Dennis McBride talks Las Vegas History and More!

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Aside from being one of the early inspirations for the Classic Las Vegas Historic Collection, Dennis McBride is one of the leading authorities on the history of Southern Nevada, especially the history of the building of Boulder (Hoover) Dam and Boulder City.

He has spent his life collecting stories and memories of Southern Nevada in the 20th Century.  As a native Nevadan, he has had a front row seat to the changing landscape of the Valley over the course of his life.

He is the Curator of History at the Nevada State Museum in Lorenzi Park and he was kind enough to share his thoughts on the history he has collected and much more:

As a native of Southern Nevada, how has Las Vegas changed since you were younger?  How do you feel about the changes.

Of course, the most noticeable change in Las Vegas has been the explosive growth of its population--it's hard to believe that 2 million people live in Clark County, and most of those live in Las Vegas. I feel two ways about this.

On the one hand, I hate the traffic, the crowds, the inflation in our cost of living, the disregard for our environment, and the endless blocks of boring, overpriced houses and elitist high-rises.

On the other hand, I can remember when B. Dalton Bookseller was the only bookstore in town, and the cultural and social resources were few and far between. I like the great variety of restaurants, nightclubs, arts events and art galleries we have now. What I dislike the most--and I think this is at the very bottom of our problems--is the complete corporate control of state and local government that long ago separated Las Vegas citizens from their city.
You conducted a number of interviews with men who worked on Boulder (Hoover) Dam and many of the people who helped establish Boulder City.  How did you get interested in preserving their stories and their history?

Growing up in Boulder City, I listened intently to the stories told about construction of Hoover Dam told by the men and women who were there. It's not often someone young has the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of a transformative historical event. I didn't waste that opportunity; when I was old enough to know what's what and what to do about it, I started recording the stories and collecting the material to document construction of the dam, of Boulder City, and of lower Colorado River development that made such places as Las Vegas viable. I just always knew that this was the niche I had to fill.
What was the biggest obstacle to starting the collection that became the basis for the Boulder Dam Museum?

One of the greatest opportunities I had in my "career" as a Hoover Dam historian was helping build the library and archive for the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association. As I noted earlier, I'd begun recording and collecting around the time I was a teenager, and in college began doing research and writing on the subject in earnest.

But I have to admit there really were no obstacles in my pursuit. Having been born in Boulder City and raised there, I was friends with all the people who told me their stories and gave me their stuff--I had a significant role in the tribe, so to speak. I was trusted and I worked very hard to impress on these people how important their lives were, how important it was that their stories be saved, and how important it was that their artifacts be preserved and made available.

So, by the time the Association asked me to work for them in June 1997, everything was in place to make the archive happen. I donated everything I'd collected, and obtained many large and important collections from such Boulder City/Hoover Dam boosters as Elton Garrett, Teddy Fenton, Esther Shipp, descendents of Hoover Dam medic "Doc" Jensen and Bureau of Reclamation office engineer John Page, and many, many others. I gave them all a sense they were themselves helping to build this important archive, that it was a joint project, and not just something I was doing myself.

Eventually, the library and archive at the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association, became the go-to resource for anything to do with construction of Hoover Dam and Boulder City, and development activities on the lower Colorado River. The Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service came to us; researchers, documentary filmmakers, students, people looking for ancestors who worked on the dam came to us. I was very proud of what we did and that we were able to help so many people with their work.

As the current Curator of History at the Nevada State Museum, what do you find most interesting in the collection?

I left Boulder City in 2007 to assume a new job as Curator of History and Collections at the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas [NSMLV]. The collections here are focused more widely than the collections in Boulder City.

What interests me most is the photograph collection. When I was negotiating for this job, working with the photo collection was an issue I was adamant about; in fact, if I had not been assured of my work with the photographs, I likely would not have taken the job. NSMLV's photo collection has not been very accessible and needs a tremendous amount of work in making it available and publicizing it. There's some absolutely amazing stuff in there.

One collection in particular comes from photographer Jay Florian Mitchell. There are thousands of images that document every aspect of life in Las Vegas from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s. I've been working to publicize that collection and am getting more successful as public interest increases. An upcoming documentary on the history of the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino is using dozens of images from the Mitchell Collection. Mitchell's photos have been used in a couple of museum events on Mid-Century Modern Las Vegas, and I'm working toward getting these photos out there in several other venues.

We also have Cliff Segerblom's collection here--another couple of thousand images of Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, the Colorado River, and other sites throughout the state. Cliff was best known as an artist--many are familiar with his painting, his "fine art," but not his photography. There are some gorgeous images in that collection; there's an upcoming event at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve--March 15, I think, but check--to exhibit Cliff's photos, all of which are taken from the collection at the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas.
Aside from those two large collections, we're quietly building an impressive archive of photographs of Helen J. Stewart and her family, of the Las Vegas Ranch, etc. Reaching out to descendents, making them feel they're helping to build something important for the future. It's so important to make people feel welcome and involved, and to convince them that before they toss something in the garbage because they don't believe it's important--PLEASE!--give us a chance to save it. Call me! 1-702-486-5205, x224
What part of Southern Nevada history intriques you the most?
These days, the part of Southern Nevada history that intrigues me most is the development of the gay community. I've been working in that field since about 1975, have built a solid archive [deposited in the Special Collections Department of the UNLV library], conducted dozens of oral history interviews, and have been producing articles for many years, nearly all of them in the state's gay press.

BUT--the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly [Summer 2009 issue, just released] has published "Stonewall Park," an article I wrote about efforts in the 1980s to establish a gay town in Nevada. Gay studies has been a "legitimate" field of scholarly research for decades, eveywhere--except in Nevada. This article in the Quarterly breaks that barrier, so it will be interesting to see where it leads.

When will you begin moving over to the new building at the Springs?  When do you expect it to open?  Will the exhibits be different and if so, how?

When will we be moving over to our new building at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve? The new building--and it's beautiful!--has been finished for several months, and construction of the permanent exhibits should commence in February.

That ought to take about another year, during which we'll be moving collections over from the Lorenzi Park building into the new place. It's hard to say at this point whether there will be staff and funds to run the new museum, or to operate and maintain the building.

The Division of Museums and History took a 20% cut during the last legislative session, and with a special session looming in February during which deeper cuts to state budgets will be made, none of us knows what might happen. The new state museum in Las Vegas has the potential to become a cultural jewel--but whether there's the political will and economic means to make that happen remains to be seen.

Nevada Supreme Court gives Pat Mulroy a major setback

Thanks to our pals at LA Observed for clueing us into Chance of Rain:

In a stunning reversal for Las Vegas water manager Patricia Mulroy, ground-water awards that were to fill an almost 300-mile-long pipeline planned by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to run from central eastern Nevada to Las Vegas were invalidated today. In an unanimous decision, the Nevada Supreme Court decided that the State Engineer violated the due process rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in target valleys across the Great Basin who had long protested the pipeline and water withdrawals.

After accepting to hear Great Basin Water Network vs State Engineer,  the Nevada Supreme Court last spring issued this summary: “In 1989, the predecessor to the Southern Nevada Water Authority filed applications for unappropriated water rights from rural Nevada for use in Las Vegas. More than 800 interested persons filed protests. In 2005, the State Engineer notified roughly 300 of the interested persons that a prehearing conference would be held to discuss the water rights applications. Some organizations and individuals petitioned the State Engineer to re-notice the 1989 applications and reopen the period for filing protests. After the State Engineer denied the request, appellants filed a petition for judicial review in the White Pine County District Court. That petition was denied and appellants are now appealing that decision. [At issue:] Did the State Engineer deprive appellants of the right to due process and/or equal protection by refusing to re-notice the groundwater applications? Did the State Engineer violate his statutory duties by not ruling on the 1989 application within one year?”

In fact, as the legal protest period to the original 1989 applications neared closing in August 1990, the number of protests had surpassed 3,000. Most of these protestants were gone, broke or dead by the time the State Engineer began holding basin-by-basin hearings that would award water claimed under the applications more than a decade later.

In its decision issued earlier today in Great Basin Water Network vs the State Engineer, the Supreme Court of Nevada concluded that due process rights of the protestors had indeed been violated and that “the State Engineer violated his statutory duty by failing to take action within one year after the final protest date.  Thus, we … remand for a determination of whether SNWA must file new groundwater appropriation applications or whether the State Engineer must re-notice SNWA’s 1989 applications and reopen the period during which appellants may file protests.”

In a written statement issued by the Great Basin Water Network, the attorney who brought the case, Simeon Herskovits, said, “The Court’s ruling clearly and forcefully affirms that powerful agencies like SNWA are not above the law that binds the rest of the citizenry, and that the State Engineer cannot arbitrarily give such agencies a pass on the law’s requirements.”

Also responding with a prepared statement, the Southern Nevada Water Authority called today’s ruling disappointing and added that it is “considering whether to file a Motion to Reconsider, because we believe the justices may not fully appreciate the far-reaching ramifications of their decision on people throughout the state.”

The Authority also questioned the fairness of singling out Las Vegas for a time lag when it contends that hearings for other applications are routinely not heard within a year of closing the protest period.

“While the decision was directed at the Nevada State Engineer’s ruling on our water right applications,” read the water authority’s statement, “the reality is that based upon an initial review of the state’s database, more than 1,800 applications are jeopardized by this ruling … it is not uncommon for it to take longer than 12 months to act upon a water right application.”

In light of today’s ruling, an agreement pending with Utah about how much water Nevada might be allowed to draw for the Las Vegas pipeline from Snake Valley, a basin shared by the two states, has also stalled, according to reports in the Utah paper the Millard County Chronicle Progress. “This ruling significantly changes the landscape upon which our ongoing discussions have been based,” Utah Governor Gary Herbert told the Chronicle Progress. “It allows us to revisit the proposed agreement with the State of Nevada and ensure that our continued desire to protect Utah’s water interests and the environment is met.”

Patricia Mulroy, who began her leadership of the Las Vegas Valley Water District in 1989 by stunning Nevada with sweeping groundwater applications in dozens of basins across the state, and who later led the formation of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is in Washington DC today at a climate change conference, where she was expected to recommend exports of Mississippi River water to Southern Nevada as part of a large federal works project.

Photo provided by Chance of Rain

Water, the Scotch 80s and the First Mayor of Las Vegas


Pete Buol watches water flow like black gold out of an artesian well. 



Las Vegas mayors seem to have always been a colorful group.  Then as now, they were frequently outspoken and seemed to attract controversy. Though Las Vegas was founded in 1905 with the famed land auction it would be six years before the citizens of that small dusty community felt the need for a mayor.  The city of Las Vegas was incorporated in 1911 and with that brought the need for a mayor.

The first mayor was also one of the biggest civic boosters.  Along with "Big Jim" Cashman, Sr and Maxwell Kelch, Las Vegas city boosters tend to have larger than life personalities.  Pete Buol was no exception.  He was the optimistic sort who looked at that dusty railroad town and could see a brighter future ahead.  Not everyone has that knack and Buol appears to have possessed it in spades.   According to his campaign literature "ability doesn't count, knowledge is useless, experience has no worth without the driving force of optimism."   He had grown up in Chicago, the son of a Swiss master chef.  He had an eighth grade education but more importantly, he had ambition.



Pete Buol the first mayor of Las Vegas 

He won a lottery at 19 and found himself worth over $100,000.  Unfortunately for Buol, he didn't have the acumen for finances and quickly ran through the money.  He made another small fortune with a food concession at the Chicago's Exposition.  He served over 5,000 people a day, charging $.25 cents a meal.

He came west and spent some time in Hollywood before heading to Nevada.  He had hoped to invest in a mine in Goldfield but, as he later told a reporter, his bankroll was too small in Goldfield to have much of an impact.  He decided to go to Las Vegas.  He arrived by stagecoach just ahead of the railroad and the land auction.

The town was barely a town.  There was the old Kiel Ranch, the Stewart Ranch and a couple of wildcat businessmen, Jim Ladd and John Miller, had some tent hotels.  The only physician in town, Halle Hewetson, operated out of a tent.   Buol decided that real estate might be worth investing in. 

In 1905, at the land auction, Buol had two subdivisions for sale.  Buol's Addition, which was just west of the railyard, shops and Ice Plant and Buol's Sub-division was "just far enough away to be out of the noise and smoke of the shops and engines."

Buol quickly realized that one of the most important elements of selling real estate in this climate was water.  The Railroad had secured the water rights to Big Springs, the large artesian springs,  which fed the creek that ran down to the Stewart Ranch (where the Sawyer Government Building is today).  But Buol noticed that there were other artesian springs bubbling up around the valley.  Less than six months after the land auction, Buol was the manager of the Vegas Artesian Water Syndicate and he was ready to start drilling for water.

Buol was not the only one drilling for water.  Others were drilling for irrigation and crops.  Buol was drilling to enhance housing development.  In 1910, he brought in a large well near 6th and Fremont (near where the El Cortez is today), adjacent to his Buck's Addition

The railroad had long resisted supplying water to those outside the original township.  But with Buol's water supply, the area east on Fremont and north (to where the freeway is today) was able to develop into a very residential area. 

Buol and a friend ran for mayor because no one, according to Buol, was interested in the job.  He won by 10 votes.  His salary was $15 a month.  One of his first orders of business was rules for business licenses.    He served for two years, being succeeded by the man who had run against him, his friend Bill Hawkins.  He was then elected to the assembly.

He and his wife built a home at Seventh and Ogden.  According to writer A.D. Hopkins, their house had "walls eight inches thick, adobe inside and brick without, porches on all four sides, and a peaked roof, it was said to be the coolest in summer and warmest in winter of any in town. Its eight rooms were heated with wood fireplaces. "  When Mrs. Buol entertained her lady friends, Buol would serve them gourmet dishes harking back to his gourmet days with his father.

Through his connections, Buol met a Scotsman, Sir John MurrayMurray had traveled extensively around the United States.  The two men corresponded and Buol traveled overseas to pitch an idea for a new development to the wealthy Scot.  Murray agreed to invest $100,000 in the new development ot be located on the far west side of the train tracks.  Buol returned home a hero to the townsfolk who were worried about the continued growth of the town.

Unfortunately, World War I interfered with Buol's plans.  Once Britian entered the Great War there was a ban on all exported assets.  Buol had to abandon his idea of an agricultural oasis just outside of the little town he loved.  However, the name stayed attached to the development and later become one of the most sought-out addresses for those who could afford it, the Scotch 80s.

Buol continued speculating.  Some of his efforts are now long-forgotten such as the little town of Johnnie or Plantina (near where Sandy Valley is today).  However, he invested in a lime deposit that helped establish the town of Sloan.   He had a borax claim that was said to have netted him $250,000 when he sold it to Francis "Borax" Smith.

In 1925, Buol and his family left the little town that he had done so much to develop and moved to the California Coast.  He continued to pursue his mining claims and was badly injured in a mine cave-in in 1929.  He died ten years later following a stroke.

Though he made a great deal of money during his lifetime, he died relatively poor.  But Pete Buol's legacy lives on in the town that he believed in so fervently, the Scotch 80s are still one of the most sought off addresses in VeryVintageVegas


Special thanks to the Las Vegas Review Journal for letting us use these images.

If you are interested in a home in the Scotch 80s, we encourage you to contact the crew at