Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2004 | 11:17 a.m.
For what seems like a commonplace public works project, the railroad underpass on Bonanza Road is, well, making history.
What's known as the Clark Avenue Railroad Underpass was listed this week on the National Register of Historic Places because, historians say, it "opened up" Las Vegas.
It takes its place among Nevada historical sites that include a crater at the Nevada Test Site, a couple of mine shafts, Hoover Dam, railroad cars and a couple of charcoal kilns.
"Nobody stops to gaze lovingly at an underpass," said Andy Kirk, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and director of Preserve Nevada, a preservation group. "But it was important in the history of our town."
The underpass, the first structure of its type in Nevada to be listed in the registry, was built in 1937 by the Depression-era Works Project Administration. Preservationists say it's important because it brought what is now West Las Vegas together with the rest of the city. The city used to be split by the rail line, which was then elevated.
"It's definitely historically significant, and that's all that matters with the national register," Kirk said, "not whether it's cool or exciting."
Before the underpass the railroad represented a physical, economic and cultural divide between the prosperous white community on the east side of the tracks and the heavily black, poor community on the west, Courtney Mooney, Las Vegas' historic preservation officer, said. Mooney nominated the underpass for the city.
Union Pacific finished the tracks after the Westside was founded in 1905, Mooney said. Because there was no way to safely cross the tracks, which ran from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, the Westside community was essentially cut off from basic services.
The railroad tracks delayed water and sewer services, electric lighting and commercial trade to the Westside and hindered relations with the white community, Mooney said.
"The Westside was also slowly becoming more and more segregated, as residents of thriving black Las Vegas neighborhoods were forced to relocate their homes and businesses to the Westside," Mooney said. "Overcrowding resulted in the construction of substandard housing, exacerbating the already noxious conditions created by the lack of clean running water."
The Las Vegas township on the east side controlled both the Union Pacific Railroad depot and most of the water rights from the Las Vegas Creek, making it difficult for the Westside to sustain the influx of poor whites, Mexicans and Chinese who migrated to the area to work on the railroad and Boulder Dam.
After a fire wiped out most of the Westside's wood buildings soon after its founding, the townsite remained a shantytown of tents and shacks until the 1930s, Mooney said.
"The construction of the underpass was a civic attempt to ease the straining relationship between the white and black communities, as well as a means to facilitate infrastructure improvement on the Westside," Mooney said.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal program made the bridge possible. The underpass was one of 78,000 bridges constructed under the Works Progress Administration, introduced in 1935 to bring relief to jobless workers during the Depression.
"The underpass joined the two communities physically and metaphysically, capturing the spirit of the New Deal," Mella Harmon, architectural historian for the state Historic Preservation Office, said.
The area around the underpass, on Bonanza Road just east of D Street, has been a haven for Las Vegas' homeless for the last several decades. Located down the street from the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, the underpass has sheltered many homeless individuals who have slept on the vacant land near the railroad tracks or cut through the tracks as a shortcut.
Police now regularly patrol the tracks, which are on private land, said Drew, a 50-year-old homeless man who would not give his last name.
"They've been cracking down on those tracks," Drew said. "You can't even walk across them without getting a citation."
But Drew, like many of the homeless near the underpass, liked the idea of making it a historic site and liked what the underpass symbolized.
"As long as there is a way to go back and forth, communication will stay open," Drew said. "That is what causes prejudice, not being able to talk."
Another homeless man, Rick Dalton, 49, already knew of the structure's history.
"That bridge was the beginning of welfare, the Works Progress Administration," Dalton said. "We old-timers call it, 'We Piddle Around.' "
Registering the underpass as a historic site brings honor to the site and to Las Vegas, Harmon and Mooney said. The designation also adds some protection to the underpass, but does not guarantee it cannot be altered or destroyed to make way for other projects.
The original structure has already been altered due to the widening of Bonanza Road, which was Clark Avenue until the 1940s, Mooney said.
That didn't improve its modest appearance.
"I just don't see it," said Tracy Scott, 57, looking at the underpass Tuesday from an adjacent corner. "It's such a common thing to make that claim."