Las Vegas and Water in the West

Aerial view of sundown in Black Canyon at the Hoover Dam construction site

When Florence and John Cahlan wrote their history of the Las Vegas Land and Water Company, they titled it Water: a History of Las Vegas. In their preface, they defined their theme:

"The extreme conservatism of the Water Company with regard to expansion of its services in the town was in constant conflict with the ambitions of pioneer residents for growth and development. The struggle between these two forces in a desert community dependent upon adequate water for survival is the central theme in the History."

Even if one were to side-step the particular politics of the Water Company (a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad until it was sold to the city in 1954 and became the public Water District), the struggle between water supply (however controlled) and growth in the Las Vegas Valley can indeed sum up the History of Las Vegas.

The settlement and development of the arid West is not a phenomenon unique to Las Vegas, but the phenomenal growth of the Las Vegas metropolitan area in what remains one of the most arid regions of North America does pose a number of historical and environmental issues that UNLV and its library collections can address. The collections presented in this digital project document the history of water and Las Vegas.

Las Vegas, Spanish for “the meadows,” was always about water. Its natural springs were a watering stop, for wandering Native Americans, Spanish and American traders, Mormon settlers, ranchers, and Senator William Clark and his San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. As the railroad depot grew into a city, the pressure upon the water supply would be a permanent aspect of development.

The collections presented here document this history back to the 19th century military and scientific surveys conducted by the U.S. government, directed ultimately toward the future settlement and exploitation of the West. Associated with the scientific expeditions to map a route for the transcontinental railroad were studies to explore the feasibility of irrigation to support agriculture. Irrigating the desert by controlling and diverting entire river systems was a manifestation of American engineering destiny. The monument of this remains Hoover Dam, constructed—miles from the small town of Las Vegas—essentially to provide water and power for California and Arizona .

The planning and construction of Hoover Dam is the central and defining phenomenon of the history presented by this digital project. UNLV Special Collections houses the largest collection of material relating to Hoover Dam, including film footage, maps, government publications relating to the planning and construction of the dam, and well over a thousand photographs. We have presented here a large sample of those images.

These photographs were taken by a number of now anonymous professional photographers who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation or for the Six Companies, the consortium that constructed the dam. These photographs were taken to document the successful progress and completion of this enormous federal contract. The photographic files were saved by Bureau or Company officials such as F. M. Murphy, Morgan Sweeney, and Burrell C. Lawton, whose names are now given to those collections. W. H. Bechtel, the primary contractor of the Six Companies, produced its own photographic record of the construction, "Photographic Record Hoover Dam Project, Six Companies," now housed in a series of scrapbooks. The Dam also attracted a number of private professional and amateur photographers. Glenn Davis was a local commercial photographer who worked in the Oakes Photographic Studios, one of the most prominent photo studios in Southern Nevada. Davis' photos, like that of other commercial photographers, found their way into a number of private collections, but the core of the collection remains in the Glenn Davis collection at UNLV. Two large composite collections contain many of the images. The Manis collection, the largest photographic collection at UNLV, was compiled by Lloyd F. (Johnny) Manis, who operated the Boulder Dam Service Bureau and later the Boulder Dam Visitors Center. This collection contains copies of photos from the Bureau of Reclamation and other commercial public relations sources. Elton and Madelaine Garrett, prominent residents of Boulder City, also amassed much historical material documenting the history of Boulder City, and of course Hoover Dam.

We have also presented the textual reports, studies, and promotional literature leading up to the construction of Hoover Dam. The hydrographical study of this region can be traced back to a number of sources, including the published reports of the Ives and Wheeler topographical expeditions, reports published by the United States Geographical Survey and the Department of the Interior, an 1891 report on irrigation published by the Department of Agriculture, and Chamber of Commerce brochures promoting Las Vegas as “A region of Fertile Soils and Flowing Wells.” The promotion of the arid West as a potentially fertile region with endless opportunities for the adventurous and resourceful is a general theme in the history of the American West which has been—and continues to be—played out in the promotion of Las Vegas both as a tourist resort destination and as a city with an inviting and thriving residential environment that would appeal to people from more temperate and green regions. As residential and resort developers and promoters wallow in the water-fetish imagery of lakes, ponds, and fountains, with streets and neighborhoods sporting aquatic names, the city and county have mounted cycles of water conservation programs, intensified by recurrent droughts. As the city continues to pump water up the mountains to the newest subdivision sprawl, the suburban lawns and parks of older, master-planned gated communities give way to desert landscaping and artificial turf.

As plans for the potential uses of the Colorado River were articulated and various committees and commissions organized to study and make recommendations, a series of publications dating from 1922 on “the Colorado River Question” document the public discourse that ultimately led to damming the Colorado in Boulder Canyon. The issues and controversies that lay behind controlling the river and sharing the electricity it produced and water to support agriculture in arid regions were overshadowed by the sheer immensity and physical wonder of the Dam, perhaps one of the most photographed structures in the world. But many of those issues were never resolved, and even today, as the urban population of the region booms, remain points of contention and litigation between most of the states of the Southwest and their various constituent water and power districts. As anyone who has studied or lived in Las Vegas knows, echoing the Cahlan's pioneering study, "It's About Water, Dummy."

The content from this project is a component of The Western Waters Digital Library (WWDL), a consortial regional project undertaken by the Greater Western Library Alliance and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, providing centralized access to digital resources from academic libraries in six western states, focusing on the great rivers of the West, with initial concentration on the Colorado, Columbia, Platte, and Rio Grande. The focus will not only be on the rivers themselves, but the interplay of the rivers on human development throughout the drainage basins they have formed.

For more information on Water Resources in UNLV Libraries please go to