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Union Pacific Railroad: Unlikely Water Conservation Pioneers by Gayle O'Hara

By Su Kim Chung on April 19, 2019 5:53 PM | Permalink


Las Vegas Age newspaper clipping on water conservation dated February 20, 1942 from the files of the Union Pacific Railroad Collection (MS-00397)

In honor of the upcoming Earth Day celebration, Digital Collections Specialist Gayle O'Hara's blog post focuses on historical efforts at water conservation as uncovered in the Union Pacific Railroad Collection (MS-00397).  O'Hara recently received her MLIS from San Jose State University and is currently managing the digitization of portions of the UPR Collection with a focus on water-related files.

When people think of Las Vegas, they often think it was put on the map by the mob, casinos and showgirls. However, this is not the case. The founding and growth of Las Vegas as a major metropolitan area is due to the unglamourous railroad industry, specifically the Union Pacific Railroad (UPR). From the earlier part of the 20th century, water and issues of sustainability were of paramount concern to the railroad. The railroad created the Las Vegas Land and Water Company to develop and coordinate the city’s water system. In doing so, they set the stage for future water conservation efforts.

UNLV Libraries Special Collections & Archives is home to the Union Pacific Railroad Collection (MS-00397), which spans the years 1828-1986 and provides valuable insight into the creation and expansion of Las Vegas. As a part of a grant from the Library Services and Technology Act administered by the Nevada State Library and Archives, UNLV Digital Collections is in the process of digitizing certain parts of the UPR collection. Given the vital issue of water resources management, we prioritized specific water-related files from the UPR Collection. By using rapid capture software, in less than 6 months we have been able to scan over 30,000 items. Most are now available online or will be shortly. A large-scale digitization project such as this not only makes high research value materials available to a wider audience, it also helps in preserving the physical materials. Given that many of the documents in the UPR Collection date back many decades, they are quite delicate, especially as they have been handled many times by many different people. Digital access decreases handling and improves our ability to preserve the original documents.

The files currently being digitized provide more detail about water resources development in Southern Nevada. They document concerns early on by the Las Vegas Land and Water Company that the rapidly growing city was in danger of depleting its water supply. In order to communicate these concerns to the public, they took out advertisements in the Las Vegas Age newspaper and aired public service announcements over the local radio station. During World War II, they utilized language from the war effort to bring home the idea of the vital necessity of conserving water. A frequent slogan was “Waste is a partner of sabotage” and “Plenty of water BUT not one drop to waste!”. They encouraged checking leaky faucets, only watering lawns between certain hours, and pointed out how conserving water saves us both individually and as a society. It is striking how similar this February 1942 advertisement is to the language you see on the Las Vegas Valley Water District website today. Established in 1948, the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD) acquired the Las Vegas Land and Water Company from the railroad in 1954. Today, the LVVWD is a partner on this important digitization project. Thanks to the groundwork provided by the railroad, Southern Nevada has been able to reduce its water use despite our ever growing population. Who thought this could be traced back to a few powerful men wanting to expand their industry?

You can learn more about this valuable collection by checking out the UPR finding aid. If you are interested in viewing the digitized water-related materials of the Union Pacific Railroad Collection, please visit UNLV Digital Collections.