Modern urban development in the Las Vegas Valley occurred in conjunction with the railroads in the early 1900's. After that, the construction of Hoover Dam, the establishment of legalized gambling and World War II continued to promote urban growth.
During the 1930s, Las Vegas was a small railroad town with a population of just over 5,000. With the legalization of gambling in 1910, there were a number of small casinos. The construction of Hoover Dam brought workers to Southern Nevada, particularly to Boulder City.
In 1935, Hoover Dam was completed and the official theme, intended to promote tourism, "Still a Frontier Town" was born. When World War II began, the Las Vegas Valley grew substantially with an increase in both population (which more than tripled) and industry. A gunnery school was established in 1941 to train men as machine gunners for B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. The training took five weeks and the first class graduated in 1942. During the war, more than 50,000 gunners were trained at this school until its closure in 1945.
Also during this time, Basic Magnesium, Inc. (BMI) operated a magnesium plant to help in the war efforts. Magnesium was used for such items as tire rims, bullets, bombs and planes. BMI sat on the current Basic Management, Incorporated site in Henderson. At the time, the area was called "Basic Town Site," but was renamed Henderson in 1944.
During the early years of the war, Basic Refractories Company had holdings of magnesium ore in west central Nevada, near Gabbs. In September 1941, construction of the Basic Magnesium plant began. Originally, the ore was shipped by rail from Gabbs, through Salt Lake City and down to Las Vegas. The U.S. 95 highway was improved and shipping by truck took place thereafter.
There were 13,000 construction workers who built the plant. The plant began making magnesium in August 1942 and the majority of the workers at the plant were women. In just two years, the plant produced 166 million tons of magnesium. The famous bomber, the Memphis Belle, visited the plant in July 1943 to honor the plants "full capacity" status (three of the crew members had been trained at the local gunnery school). The storage of magnesium greatly exceeded requirements, so the War Production Board ordered the plant closed in November 1944. After the war, the industrial plant began producing a variety of chemical products.
After the war ended, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce didn't want to lose the growth momentum, so the now famous Vegas Vic was built. The chamber also released the ad, "fun in the sun," which brought a lot of attention to Las Vegas. As the population grew, various needs were met. Wastewater treatment facilities were built in the 1950s. The Wash served as a natural channel for the treated wastewater and, as a result, it slowly began to change.
With water flowing through it, the area around the Wash became a wetland oasis. Acre after acre of soil alongside the Wash channel became excellent wetland habitat as the desert soil was transformed into wet marshy wetland soil. As cattails and reeds took root and grew, the once dry desert land became lush wetlands.
However, as the valley continued to urbanize, the daily flows of water continued to increase and the same process that created the wetlands began to erode the Wash channel. At first, the Wash channel began to cut a little deeper into the ground and some of the wetlands began to drain. As time went on, the channel kept cutting deeper and more areas dried out and lost their vegetation. This process continued until the wetland area that once covered more than 2,000 acres in the 1970s dwindled to less than 200 acres in the 1990s.
Wetlands as a Resource
The population in the Las Vegas Valley has increased dramatically over the last 20 years (see chart below). As the modern urban population enters the 21st century, the Wash is recognized as a crucial environmental resource for several reasons. First, the Wash is a vital component in the water resource system with respect to water quality and availability in the Las Vegas Valley. Next, the Las Vegas Wash provides habitat for a diversity of plants and animals that depend on suitable and stable wetlands for survival. Finally, the Las Vegas Wash and wetlands provide an open space where people can experience nature.
The changes the Las Vegas Wash has experienced over the last 30 years have not gone unnoticed. Many groups have concentrated their efforts on restoring the wetlands in the Wash. With the passing of the bond issue in 1991 for development of the Clark County Wetlands Park and the formation of the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee in October 1998, the complex issues surrounding the Wash are being addressed in a coordinated manner.
From the Past Into the Future
After providing for Native Americans thousands of years ago, a new chapter for the Las Vegas Wash begins at the dawn of the 21st century. With intense efforts to control erosion and restore wetlands, the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee is working to protect the resources of today for the children of tomorrow.