The history of Nevada is a history of extraction. Whether it’s coaxing crops from difficult soil, cracking open mountains for gold, even skimming casino money or milking tourists, the impulse to squeeze a profit from unlikely places seems embedded in Nevadan DNA. (In that vein, politics for personal gain remains another reliable state industry as well.)
I don’t necessarily make that observation with disdain or disapproval. Extraction can require some admirable traits: persistence, physical fortitude, an eye for opportunity and, yes, perhaps some ruthlessness pumping through the heart. It was personal characteristics such as those that compelled us when we started thinking about our illustrated history issue (p. 65), a visual account of the flashpoints and seminal figures in Southern Nevada’s colorful past. And for me, it was like taking history classes all over again — except this time I was paying attention. Thinking about Nevada’s past in terms of personalities, motives and character brought into sharp focus those hazy gray beings that lived silently in my high-school history textbooks, rendered in flesh and blood events that had barely skimmed the surface of my life when they occurred.
For instance, perhaps like you, I’d been taught time and again about Helen J. Stewart, the woman who planted the seed of Las Vegas from the ranch she managed at the turn of the century. And perhaps you remember where you were when the 1988 PEPCON explosion sent shock waves through the valley. (I was in calculus class at Las Vegas High School; the suddenly rattling and vibrating windows of Main Hall woke me from my slumber in a way the equations never managed to — sorry, Mr. Carlin.)
Turning a complex narrative into a visual story is risky; it can dramatize and distill, but it can also distort. We’ve all filed out of the movie theater at some point, grumbling, “Eh. Wasn’t as good as the book.” I like to think this particular distillation was a success. By freeze-drying these stories into panels and sequences, we were forced to focus on essentials. As I researched with that goal in mind, Helen J. Stewart was renewed in my eyes, a stalwart woman possessed of an abiding, almost stoic strength, a true pioneer who not only coped with her husband’s tragic murder with great resolve, but expanded her ranch, raised a family, became a fixture in civic life, and nourished the kernel of what would become Las Vegas.
For our PEPCON explosion story, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a maintenance worker who was working at the Kidd & Co. marshmallow factory adjacent to the Henderson facility that produced a component in rocket fuel — until it exploded on May 4, 1988, leveling the plant and the factory. David McBride told me a harrowing and, yes, darkly humorous story of surviving the blast. His story also reveals a thoroughgoing strength of character; its denouement might count as a twist ending in an age when accidents and tragedies inspire thought bubbles with dollar signs as much as hugs of sympathy.
To be sure, other facets of Nevada history we take on, such as our “Not-so-great moments in Nevada political history,” say something less sanguine about human nature. But such traits, too, for better or worse, make Nevada what it is today — and give us an opportunity to reflect on the road not taken. Can you imagine if Dario Herrera’s rise hadn’t been interrupted by the mere skeezy attentions of some strip club sultan, and he’d gone on to become a senator or governor? Wouldn’t want to live that history. But I’d totally see the movie.