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Locals keep calling this Las Vegas mountain the wrong name: Here’s why

Updated February 3, 2023 - 9:01 am

When you look at the mountain in the northeast Las Vegas Valley that towers over Sunrise Manor, what do you call it?

The correct answer is Frenchman Mountain, which may come as a surprise to many locals who call it “Sunrise Mountain.”

The real Sunrise Mountain sits on the southern border of Nellis Air Force Base north of Frenchman, and is about 500 feet shorter than Frenchman, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Michael Green, an associate professor of history at UNLV, said the confusion is most likely for an obvious reason: it’s the mountain the sun rises over in Las Vegas.

“You might call it one of the problems we run into with history, which is that somebody says such and such happened, or ‘it’s named this’ and it sticks, whether or not it’s really true,” Green said. “But it’s often what we believe.”

Sunrise Manor, the unincorporated community that sits at the base of both Frenchman and Sunrise mountains, may also be a source of name confusion for valley residents.

Even the federal government has called it the wrong name, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mislabeling the mountain’s location data sheet with the name “Sunrise.”

And the Review-Journal is not exempt from error either. In past stories, photo captions from the construction of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ temple in 1987 and the installation of radio towers atop the mountain from 1952 misidentified Frenchman.

A photo of the installation of radio towers atop Frenchman Mountain from Nov. 2, 1952. The Revi ...
A photo of the installation of radio towers atop Frenchman Mountain from Nov. 2, 1952. The Review-Journal had mislabeled the mountain as Sunrise Mountain.(File/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

But how did the mountain get its name? Once again, more confusion.

Frenchman is named for Paul Watelet, a miner who lived in Las Vegas in the early 20th century, around the time the city was founded. Watelet claimed to have a mine containing gypsum and gold in the mountain.

But a Frenchman he was not. Watelet immigrated from Belgium (to the locals’ credit, he had a French wife). However, ignorance on the difference between Belgium and France is not fully to blame for this error (one of Belgium’s official languages is French).

In that pre-World War I era, “the borders were moving” Green said. “Depending on the moment you spoke to someone, they might be from Germany, Prussian Poland, Poland, just as our Belgian minor would be presumed to be from France,” he said.

And while locals were confused by Watelet’s origins, the Belgian confused the locals with mining stock scams.

While mining booms were going on in Tonopah, Goldfield and Ely, as well as south in Searchlight and Goodsprings, Las Vegas was seen less as a mining town, and more as a hub for miners to bring their goods.

Watelet, along with other Nevadans, engaged in mining stock speculation, Green said. Mining companies at the turn of the century convinced ignorant investors to buy stock in mines that sometimes only existed on paper.

At Frenchman Mine, no ore containing gypsum or gold was ever found, according to a USGS investigation conducted almost a century later.

Proposals for a new name

Since the mountain was officially named by the USGS in 1947, Nevadans have argued in favor of renaming it.

Conservative activist Chuck Muth pushed in 2013 to rename the mountain’s peak to Mount Reagan, related to the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project started in 1997 to name something after the former president in all 50 states.

The proposal reached the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names in 2013, and received board approval, but the U.S. Board of Geographic Names could not rename the peak officially without Congress’ approval. Former Nevada Republican congressman Joe Heck sponsored a bill to rename Frenchman’s peak in 2014, but the bill died on the House floor after receiving approval from the Committee on Natural Resources.

In 2018, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., proposed a bill to name the mountain’s peak after Maude Frazier, the first woman to be lieutenant governor in Nevada. Just like the Reagan renaming effort, after approval from the Committee on Natural Resources, the bill died.

Whatever the name of the mountain or its peak, it probably doesn’t matter to most Las Vegans anyway, Green said.

“Is it something Las Vegans tend to lose sleep over? Probably from the sunrise, yeah.”

Contact Taylor Lane at tlane@reviewjournal.com. Follow @tmflane on Twitter.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Chuck Muth sought to rename the entire mountain to Mount Reagan, but only sought to rename its peak.

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