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Mike Trask

Las Vegas pioneer not pleased with plans

13 September 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Today it's simply a dirt lot in North Las Vegas surrounded by a 5-foot-high chain-link fence, with little hint of its past.

It s future will become clear soon enough, when the site is used for expansion of the Silver Nugget. Next door sits a mobile home park, expected to yield to a planned $156 million North Las Vegas City Hall.

It's ground zero for redevelopment in the growing city that has been making strides toward changing its image from downtrodden to up-and-coming.

But there's more to the story than replacing the 40-year-old City Hall or the rebirth of the Nugget, a fixture along Las Vegas Boulevard North since 1964.

The land being redeveloped has a storied history that starts with a man named Thomas Williams, known in local historical circles as "The Father of North Las Vegas."

Williams always thought government was a terrible idea, especially all that troublesome stuff about building codes and land-use regulations.

So early in the 20th century he set up shop a few miles from Las Vegas to avoid the bureaucracy.

Given that, it seems Williams would be disturbed, to say the least, that his land would someday house building inspectors, zoning officers and other examples of the very kinds of City Hall pencil-pushers he did his best to avoid.

The settler also was deeply religious, so one can only imagine his chagrin as some of the 160 acres he settled in 1919 become a casino. On the other hand, the libertarian Williams accepted bootleggers during Prohibition, so perhaps gambling would be fine with him.

The North Las Vegas City Council has approved a new gaming enterprise district for the Silver Nugget that the casino plans to use to add 375 hotel rooms, more bowling lanes and a theater. It still needs special-use and building permits for the project.

The expansion will be at McDaniel Street and Hunkins Drive, behind the current casino, where on a recent afternoon a group of men collected empty beer cans at the vacant lot where nearly a century ago Williams laid the roots of North Las Vegas.

Williams had moved his family from Utah, buying the land for $8 an acre. He subdivided 100 acres and sold it for $10 per lot. Free sites were offered to churches.

But then came the 18th Amendment and Prohibition. Bootleggers flocked to the new community, where there were no laws against booze - or anyone to enforce them. Thus started North Las Vegas' reputation as a community of outlaws, something later made famous by Hunter S. Thompson and local crime reporters.

"Williams set the standard for the mavericklike independence the city has been known for since its inception," said Corrine Escobar, president of the Clark County Preservation Association.

Legend has it that Williams' first crop of watermelons was purchased by neighbors and used to make moonshine.

He died in 1939. Seven years later North Las Vegas was incorporated with 965 residents. Today it has more than 214,000 residents and is the nation's fastest growing city.

Like much of Nevada's past, though, Williams has been largely forgotten.

The first settlement in North Las Vegas, Kiel Ranch in the 1860s, also sits nearly abandoned. The city has planned to fix it for decades but never got around to it, primarily for economic reasons.

"If most people barely notice Southern Nevada history , then they don't notice North Las Vegas history at all," said Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada.

But this is the kind of quirky chapter that gets attention even from people who typically pay little heed to history.

So ironically, it could be that a huge government center being built on land settled by a guy who hated government makes people think more about that lowly dirt lot - and its lofty place in North Las Vegas history.