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Making a Splash in Special Collections - A Photo Essay by Nancy Hardy

By Su Kim Chung on July 16, 2016 11:33 PM | Permalink


Five young bathers at the swimming hole at Ladd’s Resort Las Vegas, ca. 1920s (E. W. Cragin Photo Collection, PH: 0017-0022)

In summertime, UNLV Libraries Special Collections’ reading room offers a cool retreat from the heat. It’s a quiet place to study, to do research, or simply to spend time learning about Las Vegas’ historic past. During this hottest time of the year, we thought we’d share images from our photo collections that show how early residents and visitors managed to cope with sizzling temperatures at various Las Vegas resorts over the years.

Men swimming at the “Big Spring” sometime between 1905-1910, with their “ride” waiting nearby ( Elbert Edwards Photo Collection, PH: 0214-0160)

Before the first air-conditioned building arrived in Las Vegas (the El Portal movie theatre, in 1928), early residents had few options for staying cool. But they did have a few choice spots for taking a refreshing dip. Las Vegas’ original fresh water supply was known as Big Springs or Las Vegas Springs, three springs that ran into two large pools, perfect for enjoying a bracing summer swim.

Swimmers at Ladd’s Resort in the early 1900s (Fred and Maurine Wilson Photo Collection, PH: 0014-0052)

Early in the century, more “formal” swimming facilities also sprang up near present-day downtown. Captain Jim Ladd established Ladd’s Pool and Plaza Rooming House, which originally had been a tent hotel at the time of the land auction that founded Las Vegas in 1905. Ladd’s Resort and the Las Vegas Ranch, near the site of the Old Mormon Fort, offered the young town an escape from the heat. Guests enjoyed swimming, picnicking and an abundance of shade trees.

Early Las Vegas bathing beauties Mrs. Hardman and Alice Doolittle relaxed in the shade at the Las Vegas Ranch during in the 1920s. (Alice Doolittle Photo Collection, PH: 0018-0012)

An ad for the Las Vegas Ranch from the Las Vegas Age Newspaper, May 13, 1905

In April of 1905, Las Vegas Ranch Resort manager Harry Beale reported to the Las Vegas Age newspaper that the quiet ranch that had once belonged to Las Vegas pioneer Helen J. Stewart, was “being transformed into a great pleasure resort,” exclusively “for the use of reputable people and no others.” A café and the valley’s only billiards table were added to the brick store building on the property. Renovations also included an open-air dance pavilion with a live orchestra performing on Saturday evenings. The resort featured “prettily-furnished tent houses” for overnight accommodations, and visitors were allowed to put up their own tents for camping. But the main attraction was the 150-foot-long swimming pool, as deep as 10 feet at one end, and covered (for the privacy of women and children) in the shallow end.


A group of men suited up for a swim at the Las Vegas Ranch, ca. 1916. Swimmers could rent bathing suits at the resort—not necessarily an appealing selling point by today’s standards! (Jacob Von Tobel Collection, PH: 0204-0005)

A 1920s diptych of the bathhouses near the Las Vegas Ranch swimming pool (Alice Doolittle Collection, PH: 0018-0013)

Some of the man-made swimming spots around Las Vegas were not technically “pools.” When Boulder (now Hoover) Dam was completed in the mid-1930s, Las Vegas and Boulder City residents were drawn to the resultant Lake Mead for swimming and recreational boating. (The lake was created by the construction of the dam. In the process, the entire town of St. Thomas was flooded and now lies beneath the waters of Lake Mead.)

Swimmers take advantage of the brand-new Lake Mead at Hemenway Harbor, ca. late 1930s, after the completion of the Boulder Dam Project. (Manis Photo Collection, PH: 0100 1253)

These photos and many others in our collections highlight Las Vegas at a time when it was just like any other small town in the early 20th century and long before it morphed into the nation's gaming and entertainment mecca. Visit us in person or explore our website to learn more about the collections, photographs, and oral histories we have collected that document life in early Las Vegas