Robert “Bob” Griffith was fond of saying, “I was lucky. As a boy I came to Las Vegas when the town was new; it raised me and I tried to raise it.”
Most think he raised it well. He gave the city airmail service, airports, even an Air Force base.
Griffith first saw Las Vegas on May 14, 1905. He was 6 years old. The railroad he came on was even younger. The line between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City had been completed only a few months.
His father, E.W. Griffith, brought his son to Southern Nevada to witness the now-famous Clark Town Site auction. It was at this auction, on May 15 and 16, that the land on which modern Las Vegas now stands was sold. E.W. Griffith purchased two of the lots. A month later, father and son moved to Las Vegas. The boy’s mother had died when he was 3.
Griffith helped his father hammer tent stakes into the ground for their first Las Vegas home. The tent went up on the southwest corner of Second and Fremont, which is now occupied by a couple of dozen Golden Nugget slot machines.
A contractor, E.W. Griffith had been hired by the railroad to build a massive roundhouse to maintain and repair steam engines.
As Bob grew up, the sound of hammers and saws echoed through the dusty streets of Las Vegas.
Griffith says his own first construction project was a swimming pool. Not yet a teen-ager, he borrowed a bundle of gunny sacks from the railroad, filled them with sand, and dammed up the Las Vegas Creek.
His father was also at work, building a grammar school.
By the time the younger Griffith was ready to attend the University of Nevada in Reno, his career plans were settled. After working his way through school as a waiter, Griffith would return to Southern Nevada and help his father build Las Vegas.
In 1923 he graduated with a degree in civil engineering. That same year he married Ruth Atcheson, who was born in the Nevada town of Sweetwater. With a degree in one hand, and a new wife on his arm, Griffith returned to Southern Nevada.
When he returned, construction was almost at a standstill. The community was still suffering from the effects of the 1921-22 national railroad strike. During the labor dispute the Las Vegas community supported the workers and not the railroad. In retaliation, the Union Pacific Railroad moved several hundred jobs out of Las Vegas to other facilities along the line. With the railroad payroll gone, the community quickly slipped into financial depression.
A year after his return from school a new opportunity would appear. It would mark the beginning of Griffith’s 50-year public service commitment to Las Vegas.
Late in 1924, Charles “Pop” Squires, publisher of The Las Vegas Age newspaper, said he planned to retire as the community’s postmaster.
Griffith went after the job. Passing the postmaster test, he received his appointment on Jan. 1, 1925.
The Griffiths’ only child, a daughter, had just been born and the $225-a-month postmaster’s salary was “big money,” Ruth Griffith later recalled.
As the Griffiths celebrated the birth of their daughter, and their newfound wealth, local residents were celebrating the town’s 20th birthday. The town was still small, with fewer than 4,000 full-time residents. As a desert oasis, it was isolated. Neither radio nor long-distance telephone service was yet a local reality. Travel by auto was still for the adventuresome. The main road to Los Angeles, through Searchlight, was officially called the Arrowhead Trail for good reason; it was better suited to the Stone Age.
So it was left to the railroad to connect Southern Nevada to the outside world, bringing in newspapers, mail and people.
That would begin to change shortly after Griffith took over as postmaster.
In the summer of 1925, the federal government announced plans to link Los Angeles to the national airmail route, via Salt Lake City. A new airline, Western Air Express, won the right to fly the mail between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, with one stop — Las Vegas.
On Nov. 10, Griffith reported to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce that he had received a letter from Western asking if the community could make ready an airfield. The chamber appointed Griffith to look into the matter.
Griffith’s first stop was Anderson Field. While there were several flat spots on the Southern Nevada desert called landing strips, Anderson Field was listed on most maps as the official landing field.
However, by 1925 Anderson Field was not much more than an almost flat spot overgrown with brush. The field was just outside the city limits on the current site of a Sahara parking lot, on the east side of what is now Paradise Road.
When it became public that Las Vegas was in the running to become an airmail stop, ownership of Anderson Field quietly changed hands. On Dec. 21, 1925, the Rockwell Brothers, Leon and Earl, acquired the land. It was quickly revealed the two brothers were more interested in an investment, than in aviation.
The Rockwells offered to lease the land to the chamber of commerce without charge. But the chamber would have to absorb the cost of bringing the field up to Western’s specifications. In addition, the chamber would pay to bring telephone, power and water to the site. The brothers also wanted a new road installed on the north side of the field, running east and west. It is now Sahara Avenue.
One other thing: The name of the airstrip would have to be changed from Anderson to Rockwell Field.
Griffith “borrowed” a piece of railroad track, and with the help of James Cashman and his tractor, leveled the desert landing strip. Boy Scouts cleaned up broken bottles from an old saloon that used to occupy the south end of the property.
At the same time, Griffith began receiving requests from stamp collectors around the country. With the government expanding airmail service to every part of the country, it had become a fad to collect envelopes flown on the first flight of each new route. Griffith personally hand stamped several hundred letters with a special device commemorating the occasion.
With the historic day less than a week away, Griffith read the lease agreement between the chamber and the Rockwells to the chamber. The agreement was signed and sent to the Rockwells for their signatures.
By now all of Southern Nevada was caught up in the excitement. A big crowd turned out on April 12, when five new Douglas M-2 single-engine biplanes landed in Las Vegas on a test run over the route. The pilots came downtown for lunch before taking off for Salt Lake City.
At 10:05 on Saturday morning, April 17, 1926, Las Vegas was connected to the outside world by airmail. The flight from Los Angeles took 2 hours and 30 minutes.
The honor of being first to land in Las Vegas goes to pilot Maury Graham. With a .45-caliber pistol strapped to his belt, Graham pulled back his goggles, stood up and waved to “more than two hundred automobiles loaded with spectators.”
The crowd cheered, dogs barked, and Griffith loaded his first shipment of airmail letters heading east. A few hours later, the first westbound flight from Salt Lake City would arrive and the celebration would repeat itself.
Once the big day had come and gone, Griffith went back to work to get the lease with the Rockwells wrapped up. There were problems.
The Rockwells were willing to lease the property for only one year, yet wanted power and telephone lines extended and maintained permanently. Only when Griffith began looking for a different site, did the Rockwells agree to a two-year deal and power and telephone service guaranteed only for the lease’s life. Even so, they insisted that the chamber had to “replace the amount of good topsoil blown off the said premises by the planes.”
It was clear to Griffith that once improvements to the land were made, the Rockwells intended to sell the land. Quietly, Griffith began looking for a new landing field.
He wondered why the chamber of commerce was taking the responsibility for developing an airport, and local governments weren’t. But the city had its own priorities; the sewers needed repair and the streets needed paving. One city commissioner said, “There’s no question as to the need for a municipal airfield, but where are we going to get the money? That’s the big question.”
The lease expired and the Rockwells began charging the chamber $50-a-month rent. Within a few months, the brothers found a buyer for the land.
Then Griffith learned that communities in Southern Utah were willing to cough up for airfields if Western would land there instead of in Las Vegas. On Feb. 2, 1929, Griffith appealed for public support.
“We cannot afford the loss of the field,” he said. “It would surely be a civic tragedy if Las Vegas lost the port of airmail call.” Griffith said the “publicity alone” would damage Las Vegas’s reputation.
At this point a new aerial entrepreneur, Roscoe Turner, showed up with plans to establish a route between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Reno. Turner, an internationally known pilot, worked out a deal with local gas station operator P.A. “Pop” Simon. Simon would provide the land and would get the rights to sell gasoline at the airport; Turner would get his field and provide the first regular air traffic. The site they selected was eight miles from the city, a spot regarded by many Las Vegans as the middle of nowhere. It is now Nellis Air Force Base.
After a few months, Turner’s company failed. Griffith, the chamber and Western moved in, and a 20-year lease was negotiated.
After a rough and tumble start, by the early 1930s aviation had a firm foothold in Southern Nevada, largely because of the leadership of Robert Griffith.
Griffith’s term as postmaster also marked the first time that Las Vegans didn’t have to go to some central post office to get their mail. On Jan. 2, 1926, Griffith sent two men out to deliver mail to homes and businesses.
The Las Vegas Age, in a front-page story reported, “another milestone in the advance of Las Vegas from a small desert colony of tents to a city of importance was marked this morning with the inauguration of free city mail delivery. Slowly but surely Las Vegas is becoming grown up.”
Fifty years later Griffith still felt that delivering mail to people’s doors was “one of his proudest achievements.”
Griffith resigned as postmaster on March 31, 1930. He focused of his attention on taking care of his father, who had become seriously ill. The elder Griffith died in October 1932.
By the late 1930s Griffith all but stood alone as the community’s aviation expert. He spent his own money and political pull with U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran to get an Army Air Force base here.
John Cahlan, a longtime Las Vegas newspaperman, and a friend of the Griffiths, remembered it this way: “It was in 1940 that Bob saw an airman in the Apache Hotel, (in downtown Las Vegas). Uniforms were not very numerous in the community at that time, and he got to talking to the sergeant who said, ‘Well, my major and I are surveying the western area for a gunnery range.’ That’s the first that we heard of it.” Cahlan said Griffith immediately began lobbying the government to build the base in Southern Nevada, telling the Army that “we had all of this federal land out here that nobody was using.”
Las Vegas was soon selected as the spot for the gunnery school. But Griffith’s contributions to what would become the world’s largest Air Force base were not finished.
Cahlan said, “The first thing that they had to have was water, so they drilled one dry well, then they drilled a second dry well, and they drilled a third dry well. They were about to move the whole operation out of Southern Nevada because of a lack of water.” Again Griffith came to the rescue. He and Las Vegas City Commissioner Al Corradetti bought the Van Rains Ranch, about five miles west of where the base is now. Along with that ranch went water rights, which Griffith gave to the Army.
And that, said Cahlan “is the way they saved the base.”
To make the plan work, the city of Las Vegas obtained the funds from the federal government to buy what was then called Western Air Express Field. In turn, the city leased the field to both the Army and Western. In March of 1941, the public side of the field was renamed McCarran Field, honoring the senator who funneled federal funds to the city.
With the Army air base in place, Griffith now 42, headed up the chamber of commerce. In this role, he once again lobbied with McCarran for federal funds to build a municipal airport. It was clear that the Army would take over the field, and that the community would soon need its own. This time, he suggested the community build an airport south of the city, where McCarran International Airport is now located.
But his vision was broader still. In June 1945, he proposed that local governments begin “acquiring land preparing for the future to develop a countywide system of airports for the use of post war travelers.”
Griffith’s plan was the launching pad for today’s Clark County airport system.
At this point in his community career, Griffith turned his efforts to securing water for Southern Nevada’s future.
During World War II, Griffith and several other community leaders convinced the government to build a water pipeline from Lake Mead to the Las Vegas Valley. This pipeline would be large enough to serve both the defense contractors in Henderson, and the citizens of the valley. That pipeline allowed Las Vegas to grow after the war. He was appointed to the Colorado River Commission in 1957 and elected chairman in 1966. While he headed the commission, it drew up the “first plans for utilization of Nevada’s share of the Lake Mead water.”
Up to his death at the age of 79, Griffith continued to believe and share in the future of Las Vegas.
When he died on March 23, 1978, Cahlan, said, “If ever there was a man who deserved to be called ‘Mr. Las Vegas’ it was Bob Griffith. He was active in every major project. Bob Griffith was a dreamer, but fortunately for the present citizens of Las Vegas, he made his dreams come true.”
Robert Stoldal has been a student of Southern Nevada history since his family moved here in 1957. The general manager of Las Vegas One, a 24-hour television news source, he previously worked for KLAS TV-8, rising from reporter through anchorman to news director.
Death of a hero