Williams’ first crop of watermelons came in 1920, he couldn’t ship them due to a railroad strike. It was his neighbors who came to his rescue, purchasing his entire crop and quickly converting the melons to a more portable and less perishable form, presumably with a serious kick and a strong watermelon flavor.

Williams built the Oasis Auto Court and service station near the corner of Main Street and what is now Las Vegas Boulevard, and it became the community’s largest legitimate business.

By the time Williams died in 1938, the community had formed a town board and was well on the way to bringing government to what Williams had hoped would be a libertarian utopia. It didn’t become a city until after World War II.

— To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor, email or call 702-380-4532.

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