Las Vegas is famed as the gambling capital of the world, amongst various other colourful names, having become the pre-eminent casino destination packed with entertainment and excitement. Within those huge casino venues we find popular poker games, cheering crowds at the craps tables, along with row upon row of brightly lit slot machines, alluring players with the dream of jackpot wins.
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But beyond the casino action and the showbiz persona of this city, there’s another story to how Las Vegas gained its name via entirely more humble origins. Indeed, even in the modern era of tourist dollars and entertainment razzmatazz, the flora and fauna of this Nevada desert hotspot are still there to be found, showcasing the beauty of a valley that still remains abundant with natural wonders.
Who named the Las Vegas location?
Considering all the technological marvels in modern-day Las Vegas, it can sometimes be hard to imagine that at one time, this location was undiscovered and unknown territory. Indeed, the American West remained mostly uncharted through the early 19th century. Nevertheless, while travelling along the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to southern California, the scout for a Mexican traders happened to discover a shortcut.
The name of that scout was Rafael Rivera, who found what can best be called an oasis in the middle of the Mojave Desert, filled with abundant green meadows of wild desert grasses. This lush location was fed by the life-giving water artesian springs, making it an excellent location to establish a resting point on the long, hard trail.
Rivera came up with the name ‘Las Vegas’ for this newly discovered land, which literally translates to ‘The Meadows’ from Spanish to English. Later when John C. Fremont mapped the area in 1844, he labelled the location as Las Vegas Springs, then Octavius Glass established the first homestead called Las Vegas Rancho.
Despite the natural gifts the land could provide, the ranch eventually fell into debt and in lieu of payments due, Glass handed the property over to Archibald Stewart. After his death, the widow Helen Steward became the first postmistress for the small settlement, which the United States government also recognised as being named Las Vegas.
While the location remained a long ways from Las Vegas as we know it today, Mormon travelled from Salt Lake City to protect the mail route. They built an adobe fort alongside the spring-fed creek in 1855, which provided the only free-flowing water for miles around, although this would eventually be abandoned, after disappointing crops and disagreements between group leaders.
Still, the area of Las Vegas remained point of importance for travellers, recognised by railroad developers in 1890, when planning the San Pedro, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles rout. When the railroad was completed and with the settlement already booming, Las Vegas was officially founded as a in May of 1905 by William A. Clark, for whom the Nevada county surrounding the city was named.
What happened to the natural springs?
Sadly, the original oasis that gave Las Vegas its name no longer exists. By 1907 and given rapidly growing population, the first groundwater well system was already in place, although this eventually led to the aquifer finally running dry by 1962. These days, around 90% of water in Las Vegas is brought from the Colorado River by way of Lake Mead.
Plans were set forth in 1988, aimed at eventually replenishing and renewing the original aquifer, which remain ongoing. Part of this effort can be seen at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, established around the original water source for Las Vegas. Owned an operated by the Las Vegas Valley Water District, this 180-acre site features museums, outdoor events and activities, along with beautiful botanical gardens and nature trails.
The aim of the Springs Preserve is to educate and inform, guiding visitors through the rich natural history of the region, while showcasing life in a desert environment and hopes for the future. Perhaps one day, the aquifers which gave ‘The Meadows’ of Las Vegas its name will be fully replenished, restoring the natural wonder that encouraged settlers to lay down roots in the first place.