The Region

Explorations and surveys south of Central Pacific R.R.

May 3, 1844--  After a day’s journey of 18 miles, in a northeasterly direction, we encamped in the midst of another very large basin, at a camping ground called las Vegas – a term which the Spaniards use to signify fertile or marshy plains . . . Two narrow streams of clear water, four or five feet deep, gush suddenly, with a quick current, from two singularly large springs; these, and other waters of the basin, pass out in a gap to the eastward. The taste of the water is good, but rather too warm to be agreeable . . . they, however, afforded a delightful bathing place.


John C. Fremont, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, 1844



No grass, and difficult to get wood. Water brackish in the Virgin & could get no other . . . Tomorrow hope to reach the Muddy. Has been hot today & road for the most part through heavy sand.  Tuesday Oct. 10th, 1848 Started this morning two hours before daylight and made a long march of 35 m. to the “Muddy” & over a very heavy road, without water or grass, by 12 o’clock! We made a delightful camp on a fine stream of water with good grass and found a large body of Indians—Piutes [sic]. From them we bought some corn and beans. And what a meal we made! The valley of “Muddy” is large & land fertile. The water is of the best and purest kind and some day, & that not too distant, this valley will teem with a large & healthy population.

Orvill C. Pratt, Diary, 1848.


A wide expanse of chaotic matter . . . consisting of huge hills, sandy deserts, cheerless, grassless plains, perpendicular rocks, loose barren clay, dissolving beds of sandstone and various other elements, lying in inconceivable confusion—in short, a country in ruins, dissolved by the peltings of the storms of ages, or turned inside out, up side down, by terrible convulsions in some former age. Eastward the view was bounded by vast tables of mountains one rising above another, and presenting a level summit at the horizon, as if the whole country had once occupied a certain level several thousand feet higher than its present and had been washed away, dissolved or sunk, leaving the monuments of its once exalted level smooth and fertile surface. Poor and worthless...

Parley P. Pratt, Report of the Southern Exploring Expedition presented to the legislative council of Deseret, 9 February 1850. 


May terminated cold and cloudy although wind strong from the south. Fruit in great quantities and of unusual size. Grapes never better large bunches and well filled unusually large peach trees breaking down with peaches half grown – apricots in large quantities and plumbs -- in every respect an unusually fruitful year & unusually buggy. Everything grows from the very start without trouble, no coaxing is needed this year to make anything grow   . . . July 7, Colorado River fell 4 feet no flood this year

O.D. Gass, Las Vegas Ranch Daybook, 1878 


With the exception of the arable land of the Muddy, Santa Clara Creek, Pahranagat and Pah-rimp Valleys, and Las Vegas Springs, this section is typical of the desert in all its worst phases. . even the springs found at wide intervals throughout this large area are unreliable, often dry, and that many that were found active when visited are not necessarily permanent . . .  the climate is that of the more southerly parts of the Great Basin; i.e. uniform and mild in winter; parching hot in summer . . . The permanent agricultural resources are slight, the grazing considerable, the timber limited, while there is a large field in which to discover and exploit the precious metals.

Captain George Wheeler, U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian 1889



To describe this country and its sterility for one hundred miles, its gloomy barrenness, would subject the reader’s credulity to too high a strain. Not even the caw of a crow, or the bark of a wolf, was there to break the awful monotony. I could see something green on the tops of the distant mountains, a thousand feet above me, but here there was nothing but a continual stench of miasman, and hot strakes of poisonous air to breathe. Was this Hades, Sheole, or the place for the condign punishment of the wicked, or was it the grand sewer for the waste and filth of vast animation?

George W. Brimhall, The Workers of Utah, 1889



The quotes to this point provide very different perspectives of the land encountered by explorers. What factors contributed to these differences?

This ranch is probably the best land in the Las Vegas basin. It controls the only big spring in the valley which affords water enough for 1000 acres. I do not see that the railroad need buy any property in the valley, however, solely on account of the surface water. The Charleston Range which forms the western boundary of the basin rises to a height of 8000 feet above the Stewart Ranch and there is a heavy snow fall on it in the winter. Every indication in the valley points toward its being an artesian well region. I would certainly recommend trying some artesian wells before paying such a price as $6500 for the Kyle Ranch with its very limited supply of water. Outside of the Big Spring, there is no large supply of surface water anywhere in the Vegas Valley and outside the four small springs (of the Kyle is one) I know of no visible water supply. If artesian water can be obtained, the  valley can be made a magnificent orchard district. It would raise apples, pears, plums, prunes, peaches, apricots, nectarines, figs, pomegranates, grapes, walnuts, almonds and pecan nuts. All these are now growing there. The apples are exceptionally good for a hot country. Probably the best production so far as quality is concerned, would be apricots, nectarines and the nuts mentioned. The Vegas Valley is the most fertile spot along the proposed line of this railroad anywhere between Utah and California.

H.M. McCartney, survey engineer to J. Ross Clark, January 16, 1902  



McCartney above and Pratt (see LDS Archives) make suppositions about the geologic history and agricultural prospects of the region. From a geological perspective, how accurate were they?

LAS VEGAS, THE GEM OF NEVADA   . . . There is perhaps no more delightful townsite in the desert part of southern Nevada than that occupied by the little town of Las Vegas. But while little can be said in favor of a so-called desert country, Las Vegas can scarcely be classed with a desert land, for with its delightful climate, cool waters, salubrious resorts and natural resources, its financial prosperity is assured, as notwithstanding the fact that the little town lies within a purely desert waste , the outlying country is fertile and cultivatable and with ordinary cultivation will bring forth fruit and foliage a thousand fold.

Caliente Express, March 2, 1905


The three valleys lie near the southwestern boundary of the Great Basin. They are bounded by high, rugged mountain masses with precipitous slopes which abut against relatively gently sloping alluvial aprons. The highest and largest mountains are the Spring Mountain and Sheep Ranges. . . . In effect, drainage in most of the Las Vegas Valley is likewise interior, although if appreciable surface runoff occurred the water would drain to the Colorado River through the Las Vegas Wash in the extreme southwestern part of the valley.

George B. Maxey and C.H. Jameson,  Geology and water resources of Las Vegas, Pahrump, and Indian Spring Valleys, Clark and Nye Counties, Nevada ,  1948