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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Union Pacific Collection... A historical treasure revisited...

Senator William Andrews Clark
Arriving in Las Vegas in 1905
(with permission from UNLV Special Collections)

Over the last several months we have been hearing a lot about Huguette Clark, the reclusive millionairess and daughter of Montana Senator, copper and railroad tycoon William Andrews Clark. Huguette recently passed away at the age of 104 in New York City, two weeks shy of her 105 birthday. Though there has been much controversy revolving around her life and those who control her fantastic wealth (read MSNBC), what is most interesting about her is the fact that she was the last remaining direct decedent of the founding of Las Vegas. For a city that does not necessarily embrace its history the mere fact that there was a person still alive with a direct connection to our city's birth is amazing. The recent news and sad death of Huguette made me reminisce about the research I did with one of Las Vegas's most important treasures.

It is without a doubt that the Union Pacific Collection of manuscripts, photographs and related ephemera is the single most important cache of documents related to early Las Vegas history ever assembled. The collection that now rests in the vaults of UNLV Special Collections contain, in exhaustive detail, how Las Vegas became a town and who were the important individuals that were involved with the city's creation.

Senator William Andrews Clark and his brother H. Ross Clark are featured prominently in many of the documents contained in the collection.  Senator Clark founded the Las Vegas town site as a water stop on his San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (S.P.,L.A., & S. L. R. R.) after he purchased the Las Vegas Rancho from Helen Stewart for $55,000. Las Vegas with its abundant spring and lush meadows was the perfect location for a water stop and a town to help maintain the fledgling railroad.

I had the honor of working with this collection on two very special occasions. First in 1999 as an undergraduate student researching Las Vegas history and then revisited the collection in 2005 when I curated an exhibition in celebration of the city's centennial. Even though I went through a mere fraction of the dozens of boxes that are part of the collection, the few that I did manage to get through were a treasure trove full of information about the beginning of what would become one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

One of the many documents I ran into was regarding the proper spelling of Las Vegas. At the time that the railroad had arrived in Southern Nevada, Las Vegas was known as "LOS" Vegas at the local post office. Apparently in the late 19th century the Postmaster General of the United States changed the name of the Las Vegas Rancho to Los Vegas, spelled with an "o", because of concerns regarding confusion with Las Vegas New Mexico. On December 31, 1903 the name "Los" Vegas was officially changed back to "Las" Vegas, in a deliberate move to fix a glaring mistake. The two letters below, that I have typed verbatim, detail the change of the towns name back to its original spelling.

Letterhead detail from the railroad
Union Pacific Collection
(Reprinted with permission from UNLV Special Collections)

In a letter dated January 4, 1904 sent by R. E. Wells, General Manager of the S.P.,L.A., & S. L. R. R. to Mr. H. Hawgood, Chief Engineer, Los Angeles California.

Regarding the spelling of Las Vegas-

Dear Sir:
         Referring to your letter dated August 15th, 1903 replying to mine of August 12th in regard to the improper spelling of the word "Las Vegas", you will be glad to learn that under date of December 30th I am advised by Mr. J. L. Bristow, Fourth Assistant Postmaster General that the name has been changed to "Las Vegas" December 9, 1903. 
          I will be glad if you will kindly see that the name is properly spelled on maps and other data which will be prepared for this company. 
         Yours Truly, 
         (signed) R. E. Wells

In a letter dated January 23, 1904 sent by R. E. Wells to Mr. J. Ross Clark, Vice President of the S.P.,L.A., & S. L. R. R., Los Angeles, California.

Dear Sir:-
          For your information will say that I took up with the Post Office Department some time ago the question of changing the spelling of the name of the post office at Los Vegas to "Las Vegas," and have recently received advice to the effect that the same has been done, so that in the future the spelling of that name should be in accordance therewith. 
           Very Respectfully, 
           R. E. Wells

Post Script - I am not much of a Spanish scholar, but a masculine adjective in connection with a feminine noun sounds absolutely immoral to me! REW

The post script of the letter is what makes this specific document very curious due to the fact that R. E. Wells quipped that having a masculine adjective in connection with a feminine noun is, as he puts it, "immoral." I am not sure about it being immoral as much as it is a mistake. The Spanish language is made up of feminine and masculine words and because Las Vegas is feminine, Wells is correct in stating that it is wrong to have a masculine adjective precede a feminine noun. It is small little anecdotes like this that make the Union Pacific Collection seminal to understanding early Las Vegas history that scholars are just now beginning to unearth.

Several other documents that I went through described the Las Vegas Rancho in great detail. The ranch under the ownership of Helen Stewart was an active orchard with hundreds of trees. In one of the surveys conducted by the railroad I discovered details on how many trees were found and their types. Here is a list:
  • 114 apple trees
  • 3 pecan trees
  • 16 apricot trees
  • 19 paper shell almond trees
  • 4 English walnut trees
  • 3 tragedy plum/ prunes trees
  • 57 peach trees
  • 5 Bartlet pears
  • 13 fig trees
In addition to the abundance of trees, over 2500 grape vines were accounted for making the ranch a small vineyard for the production of wine.

Another important set of documents describe the negotiations between Helen Stewart and the Railroad over the final purchase price of the ranch. Like all business deals quite a bit of haggling occurred before a final price was settled on. With such exhaustive details one can easily grasp what Las Vegas was like at the turn of the 20th century. 

Looking back at the time I spent with the collection dramatically opened my eyes to when the west was wild and to understand those individuals who were brave enough to confront it. Even though Las Vegas today is nothing like it was 105 years ago, it like other cities had to begin somewhere and the Union Pacific Collection tells you the story. Though some would call the collection "old papers found in the trash" I see their discovery as the holy grail of our important history and only a true "Nevadan" would know that.

If you have some time to spare go down to Special Collections at the Lied Library on the campus of UNLV and take a look at how Las Vegas began.

UNLV Special Collections
4505 Maryland Parkway
Las Vegas, NV 89154-7010
(702) 895-2234

Paying my respects to the Clark Family
The Clark Mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery
The Bronx, New York City 2010
(Photo by C.S. Muncy, NYC) 
The Clark Mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery
The Bronx, New York City 2010
(Photo by Brian Paco Alvarez) 
Brian Paco Alvarez enculturating Las Vegas into the millennium...

posted by Brian Paco Alvarez, Curator and Chronicler of Culture at


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