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The Railroad & Water Rights

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This set contains nine artifacts, mostly letters, relating to issues surrounding the railroad and its water rights. It begins in 1902 with a letter from railroad officials inquiring about purchasing water rights from the Stewart family. The storyline includes legislation in 1913 that placed the railroad's rights under question. Attempts by others to usurp their water ultimately placed the railroad's water use under scrutiny.

Educator Resources

Activity Suggestions

Discussion Questions

  • How do owners of water rights ensure exclusive use of their water?
  • Are water rights as important in areas of high precipitation as they are in deserts?
  • Have students design a visual timeline of Southern Nevada water events between 1902 and 1950. Their timelines must include at least 15 nodes.
  • Design and draw city plans including water mains and pumping stations in a fictitious community. Assume water rights belong to three separate private entities, and all three entities must supply equal amounts of water to the public. Public residents and agencies are randomly distributed throughout the region of the community. Use the 1950s documents for reference.
  • Review all artifacts in this kit. With that knowledge, create a Wordle listing words important to the railroad in terms of water. Use the advanced feature of Wordle to weight the words.
  • Discuss journalistic bias. Then, write two newspaper articles about the history of the railroad and its water. In the first, write from a perspective that favors the railroad. In the second, use an approach that makes the railroad look mischievous or scandalous.

Research Topics


Vocabulary Words

water rights, appropriation, legitimate, beneficial, legal precedent, allegations

  • Trace the legal arguments relating to "beneficial use" and original ownership of water rights in 20th century Southern Nevada. Would these arguments stand in a modern court? If so, what legal precedent(s) would support upholding the railroad's rights. If not, was precedent(s) would counter the original decisions?
  • Follow the political arguments relating to landowners' encroachments on railroad water rights. Design a diplomatic plan to deal with the issue in a manner that minimizes conflict and public upheaval.
  • How much water did the railroad have and how were they using the water? Would the water be sustainable at that level of use?
  • Prepare a technical report describing the sources and amounts of water available on the ranch.

Introduction to Topic

The fledgling Southern Nevada railroad sought water for its operations so purchased land and water rights from the Stewart family. By doing so, they acquired all rights to the water coming from the springs situated on the Stewart Ranch. They also gained rights to water flowing from the ranch into the creek that crossed ranch lands. This right was derived from the legal precedent that whoever first found and used the water (e.g., a rancher) acquired the rights to it as long as they continued to use the water. It was this right that the Stewarts sold to the Los Angeles, San Pedro, and Salt Lake Railroad.

When the railroad laid out what eventually became Las Vegas, it used the former Stewart Ranch water to supply the town’s water system. Initially, no one challenged the railroad’s right to this water. As the town grew, however, private developers began to sink wells to provide water for their own property—property that lay outside the railroad’s established townsite. While the railroad was concerned about the effect of having wells dug too near its springs and possibly depleting the flow of the springs, it was not initially concerned about private wells affecting its rights.

In 1913 the Nevada State Legislature passed a law essentially declaring that all underground water in the state of Nevada belonged to the State and was, therefore, public water. To control the taking or “appropriation”of public water from either a spring or well, the State established a legal process that required an application to the State Engineer for a permit to appropriate public water. The applicant had to demonstrate that the use of the water would be “beneficial”to the people of Nevada. The term "beneficial" could mean simple domestic water use in a home, irrigation of crops, or industrial use such as watering locomotives and passenger trains or running an ice house. A purpose for having applicants specify intended use of the water was to curtail water waste. Before the law, water was flowing unchecked and people were creating ponds and lakes.

The primary issue for the railroad in protecting its water rights was to demonstrate that all their water was being put to beneficial use. Besides railroad operations and use by the town, the railroad used the water to irrigate ranch lands. It made sure that creek water running off its lands would not be wasted. In accordance with the new law, when the railroad started to drill its own wells to increase its water supply for the growing town, it also had to apply for permits to appropriate public water.

Some local landowners and developers tried to encroach on the railroad’s water—particularly water from the creek. Some, like Peter Buol, a future Mayor of Las Vegas, said there was wasted water running from the ranch; he claimed a right to put that water to better use. The railroad denied his allegations and opposed his request. They took great pains to account for all their water, both from springs and wells, to demonstrate beneficial use. Instructions were repeatedly given to local agents and tenants to assure proper irrigation and use of creek water. Railroad files are filled with reports on water consumption and production statistics.

The railroad was also concerned because it acquired the ranch and its associated water rights before establishment of the state law regulating appropriation of public water. The railroad felt it should retain its original rights. The result was a flurry of correspondence about legal concerns and arguments based on the issue of whether the railroad should apply for a permit to appropriate the original springs or rely on its original deed from Helen Stewart. The state agreed that water rights which pre-dated the state law would stand if they were based on legitimate property rights of the time they were acquired and if the water was put to beneficial use.

1902/3  Correspondence between railroad officials and J.T. McWilliams, a local surveyor and land speculator and developer in the Las Vegas Valley. The railroad is requesting McWilliams to complete a survey of the Stewart Ranch that would include measuring the flow of water in the creek. The railroad wanted the survey to determine the amount of water produced by the Springs. Later, the the railroad would consider purchasing outlying springs to augment this water source, but at this date the railroad decided it was unnecessary. 


In this correspondence, Peter Buol applies to the state engineer for water from springs flowing into the Las Vegas Creek which he claims is being wasted by being allowed to run off the ranch. The railroad denies that their water is being wasted and opposed his claim.
1924 Correspondence from McNamee, the railroad's attorney, providing railroad officials Halsted and Knickerbocker his legal opinion on the railroad’s water rights and use. McNamee stresses that the railroad must demonstrate how it uses all water from the springs.
1924 Letter exchanged between Walter R. Bracken, local railroad and water company agent, and attorney McNamee about the completion of the railroad's Well #1. This letter notes that not all papers had yet been filed to to allow for the appropriation of the water.


Letter from railroad official Bennett, who writes to another railroad official, Knickerbocker, about whether rights to water "by use" are independent of rights "by deed."
1939 In this correspondence Bracken writes to McNamee about their application to appropriate public water. McNamee explains the process. 


Bracken and railroad officials correspond about leasing and using the water on Stewart Ranch lands. They specify amounts, provide irrigation maps, and state opinions about whether the railroad can sell the ranch while keeping its water rights.
1950 Letter from local railroad agent Folger informs railroad executives that the Las Vegas Land & Water Company is not limited in the amount of water it could take from the springs because the railroad has a vested right in the company.
  Railroad report: In this report, the Los Angeles, San Pedro, and Salt Lake Railroad listed wells and springs and amounts of and purposes for water. The document was required when filing for water rights.

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