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Residents dive into the past about Las Vegas female pioneer

The first lady of Las Vegas trailed her husband to his Southern Nevada ranch in 1882, when the Las Vegas Valley was merely a meadow with a free-flowing creek.

Nearly 140 years later, locals gathered where the ranch once stood to learn about Helen Stewart’s remarkable achievements as a woman in the late 1800s and her lasting influence on the city’s development.

Eleven people gathered in a small theater at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park near Cashman Field to learn about Stewart, a pioneer woman who took the helm of her husband’s ranch after his death and successfully operated it with her father and children until 1902.

Stewart moved to the substantial, yet remote, ranch after her husband, Archibald Stewart, promised they would only live there for a year or two, parks interpreter Garrett Fehner told the group. “That’s what we all say when we move to Las Vegas, and then we get stuck here,” Fehner said, eliciting laughs from his audience.

Her husband declined an offer to sell the ranch for $11,000, which would have doubled his investment in the property, opting to stay and work on the ranch with the hope of selling it later for more money.

His plan was cut short in 1884 when he was shot and killed at the competing Kiel Ranch, about 1.5 miles from the Stewarts’ ranch.

Stewart, mourning the death of her husband and pregnant with their fifth child, rose to the occasion, Fehner said.

“She steps outside of her traditional role as a woman and is successful, and that’s what makes her story so compelling,” Fehner said of the woman he dubbed the “unlikely matriarch of Las Vegas.” Stewart is also often referred to as the “First Lady of Las Vegas.”

Stewart raised grapes for wine and grew tobacco, and became postmistress when the ranch became a post office in 1893. Also in 1893, Stewart and her children’s tutor founded the Las Vegas School District, which taught five students (three of whom were her children).

“With all the people who helped Stewart — her father … her kids, the Paiutes — she’s able to run a really successful ranch, albeit one that’s in the middle of nowhere,” Fehner said.

With the dramatic expansion of railroad construction throughout the 1870s, and in anticipation of the railroad reaching Las Vegas, Stewart had purchased large tracts of land and much of the valley’s water rights. She became the largest single landowner in Lincoln County at one point in the 1890s — an impressive feat for a woman at that time.

Stewart sold most of the land and water rights to William Clark in 1902 for $55,000 and built her new home across the street, where a Sinclair gas station now sits.

As an example of her strength and business savvy, Fehner said Stewart signed a prenuptial agreement with the man she married in 1903, providing that she would keep total control of the property she hadn’t sold. The land would pass to her kids in the event of her death.

“There’s no doubt that Helen is definitely the dominant one in this relationship,” Fehner said.

After selling most of her land and water rights, she became a historian of the city, helped fund its first public library, and later won a seat on the State Board of Education in 1916.

Sadly, Stewart learned she had cancer in 1924 and died two years later, Fehner said.

Dotty White said after the lecture that she’s always been interested in the history of Las Vegas, and found Stewart’s story especially inspiring.

“I like to see progressive, surviving women and I think she’s the epitome of that,” said White, 74. “She set such a good example, even in in her senior years with the support she gave to help Las Vegas grow.”

Fehner said Stewart’s story is one of the most compelling talks he gives.

“[Stewart] is one of the founding figures of this community. Probably more than anybody, she determined the pattern of development here in Vegas,” he said. “She owned pretty much all the land and water here at one point, and she was able to see that turn into a community in front of her very eyes.”

Contact Kimber Laux at klaux@reviewjournal.com. Follow @lauxkimber on Twitter.

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