Las Vegas Sun

August 16, 2017

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Preserving the past

Fort facts

The Old Mormon Fort is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

As a youngster in 1961, Ashley Hall played near what was then the decaying ruins of the Old Mormon Fort at Washington Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

As Las Vegas city manager in 1989, Hall was instrumental in getting the City Council to give the fort, which was by then on the National Register of Historic Buildings, to the state of Nevada to better preserve it.

As a businessman today, Hall was one of the first visitors this week to the newly opened reconstructed Old Mormon Fort west of Cashman Center at what is now a state park honoring the very roots of Las Vegas.

"It's wonderful," Hall said as he looked over the grounds that include 9-foot fort walls and a bastion constructed out of adobe similar to -- but stronger than -- what was used by the Mormon settlers who built the structure in 1855.

"Back in the late 1980s, I felt the best effort to save the fort was to put it in the state's hands, and (then-Mayor) Ron Lurie and the City Council agreed," Hall said. "I have always felt that once this was reconstructed it would draw great interest."

To preserve this little corner of Las Vegas' past, Nevada has spent $2.5 million -- money raised through a parks and wildlife bond.

"This is the oldest building in the state," said Julie Thorn, a state park ranger technician who for the past six years has worked at the fort and researched much of its history.

"Genoa and other places in the state were older, but they had fires that destroyed their wooden buildings. When that happened, this fort became the state's oldest building. And, especially to members of the Mormon Church, this is considered holy land."

What amazed Thorn was that the journals she had studied still existed and are today the pride of individual Mormon family collections or are part of the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The inside of the building that is made in part of the original, thick adobe wall of the fort is decorated with historical information panels and mid-19th century furniture that is on loan from the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.

"Las Vegas has not always been protective of its historical landmarks," Hall said. "But that is normal for young communities. When a community gets older, it starts to look to preserve its past."

Erecting a historical structure with materials similar to what existed 150 years ago and doing it up to modern city codes was no easy task.

"The hardest part was finding the right materials," said Steve Warren, foreman of the contractor Larry D. Builders. "You couldn't just go to any brickyard and lumberyard to find what was needed."

For instance, Warren learned that just 20 U.S. companies still make adobe bricks, but only one, a Tucson, Ariz., firm, made the type of stabilized, structurally rated adobe that would pass inspection for use in a Las Vegas building.

"Each brick cost 53 cents to purchase and 55 cents to ship here," Warren said. "This is the first time I have built something like this. I'm more used to building casinos."

To fasten the wooden door frames and other objects to the adobe structure, Warren's workers used steel-forged, square-head nails made at a Massachusetts company that still manufactures them with equipment that was made in 1806.

For the last six months, Warren utilized six to 30 workers per day to get the fort ready for its opening Jan. 3. Coincidentally, the fort originally was built by 30 Mormons led by church elder William Bringhurst, who arrived in Las Vegas on June 14, 1855, to settle the area and convert the Paiute Indians to the Mormon faith.

To prepare the fort for reconstruction, an archaeological dig was needed to determine the location of the footings. Workers had to dig several feet deep through what once was a playground built by the Elks Lodge when that organization owned the property.

"They didn't know it at the time, but the Elks actually had preserved the land by putting three to four feet of dirt over it," Hall said.

During Hall's tenure at City Hall, from 1981 to 1990, he was instrumental in arranging a land swap that moved the Elks Lodge to city land on West Charleston Boulevard in exchange for the old Elks building, which today houses the Museum of Natural History, and the land adjacent to the fort.

Bob Martin, supervisor of landscape architecture for the project, said last week that plans to have landscaping finished by Jan. 15 have been changed. It now appears, he said, that it will take until the end of the month to complete the final touches.

Among those final touches is a rush of recycled water that will follow the path of the Las Vegas Creek just south of the fort. Thorn said the original creek dried up by 1950. Although it has been tested, the rebuilt creek was not flowing last week.

Martin and Thorn said that much attention is being paid to detail, including the vegetation on the property. The plants that will grow on the site include peas, beans, corn, tomatoes and squash of the variety that the Mormon settlers grew -- no hybrids.

The missionaries who originally built the fort that never was attacked by hostile forces stayed for just two years before the settlement project and fort were abandoned, said Steve Weaver, chief of planning and development for the state parks department.

The buildings constructed by the pioneers deteriorated with age and the elements. The adobe back then would melt as water hit it. The adobe used in the reconstruction of what will be just a portion of the original fort will not.

For many years, especially around the turn of the century to the mid-1820s, the Helen J. Stewart ranch was located on the property, Weaver said.

At the next Legislature, funding will be sought to build both a replica of the outer walls of the Stewart ranch house on the same location where it once stood and a permanent visitors center.

During its first week of operation, the fort has had about 30 visitors a day, Thorn said, noting that she hopes one day it will attract as many as four or five busloads a day.