State’s history flows through Kiel Ranch

For proof Southern Nevada history has grown from humble roots, look no further than Kiel Ranch.

That is, if you can find it.

What’s left of it stands off Carey Avenue near Commerce Street in the industrial end of North Las Vegas. You’ll know you’re close when you see the sign for Kiel Way, which leads to the front gate of the Cintas work uniform laundry and distribution center.

You’ll have to squint considerably to imagine what the ranch was like before it was overshadowed by the sprawling uniform company and a large trucking firm across Carey Avenue. With a metal fenced marking its perimeter, and a beard of brush obscuring land that was once so productive, the 7-acre slice of Conrad Kiel’s original 240-acre homestead is all that remains unmolested.

But maybe that’s enough. North Las Vegas officials are banking on it as they embark on an overdue but historically significant preservation project. With approximately $2 million, the Kiel Ranch Historic Park will start to take shape in the coming months.

But don’t blame even longtime locals for having a bit of difficulty locating it. As North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown recently told a reporter, “It’s been here for years and years, and decades and decades, and if you didn’t know it was back here you wouldn’t know.”

An artesian spring drew Native Americans to the area long before the first settlers tried to tame the valley in the mid-1800s. Mormon missionaries worked with mixed success to grow crops on what they called the “Indian Farm.” The Paiute had used the oasis as a water source for generations.

For his part, Kiel was born in Pennsylvania in 1807. He moved from Ohio to Las Vegas at age 64 with his friend and business partner, Octavius Decatur Gass, and began milling lumber at Mount Charleston. Both carved out ranches in the area.

When Gass failed to repay a loan from the Stewart family, he was forced off the land. A bitter feud ensued.

Nowadays, North Las Vegas officials are embarking on a multiphased plan to preserve the last remaining adobe structure that was built in the late 1800s along with the “doll house” cabin that’s a remnant of the era when the land was home to a quickie divorce dude ranch. That process will take about a year, Johanna Murphy of the city’s planning department says. In time, an orchard will be planted, walking paths and a picnic area placed. Eventually, the spring will be restored.

“It is one of the original early settlement sites for the Las Vegas Valley because of the spring,” Murphy says. “It has a shared history with the Las Vegas Mormon Fort, which is a couple miles down the street.”

Montana Sen. William Clark eventually bought the ranch and lived there during construction of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, whose water stop in the valley helped put Las Vegas on the map.

Although the ranch was placed on the National List of Historic Places in 1975, for the next two decades not much in the way of preservation took place there. Fact is, while Southern Nevada was booming not enough respect was paid to its precious historic sites. Some were lost forever, others marginalized by growth.

Call it a sentimental musing from a native son, but I think Kiel Ranch offers us more than a history lesson. It’s also a reminder of the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the people who helped make this forbidding place home. Like recession-rattled North Las Vegas, it is showing new signs of life.

From this humble setting, one of the valley’s most important sites is making a comeback — and from the looks of things, just in time.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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