When the city of Las Vegas celebrated its 100th anniversary a few years ago, Mark Hall-Patton, administrator of the Clark County Museum, knew that his institution would have to rise to the challenge—because the county’s centennial is this year. And it has.
Debuting this week, the museum’s new exhibit, A Destination’s Century, has been in the planning stages for two years, and curator Dawna Jolliff has been digging through the museum’s million-item collection for six months. “This is a destination today,” says Jolliff of the county. “It’s been a destination for many reasons.” Long before gaming there was water, of course, and gold, silver, gypsum, clay, even gravel, and always a sense of boundless opportunity.
February 5 marks the 100th anniversary of the decision to create Clark County, which for years had been a part of neighboring Lincoln County. (In the early years of the state, during the 1860s, both were actually a part of Arizona.) “Nobody wanted us,” Jolliff says, “that little chunk of land on the other side of the Colorado River.”
- From the Calendar
- A Destination’s Century
- Begins February 6
- Daily 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
- $1.50 (seniors and children, $1)
- Clark County Museum
- 1830 S. Boulder Highway, 455-7968.
The county’s transformation has been drastic and profound. When the 8,000-square-mile county was formed, the population barely totalled 3,000, and its three county commissioners earned a modest salary of $300 each. Now the county houses more than 2 million residents.
And yet, the outsized character of the county existed long before the Strip. A photo of a gushing artesian well taken in the early 1900s would not look out of place at the Bellagio, and a PR shot of a fisherman holding fake fish in front of an under-construction Hoover Dam (hence, no actual fish in the area) reveals the region’s gift for self-promotion.
But the real source of the county’s improbable success begins with its namesake, William Andrews Clark, onetime U.S. senator from Montana and a mining entrepreneur. He built the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City rail line that put Las Vegas on the map. Clark was one of the richest men in America at the time of his death, and, says Hall-Patton, had an appropriately Vegas view toward life: “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”
Vignettes on mining and ranching share the exhibit with artifacts recounting the county’s history as a nuclear test site (back in the day when radiation was more innocuously referred to as “sun units”). There’s also a display case of Vegas-themed kitsch (including an ashtray shaped like a bedpan inscribed with “For Old Butts”), and entertaining news-story placards throughout, including an 80-odd-year-old quote from a judge complaining about the high number of “poorly married couples” in the county.
The exhibit, which runs for a year, is just part of a county activity series commemorating the centennial. On February 6, the county will begin hosting roundtables, at which citizens can discuss their experiences living in the area. Also, a traveling exhibit, composed of other items from the museum’s collection and focusing on the history of the Valley back to prehistoric times, will go on display this summer at the Clark County Government Center.
Hall-Patton says he’s not one to be too heavy-handed in judging the qualities of life in the county (as opposed to that in and around the Strip), but as he describes various sites of interest on a large map, it’s clear where his loyalty lies. “There’s so much more here, and such a rich history—and it’s ours.”