On the Road with Richard Hooker: Preservation Month Celebrated in a Lively Las Vegas Road Trip on May 11, 2013

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Richard Hooker

This week, we are delighted to welcome our very first guest blogger: Richard Hooker. Richard is an artist and the owner of the RTZvegas studio in downtown Vegas. He was also the winner of our inaugural “Friend and Champion of the Humanities” Award. Photographs below are courtesy of Bobbie Ann Howell.

Mark Hall-Patton - Director of the Clark County Museum and a regular on the famed “Pawn Stars” TV show - recently spun a lively tale of how roads, rails and trails were a genesis for the development of Las Vegas. The event - which took place on May 11, 2013 - was a three hour narrated bus tour called ‘Pathways to Progress” that was co-sponsored by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission along with Nevada Humanities.

Beginning and ending at the historic El Cortez Hotel and Casino, and with a route that took in the Strip and Boulder Highway, Mark’s narrative laid the foundation for why and how Las Vegas became a thriving metropolis in one of the driest places in America.

Our first pause was at the Old Mormon Fort where we were reminded that the Anasazi Pueblo people moved westward on routes from the Four Corners area of New Mexico, making the areas around Las Vegas some of their most western points of expansion thanks to the springs and watering holes of our basin.  We also learned that the railroad from Salt Lake City to California was a lifeblood of progress and that local water was used for the steam locomotives that brought supplies, commerce and pilgrims to the valley.

Mark, as a street-wise historian, commented that the grid of downtown streets were aligned with the railroad tracks (hence the lack of a true north/south street disposition downtown) and that many of the street names downtown are derived from the names of early explorers like Lewis, Clark, Fremont, Carson, and others.

We stopped briefly at the Main Street Station Casino (the Hotel has a treasure trove of 19th century historical artifacts on view in a self-guided tour – get the brochure at the front desk) and Mark commented on the notorious nature of the nearby blocks 16 and 18.  Decades ago, these were the spots where gambling, liquor and ladies of the day and night were rife, ultimately fuelling our destiny as “Sin City”.  Activities here most likely kept the upstanding empire builders of Boulder Dam from locating their legions of workers in our fair city.

Proceeding south, we learned that Las Vegas boulevard/the Strip was also called 5th Street (downtown), the Arrowhead Highway, the Las Angeles highway, and Highway 91. We crossed the great demarcation line of Sahara Boulevard separating the city from the Strip, and passed by the ghosts of the El Rancho, Stardust and the New Frontier. Fortunately we were spared the never-ending tales of the mobsters that once ruled Las Vegas.

Time seemed to speed up at the busy corner of the Strip and Tropicana, as Mark stated matter-of-factly that this intersection of 16 plus 17 lanes may be the single largest urban crossing of its kind in the US (locals try to avoid this spot).

We then made our way to Las Vegas’ most famous street shrine - the famed “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign designed by now legendary sign designer Betty Willis in 1959. Historian Dorothy Wright, in the seat ahead of me, commented that she wrote the nomination that placed this sign on the National Register of Historic Places awhile back. I recall Betty telling me that at one time she had started collecting ephemera and objects that used her sign as a design motif, but once on an airplane trip when she got some peanuts with the sign emblem, she decided to stop because she realised it too would be never-ending.

At the southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard, we paused at the stone pillars that were once the official entry to McCarran Airport. Mark explained that the airport was the key to Vegas becoming a world-class resort city. It was interesting to note the pillars feature an original pair of neon propellers that most likely are the oldest neon signs on the Strip.

From there, we made our way east down Tropicana and then turned north onto Boulder Highway. Mark stated there was once a grand design to develop this corridor as the second Las Vegas Strip with the Showboat leading the way, followed by Sam’s Town, then other smaller casinos, but the plan never grew into a major initiative. We stopped at Four Mile bar, a somewhat infamous brothel, before heading back downtown on Fremont where we passed the last relics of great motel signs still in place, including the legendary Blue Angel and the Sky Ranch.

The bus tour finished at the El Cortez in time for lunch, over the course of which we got to see a  “Then and Now” slide presentation of Las Vegas mid-century hotels and motels from roadside historian Jerry Stefani, as well as a lecture by the historian and author Peter Moruzzi on the history of the El Cortez itself. Peter successfully nominated the El Cortez to the National Register of Historic Places a short while ago and it is now the only operating historic casino on the Register. It is interesting to note that Peter’s efforts regarding the El Cortez began in earnest two years ago when the Vegas Valley Book Festival (and Nevada Humanities) brought the author to this historic venue to speak at about his book on the relationship between Havana and Las Vegas as competing world class gambling destinations.

All in all, it was a great road trip that revealed lots of history and the significant role that transportation has played in the growth of Las Vegas.

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