LOST VEGAS: The Original Las Vegas That No One Knows About

Las Vegas wasn’t even the first Las Vegas in Las Vegas. An actual, thriving community of 2,000-3,000, also called Las Vegas, was established before the railroad that supposedly built Las Vegas even got there.

For a little over 18 months, from 1904 to 1905, this was what was known as Las Vegas, Nev. Today, historians today refer to it as the McWilliams Town Site. (Image: UNLV Special Collections)

J.T. (John Thomas) McWilliams — born in Ontario, Canada in 1863 — was a freelance land and water surveyor hired in 1902 by the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. His task was surveying a nearly 2K-acre ranch owned by one of Las Vegas’ only residents at the time, Helen J. Stewart.

The railroad was considering purchasing the land to build a town for its new railroad station.

Viva Las Vegas 1.0

Las Vegas’ first bank, First State, was established in its first Las Vegas. (Image: UNLV Special Collections)

Armed with that tidbit of insider info, McWilliams decided to beat the town to town. In 1904, he bought 80 acres of Stewart’s ranch. The land sat just west of the railroad right-of-way.

Using his surveying skills, he painstakingly laid out an orderly grid, with broad dirt avenues that eventually became today’s Bonanza Road, Washington Avenue, and A and H streets.

After McWilliams built it, they came, railroad workers and their families — white, Black, Latino, and Native American. Most traveled the Mormon Road wagon route either from Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, the two major cities they were building the railroad to connect.

Because most were builders, they had no problem building their own houses — though some lived in tents while saving up for the materials. McWilliams built his own home there, too, at 222 Wilson St.

By the beginning of 1905, McWilliams’ Las Vegas had stores, a bank, and was even building Las Vegas’ first theater. (McWilliams persuaded vaudeville impresario Chauncy Pulsifer to begin construction on the 800-seat Trocadero that May.)

The first Las Vegas had all the modern amenities — except one.

Because McWilliams had never secured the water rights to his township’s land — Stewart sold them to Montana Sen. William A. Clark, owner of the railroad — residents of the first Las Vegas were forced to lug their water from a hodgepodge of wells dug throughout the community.

This was doable, since Las Vegas (Spanish for “the meadows”) teemed with underground springs before they were all sucked up by decades of development. But it was a hassle.

So, when Clark began advertising the May 15-16, 1905 land auction that would establish his own Las Vegas on the other side of the freshly built railroad tracks, one thing that really stuck out to the residents of the O.G. Las Vegas was that his lots all included running water.

“McWilliams got a jump on it, but he didn’t have the water rights, and that’s what destroyed him,” Emmett Gates, a Las Vegas documentary filmmaker, told Casino.org.

J.T. McWilliams poses, sometime in the 1930s, in the backyard of the home he built in his own township. (Image: UNLV Special Collections)

Leaving Las Vegas

Over a period of a few weeks, McWilliams’ Las Vegas emptied out, while Clark’s became today’s downtown.

“People with businesses placed the buildings on skids and moved them across the tracks to the Clark side,” Gates said.

Once Clark’s Las Vegas became the official one, the original fell into almost immediate decline. A fire in September 1905 consumed most of what was left of the town, including the half-built Trocadero.

McWilliams, who refused to relocate, insisted that the blighted area be called “the original Las Vegas Townsite,” but no one listened. They were already denigrating it as “Ragtown.” Later, its name became Old Town and then the west side.

In the fall of 1941, McWilliams died of a heart attack at 222 Wilson St., which was demolished after his widow died in the late ’60s.

Today, the area is known as the Historic West Side, but not because of any honor paid McWilliams. Its historicity derives from the Black community that built the neighborhood up after getting herded and trapped there, beginning in 1931, due to the openly racist policies of Las Vegas Mayor Ernie Cragin.

Lost Founder

And so William Clark got all the glory. He receives all the credit for founding Las Vegas. He even got the county in which the city resides named after him.

All McWilliams got named after him was an elementary school built in 1961 on part of his former land.

“There’s absolutely nothing that remains of the original site,” said Gates, “and historians are the only ones who use the name ‘McWilliams Town Site,’ because they’re the only ones who remember who McWilliams was.”

Gates’ new documentary about the Black experience in Las Vegas, “Across the Tracks,” screens Wednesday, March 6 at the Galaxy Theatres at the Boulevard Mall.

“Lost Vegas” is an occasional Casino.org series featuring remembrances of Las Vegas’ forgotten history. Click here to read other entries in the series. Think you know a good Vegas story lost to history? Email [email protected].

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