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History of Mormon Fort in Las Vegas holds up

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LAS VEGAS — "Sin City" is built on casinos and carousing, but Las Vegas was born of adobe and Mormons.

"This is considered by many to be the first beginnings of the city of Las Vegas," said Chris Macek, park supervisor at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort.

The visual history of this city's origins — and the role played by Latter-day Saints — has been incrementally restored over the past six decades and is now protected within the quiet walls of a state historic park. The Old Mormon Fort has endured the churning change of a dynamic city and is representative of the LDS presence in a valley home to approximately 100,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And to this day, the story is remarkably preserved in a block of 19th-century bricks.

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Inside a bland, rectangular building on the dusty grounds of the Old Mormon Fort, visitors will find a historical treasure — and a Las Vegas anomaly.

Around 1865, a rancher named O.D. Gass acquired property along the Las Vegas Creek and constructed both a house and storage building using the foundation and walls of an abandoned fort. The storage building is still standing, and though most of it has been refurbished, a section of adobe dating back to 1855 is enclosed within the western wall — bricks used by Mormon settlers to construct the first nonnative settlement in the Las Vegas valley.

Today, the Old Mormon Fort is billed as "the place where Las Vegas began." Macek finds it incongruous that a piece of the first building in Las Vegas remains intact.

"Especially in a town that's blowing things up every few years," he said.

On June 17, 1855, a group of 30 Mormon missionaries, led by William Bringhurst and sent under the direction of President Brigham Young, stopped four miles east of the Las Vegas springs and held church services. The following day, they commenced building a fort.

An article from the 1969 Church News described the settlers' purpose as a "two-fold mission." They were to establish a "halfway" station on the Utah-California trail and serve as missionaries to the American Indians in the area. According to a 1949 Church News article, "the Mormon gospel was preached with typical zeal," resulting in several converts.

In addition to the protective fort, the settlers built cabins and established a post office. Irrigated water from the nearby creek was used for crops and orchards. Family members arrived later, and a school for both Mormon and native children was organized, according to the Church News.

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The Mormons' presence in the area, however, was short. Two years after their arrival, the missionaries returned to Utah.

Sources indicate the compounding of several factors, including poor crop production and a failed lead-mining effort. A 2007 Deseret News article cited a conflict between Bringhurst and another local leader, Nathaniel Jones, and according to the Nevada State Parks Web site, the conflict "add(ed) to discouragement of many in the group with the hot summer climate."

The 1969 Church News mentioned "a raid by the Indians" as a factor. The approach of Johnston's Army and escalating threat of the Utah War "was the final blow," according to the 1949 Church News.

After the Mormons' departure, the property had several owners and tenants, including Gass, Civil War soldiers from California, the family of Archibald Stewart and the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. From 1929 to 1931, the Bureau of Reclamation leased the storage building to test concrete for the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Despite the abbreviated LDS history, the fort still bears the "Mormon" label and draws many members of the faith among the 11,000 to 12,000 annual visitors.

Macek, who is not a Mormon but grew up in Kirtland, Ohio, and considers himself a student of history, estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the park visitors are Latter-day Saints. Many come to learn about their ancestors.

"Mostly what draws them here is because they had people in their past who were missionaries," Macek said.

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While the original fort all but disappeared, this historic site somehow held up.

Over the years, the 14-foot-high, 150-foot-long adobe walls began to "melt" away under the elements, according to Macek. The roof of the structure built by Gass helped protect the few bricks that remain today, and pieces of the original foundation were preserved underground.

But after Gass' ranch house was razed in 1966, the old storage building — which had come to be known as "The Old Fort" — was the only visible remnant of the settlement.

Several sustained preservation efforts not only kept the fort from disappearing, but helped restore the site to its 19th-century appearance.

It began in 1939, when the Daughters of Utah Pioneers placed a monument at the site. Five years later, the Union Pacific Railroad, which owned the property at the time, agreed to let the DUP take over the crumbling structure, according to the Church News. The organization restored the building and established a "pioneer relic hall," also adding a canopy as protection from the elements.

"If it hadn't been for DUP, the Old Mormon Fort would have gone into oblivion," said Ashley Hall, a Latter-day Saint and the former city manager of Las Vegas during the 1980s.

Still, the fort was in limbo for several years. Ownership of the property passed from the Benevolent Elks of Las Vegas to the city itself, and according to Macek, "it was a weed-filled lot for many years." In addition to neglect, the fort endured the threat of redevelopment.

In 1983, however, a nonprofit organization called "Friends of the Fort" was chartered by the state and leased the area from the city. The group reopened the fort for tours and lobbied the state "to recognize its place in our history," according to the organization's Web site.

Around 1990, the future of the historic site was secured when the Nevada Division of State Parks took over. Since then, the fort itself has been reconstructed with "stabilized" adobe, which includes compounds designed to withstand weather.

According to Macek, some "artistic license" has been taken in the reconstruction, and the journal entries of missionaries, now stored in the church archives, have provided a blueprint. For example, today's fort includes a mesquite ramada, a feature referenced in the historical record.

A museum and modern visitors center were completed in 2005, 150 years after the Mormons' arrival. There's a lot to see at the fort, especially when considering that, according to Macek, "almost none of it survived."

Except, of course, those adobe bricks — and the story itself.

If you go

What: Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park

Where: 500 E. Washington Ave., Las Vegas

Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday

Admission: Ages 13 and older, $1; ages 12 and under, freeHeady