Las Vegas Sun

July 31, 2014

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Renovation planned for historic springs site

Artesian springs that are at the heart of Las Vegas' history and at the core of a controversy in the widening of U.S. 95 are going to get a facelift.

Big Springs, at the corner of Alta Drive and Valley View Boulevard, is the oldest inhabited site in Las Vegas. The springs, which have fallen into disrepair, are in a ravine lined with cottonwood and willow trees visible from U.S. 95 between Valley View Boulevard and Rancho Drive.

One of two plans to widen U.S. 95 between Decatur and the I-15 interchange would take the 10-lane highway through the 180-acre historical site.

The alternative, razing a tract of 62 homes to the northwest of Big Springs and north of the highway, is being fought by the Charleston Heights Neighborhood Preservation Association.

"However, we are all for saving Big Springs," said committee leader Juanita Clark.

The state Transportation Department will decide which way the highway will go after environmental studies are completed and local hearings held.

But the planned improvements at Big Springs raise the stakes.

Artesian waters that could support a man once bubbled in three springs through an earthquake fault north of Alta Drive and Valley View Boulevard. The water brought people to the Las Vegas Valley as long as 12,000 years ago. The spot supplied Las Vegas with its drinking water until the 1950s.

The new Mojave Desert Preserve Foundation will start by restoring Little Spring House, built in 1917 by the Las Vegas Land & Water Company to protect water quality and increase production, said Janie Greenspun Gale, the foundation's chairwoman.

The concrete-lined spring house was designed to capture clean water as it reached the surface. The water was then delivered to town through redwood pipes. A small structure that once protected the valley's drinking water flow has a decaying roof and is stripped of the red paint that once adorned it.

The shed's original flat roof invited both cows and couples to dance across it during Sunday picnics. Contamination of the water supply from the activity became such a problem that a pitched roof was installed in 1926. The construction removed both Big and Middle Springs as drinking water supplies for two years.

For State Sen. Ray Rawson, R-Las Vegas, Big Springs offered a cool swim after a hot bicycle ride through the valley in the 1950s. "This is the essence of Las Vegas," he said.

County Commissioner Mary Kincaid said she hunted frogs in the springs one night while other teenage couples stole backseat kisses. "I didn't get a second date after that," she said. "We called it the frog pond, and I left the car to see them."

County Commissioner Lance Malone said he once built a house of sticks under the giant cottonwoods.

"If water had not bubbled up, Las Vegas would not be here," Gale said, as plans to restore the spring house were unveiled in a colorful drawing by David Smee, an archeological illustrator with UNLV.

"I was stunned that something like this could go so unnoticed," Gale said from a hillside overlooking the water shelter.

"Isn't this the best use of the property?" asked Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy, who has objected to widening U.S. 95 on the Big Springs property. The Las Vegas Valley Water District owns the land.

Mulroy serves as secretary to the foundation. The Mojave Desert Preserve Board of Trustees include Gale, Richard Bunker of the Nevada Resort Association and Rawson.

Fund-raising for the restoration will begin immediately. For now, archeologists are excavating the site with teaspoons to recover any historical artifacts, and scientists are surveying the plant and animal life at the site.

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