Friday, Oct. 31, 2014 | 2 a.m.
If you want to know the true nature of Nevada, whose 150th birthday we celebrate today, visit the ruins of St. Thomas, the town founded in 1865 by a group of hardy Mormons.
About 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas, the site would have been a nightmare to reach back then, and establishing a town would have been even more difficult, given the oppressive heat, tough farming conditions and natives who weren’t thrilled to see them.
Still, driven by the pioneer spirit, they and others pressed on, establishing a town that would continue for decades, only to be abandoned to make way for Lake Mead, whose waters washed over it for decades.
A long drought has bared the remains of St. Thomas, covered in a powdery layer of silt. Today, there’s no better place than St. Thomas to illustrate that Nevada was — and is — a state of pioneers distinguished by their perseverance.
Over time, new challenges emerged. (Maneuvering an SUV through a Smith’s parking lot to Starbucks today poses different dangers than lowering a wagon down Mormon Mesa to St. Thomas.) But the character of the people who come to Nevada has stayed remarkably the same.
Leaving friends and family behind, people continue to come here to seek opportunity in the desert. It sounds counterintuitive, yet why wouldn’t they? Nevada provides the space and freedom to dream big. Each generation has been emboldened by the previous one to make the best of Nevada.
Consider this: At statehood 150 years ago, who would have thought engineers would conjure up a way to stop the wild Colorado River with a 726-foot-high dam?
And a century ago, you would have been crazy to think that more than 2.5 million people would flock here. Even 50 years ago, suggesting that Las Vegas — a small resort town in the desert — would be an international city with more than 40 million annual visitors would have garnered odd looks.
We can only imagine what our future holds as we continue to embrace the pioneering spirit.
Nevada history tells the story of pioneers who saw the Mojave Desert and the arid Great Basin for something more than what met the eye: They saw opportunities in mining, ranching, tourism and business.
Now 150 years after Nevada became a state, there are still people dreaming, whether Tesla’s Elon Musk, with his gigafactory, a small solar energy entrepreneur or a young couple trying to buy their first home.
Indeed, for all the diverse reasons people move here, they share this in common: an affection for a state that allows them to pursue a vision with minimal roadblocks and that will applaud success, as long as it is earned with sweat equity.
It’s happening everywhere we look. Over the past year, my colleague Mike Smith and I have criss-crossed the state, reaching the far-flung corners, and we have met the newest generation of self-styled pioneers keeping the Nevada spirit alive.
I’m thinking of people like Rick Main, a native Nevadan, who has set his sights on restoring the historic Belmont Inn, north of Tonopah, as an act of love for the history of the state. Or men like Herb Robbins and Walt Kremin, whose passion for history has kept the ghost town of Gold Point on the map. Or Carl Brownfield, a retired cabbie who has helped save a radio station and made it the voice of his community.
For it to prosper, Nevada will need a new type of pioneer, one whose vision extends beyond mining and gaming and tourism and focuses intensely on the education needs of our children and services for an increasingly urban population — including, first and foremost, water.
The bathtub ring around Lake Mead tells the story of Southern Nevada’s main source of water — the Colorado River — under the devastation of the long drought.
The need for Las Vegas to look upstate for its future water certainly weighs heavily in the tiny farming community of Baker, population about 90, outside of Ely. A piece of corrugated steel pipe, large enough for a person to walk through, stands along the road that leads to Great Basin National Park. A sign on it warns people that Southern Nevada wants to take “16.3 billion gallons” of water each year from the region.
The plans to provide Southern Nevada with water are framed in a life-or-death way in Baker, as I was reminded one afternoon at the national park’s visitors center.
A cheerful longtime resident chatted with me about what it’s like to live in Baker. But after some initial small talk, she asked the big question, “Are you for us or against us?”
The context was clear: water.
For rural residents, water is a life-or-death issue. If Southern Nevada wins what’s seen as a water war, residents of rural Nevada fear they may have to pick up and leave the places they call home, just as pioneers did before them in their continuing search for fertile grounds where they could plant their dreams.
One of the truths about Nevada is it demands hardiness of its people, including the strength of perseverance. When a mine fails or entrepreneurial efforts don’t pan out, the best option for some pioneers is to pack up — sometimes including entire small buildings and chase another dream. We see that in our ghost towns, peppered with buildings that were relocated there from elsewhere.
Today’s Nevada requires the same hardiness and perseverance, and it offers the same hopes. Yesterday’s mines are today’s high-tech start-ups; yesterday’s towns are today’s suburbs — each extending the opportunity for property ownership and a place to raise families.
Where we go from here will be defined by our vision and our strength — the same attributes that have brought us to this point. We are a place of hope, and we are braced for challenges. But we are Nevadans — toughened, smarter, wiser — and our future is bright.