Award Date

December 2023

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Committee Member

Michael Green

Second Committee Member

Elizabeth Nelson

Third Committee Member

Daniel Bubb

Fourth Committee Member

Robert Tracy

Number of Pages



At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the waves of migration that had spurred development in the American West had not yet reached the Las Vegas Valley. The natural landscape appeared unforgiving to those who passed through for better opportunity. Although there was water, which was instrumental in establishing the Kiel and Stewart Ranches, two primary locations which had extensive areas under cultivation providing a foundation for the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad to establish a water stop in the Las Vegas Valley. This dissertation examines the early history of the townsite development in the Las Vegas Valley from a time when there was no interest in forming a townsite through moments of highly competitive strategic moves from multiple entities. The most significant of these was the McWilliams’ Las Vegas Townsite founded by J.T. McWilliams, a trained surveyor, who in December 1904 positioned his townsite to include a portion of the rails that were already receiving passengers from Salt Lake City. McWilliams’ townsite was situated to maximize business with the railroad and the existing service to mining camps that needed supplies. It was McWilliams’ success that spurred the railroad to hurriedly plan a townsite of their own, Clark’s Las Vegas Townsite, which opened with an auction on May 15, 1905. The SPLA&SLRR’s efforts were led by First Vice President J. Ross Clark with his brother President W. A. Clark serving as the public face of the railroad that was conceived of to join the population centers of Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. For most of the first one hundred years, the dominant position of the railroad’s townsite controlled the narrative, their version of the origin story claimed the May 1905 auction was the inaugural moment in the history of the city of Las Vegas, this claim intentionally obscured the earlier townsites already in existence before the auction took place. The railroad’s auction storyline stood unchallenged as the definitive history of the founding of Las Vegas, eventually eliminating the contribution of others, including McWilliams. Through exhaustive use of property records, correspondence, business records, newspaper reporting, advertising, marketing materials and photographic evidence, this dissertation recovers a detailed history of the first year of urban settlement in the Las Vegas Valley that re-establishes the importance and success of the McWilliams’ Las Vegas Townsite and revises the history of Clark’s auction, challenging the mythic narratives of the number of attendees and lots sold. It was the McWilliams townsite, not the Clark townsite that prospered first in the rocky years of the development of the Las Vegas Valley.


Charleston Mountains; John Thomas McWilliams; Las Vegas Townsite; Nevada; Old Town; SPLA&SLRR


History | United States History

File Format


File Size

18040 KB

Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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