Saving a piece of nature in neon casino capital

A planned freeway expansion threatens part of the site historians callthe birthplace of Las Vegas.

Before the neon, the insta-weddings, and Siegfried and Roy, people came to Las Vegas for the ... water.

Artesian springs in the heart of the Mojave Desert attracted everyone from Mormon missionaries to native Americans.

It is, historians say, the spot where the city of Las Vegas began.

But now the birthplace of the casino capital is being threatened by expansion. A proposed freeway would pave over part of the archaeological site.

Historians find irony in the fact that this artificial city, famous for concrete creations including replicas of Venice and the New York skyline, can't protect one of its few bits of natural history.

"This is the last best place in Las Vegas," says Elizabeth Warren, president of the Friends of Big Springs committee. Her husband, Claude, an archaeologist, excavated the area in 1972.

"If we can't save this land and we can't make this important to anyone else," she adds, "we'll lose the only place to learn why anybody came here in the first place."

That Las Vegas's history is mostly 20th century makes the area even more significant, says Frank Wright, a historian at the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society.

But in this rapidly expanding city - where resorts and roller coasters spring up overnight - the 180-acre Big Springs site is sought-after undeveloped land. Fourteen acres, scattered with century-old cottonwood trees and artifacts from AD 500 to the 19th century, may be used by the Nevada Department of Transportation to expand the US 95 Freeway.

In 1978, Big Springs was placed on the National Register of Historic Places after the discovery of pottery, arrowheads, and milling stones dating back 8,000 years on part of the site. But the historic designation alone won't save the land, Mr. Wright says.

Ms. Warren, who has battled for 30 years to preserve the site, agrees. An important factor weighing in the balance, she says, is the story the land has to tell.

THIS isn't the first piece of Las Vegas history in danger of vanishing into the desert. Sites that have been lost in the past include the Wee Kirk O' The Heather wedding chapel, housed in a 1920s adobe house that burned down.

One of the few remaining pre-20th century historical sites is the old Las Vegas fort, once owned by the Elks club. In the 1970s, using federal bicentennial funds, the group did an external restoration, which, some say, make it look like a "taco stand." The fort is now owned by the state.

Scott Magruder, a spokesman for the state, says officials are leaning toward razing 62 houses instead of taking the Big Springs land.

"Ninety percent of the property owners have no problem with the state taking their homes," says city councilman Michael McDonald, who represents the affected homeowners.

A final decision on the freeway expansion, however, won't be made until this spring.

Raymond Lucchesi, whose architectural firm has been hired to study the site, says the ideal situation would be to preserve the area "so it's a place of the desert and not just in the desert."

The mission is to meld preservation with interpretation," says Mr. Lucchesi. "The result will be we'll learn from the past and take it into the future."

That attitude worries Warren. "This is not a town built upon respect for the past," she notes. "This is a town built on excitement about the future and what that might mean for more income."

The possibility that Big Springs could be paved over has prompted a reexamination of the site.

The Mojave Desert Preserve is convening to decide what the best use of the land should be. Wright says the concern is not just the freeway proposal but also for future developers who may try to claim the land.

"I certainly hope they don't put roller coasters and theme parks in there," he says.

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