History

The First Lady Of Las Vegas-Who Was She?

Photograph_of_Helen_Stewart_and_her_nephew_outdoors_Las_Vegas_Nevada_May_11_1924

Photo Courtesy of Special Collections UNLV

Who was the First Lady of Las Vegas? Does any name come to mind? We are betting that most people would draw a blank. If they chanced a guess they would probably be wrong. Even Vegas residents as a whole don’t know the answer to this question. But, she was a major influence in the early development of the city.

She was a pioneer in every sense of the word. Left a widow after her husband, Archibald, was murdered in 1884, she was forced to demonstrate her tenacity and ability as a business woman. She had to endure the hardships of harsh desert living as a newly single woman. She did prove time and time again that she had what it took to beat the odds and thrive in such a barren and hostile environment.

This unique lady did a lot of things that were truly a “first” for a woman of her era. These accomplishments are even more notable because she was a woman.

If anyone was deserving, and still deserving, of the title of “First Lady” it was Helen J. Stewart. We first mentioned her in our 3rd installment of A Unique and Fascinating History (https://allthingsvegas.com/history/a-fascinating-and-unusual-history-part-three/). We decided at that time that Helen Stewart deserved our full attention so we dedicate this article to her memory.

After Archibald died in1884, Helen took over the reins of the Las Vegas Ranch. She proved to be successful and by 1902 owned over 1800 acres. At age 36 she was the largest landowner in Lincoln County and what is now Clark County.

By 1902 she was ready to sell her property and do other things. She sold the acreage and the water rights to the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad for $55,000 ($1.587 million dollars in today’s money). This set the stage for the railroad auction that took place on May 15, 1905 that would mark the founding of Las Vegas.

So, what were some of Helen Stewart’s accomplishments and altruistic deeds that placed her forever in Las Vegas history? What were some of the things that won her the honorary title of First Lady of Las Vegas?

First, she was well informed about the Las Vegas area having lived there for so long. Later, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Nevada Historical Society.

She herself was an educated woman and believed in education. So, she donated land for the first school in the area. She was also the first woman to be elected to the Clark County School Board. She raised money for the local library and helped create two different women’s clubs.

Helen Stewart built good will among the Paiute Indians. She became friends with many Paiute women. She learned their customs and was especially interested in their arts and crafts. Helen Stewart personally had a collection of over 550 baskets woven by the Paiute women.

She helped found Christ Episcopal Church. And, she was the first woman to sit on a jury.

On March 6, 1926, death caught up with Helen Stewart at age 72. She was so well known that people came to her funeral from all over the state. Her funeral was one of the largest to ever take place in Las Vegas at the time.

We have only highlighted the life of this unusual and influential lady who helped found Las Vegas. Although she witnessed the town growth from a watering hole and rest stop in the desert to a major railroad hub, she could not have dreamed of the Las Vegas that so many have grown to love.

 

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