You may think of Las Vegas as a glitzy, neon-splashed Strip of boozy pleasures and casino hijinks. But nearly a century before Las Vegas founding fathers like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel came to town to turn an unforgiving desert frontier town into a splashy tourist destination, early Mormon settlers were there, setting up camp along the Las Vegas Creek to take advantage of the only free-flowing water for miles around. (Long before that, of course, it was a crossroads for the native Paiute tribe, as well as traders and gold-seekers traveling the Old Spanish Trail to California.)
Today, what’s left of the old Mormon missionary fort is one of the oldest settlements in the state of Nevada. You can explore parts of the original structure and replicated parts of the fort, within easy walking distance of all the attractions of Downtown Las Vegas.
The site of what’s now the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, was an ancient settlement. Archeologists have found artifacts, stone tools, and projectile points both from Paiutes and the Anasazi (who disappeared around 1500 A.D.). From all the artifacts, it seems to have been populated intermittently for centuries before any European-Americans showed up.
In the 1830s, these meadows, (which the Spaniards named Las Vegas, or “the meadows”) became an important stop on the Old Spanish Trail. The Mexican-American war and the Mormon pioneer exodus to Utah territory redirected the trail from Santa Fe to Salt Lake City. In 1855 Mormon settlers led by William Bringhurst, and with the assistance of the local Paiute band, began building a fort along the creek. Parts of the original eastern wall and southeast fortification still exist today. When it was completed, the fort was a four-walled, 150-foot-long bastion. The settlers diverted water from the creek to irrigate farmland and they built an adobe corral. Unfortunately for the settlers, the crops failed, as did their local lead mining efforts, and they abandoned the fort only two years later.
It remained an important site, though, serving as a store for travelers in the 1860s, a ranch in the next several decades, and ultimately Downtown Las Vegas, when its then-owner, Helen Stewart, sold it to the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad in 1902, ushering in a new era for the city as the railroad entered Las Vegas in 1905. It would later be used as a concrete testing laboratory for the Hoover Dam, a restaurant, and finally a modern visitor center and recreation of the Las Vegas Creek when it was purchased from the Nevada Division of State Parks.
What to Do
The Mormon settlers’ original fort was made of adobe and had towers at the northwest and southeast corners. Today, only part of that original structure is still standing—a single adobe building. The rest of the square is a replica, and an outdoor garden has been set up to show how early settlers would have worked the land.
The fort contains lots of historic artifacts, and plaques erected by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, to commemorate the post office and the fort. A visitor center has exhibits and photos that illustrate the history of the site and will give you an important perspective on the early non-native settlers of the Las Vegas Valley. You can read placards in the gallery and watch a video about the early settlers.
The ranch house has artifacts from the early settlers, like a spinning wheel, corn separator, and other items they would have used.
This is a particularly great place for kids to roam. It won’t take you long to see all the structures, but you can pick up a scavenger hunt list from the visitor center, and kids can identify items within the park.
The Las Vegas Old Mormon Fort State Park is just north of Downtown Las Vegas in a kind of cultural corridor that includes the Las Vegas Natural History Museum and the Neon Museum. It’s also close to the Mob Museum. You can walk there from the Fremont Street Experience (although we recommend you choose spring or fall—not the middle of summer—for a walk). You’ll head northeast on North Main Street toward East Ogden Avenue for 0.7 miles, make a right onto East Washington Avenue, and the fort will be on your right. It’s an easy 10-minute drive from the Strip.
The Best Time to Visit
Las Vegas is punishingly hot in the summer. Although the park and visitor center are open year-round, we recommend spring and fall visits, or morning visits on hotter days. The park is open Tuesday through Saturday; admission is $3 for adults, $2 for kids ages 6-12, and free for kids under 6.