The Right of Way War

April, 1954

Last week I told briefly of a war between San. William A. Clark of Montana, who 50 years ago was building a railroad from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, and "Borax" Smith, who started building a railroad from Las Vegas to the great borax mines in Death Valley. In that war, Senator Clark took the new railroad right out of the hands of the borax magnate and built the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad. Smith abandoned the work he had begun at Las Vegas and built his railroad from Ludlow, on the Santa Fe, right into Death Valley Junction and from there continued with a narrow gauge railroad to the great mines at Ryan.

But the "right of way war" had an ending which was more far-reaching in its effects. Senator Clark was getting along famously with his new railroad 50 years ago. He had brought a line of railroad extending from Salt Lake City as far as Milford, Utah, and his construction gang was coming on toward Las Vegas, laying rails at the rate of about a mile a day. Things were going beautiful for Senator Clark and his new railroad.

The track advanced rapidly and the gang laying the rails cross the Utah-Nevada state line and continued a little way into a mountain canyon which provided the only feasible route into Southern Nevada. One day, quite unexpectedly, Senator Clark's gang encountered another railroad gang busily laying rails on the only feasible route in the canyon where a railroad could be built. Clark's gang protested and tried to drive the intruders away, but they wouldn't be driven. The foreman showed instructions from William A. Harriman to build a railroad through that particular canyon and showed surveys and location work done by the Union Pacific several years before.

Then the "right of way war" started. The two gangs few at each other with shovels, picks and mauls as instruments of warfare and finally took stands with the Clark line of rails blocked by the Harriman rails. Of course the foremen of each gang called for further instructions. The opposing forces sent orders for supplies and just here our fine friend Ed. W. Clark, who was then, operating the Ed W. Clark Forwarding Company with a store at Caliente, sold supplies to both sides and thus laid the foundation for the great instructions after moving his store to Las Vegas the next year.

The big boys got together to try to settle things in the big city of New through that narrow canyon; that he allowed to proceed with his construction work. Harriman replied that it was impossible build two lines of railroad through that narrow canyon; that he already had his rails laid and intended, legally, to proceed with his own railroad.

That was a bitter pill for Senator Clark. He saw that he was at Harriman's mercy. He asked what the price was for permission to build his new line through into southern Nevada. Harriman replied that he had no objection to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad Company building the railroad, but demanded that Senator Clark turn over to the Union Pacific Railroad Company 51% of its stock; of course Senator Clark would operate the new road with his brother J. Ross Clark, as its president. It was a very find and generous arrangement, apparently.

So the Harriman gang tore up the rails they had laid through the canyon and Clark's gang proceeded to lay rails at a rapid rate. In October 1904, there was a great happiness for those had had been waiting in Las Vegas for a month or two for the railroad to come. Here it was after all.

The gang from the East continued on toward California as fast as they could and met the construction gang from the West several miles south of Jean in January 1905. Fred Pine, who still lives in Las Vegas, packed his burro and came on into Las Vegas. He had been operating a pumping station for the construction gang on the dry lake south of Jean.

It was February 13, 1905, when I arrived on a construction train, riding part of the way from Daggett on a gondola car loaded with plows, scrapers, wagons, etc. But the last leg of the journey we had the privilege of riding a caboose which was on the head end of the construction train being backed from Jean. It was early in the morning and when it was light I went out on the platform and stood beside the conductor. The sun came up and painted such a picture of golden glory as I had never seen before. As we came down the "shoo-fly" track from Erie station the whole valley spread out before us.

Soon I saw far in the distance several white dots in the desert.

I asked the conductor: "What is that?" "That is Las Vegas," he replied.

I was asked the other day why I remained in Las Vegas, and replied: "Because I like it."

That, without anything more, is why thousands of people have given as the reason they settled here. No need to look for any further reason. I still like Las Vegas.

49 years ago just now the Clark railroad had their townsite surveyed and announced that they would sell the logs beginning May 1, at prices they had fixed, on the basis of first come first served and they advertised extensively. John J. Park, who came here to act as cashier for the First State Bank of Las Vegas, was appointed to register the offers and take deposits, and there were many applicants and we made great preparations for the sale May 1.

Then one day Mr. J. Ross Clark received a telegram very polite in tone: "We would prefer that the town lots at Las Vegas be sold at auction to the highest bidders. Bancroft."

That presented what seemed like an impossible situation, and Mr. Clark promptly responded, explaining patiently that it was impossible to change the plant of sale at that late date and that many applications and many deposits had been received and that he thought best to proceed as planned.

The next day the tone of the correspondence changed, and Mr. Clark received another wire: "Auction or nothing. Bancroft."

And that settled it, Bancroft was President of the O.R.& N. Railroad, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific, who had been appointed manager of the U.P. interest in the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake railroad. That terse, Three word message, "auction or nothing," told the world that Senator Clark no longer owned the railroad, into the planning, financing and construction of which had put so much effort.

J. Ross Clark announced that due to unforeseen circumstances it was necessary to postpone the sale of the Las Vegas lots until May 15, 1905, and to sell the lots at auction to the highest bidder and that all deposits on lots would be returned. So we entered upon another half month of waiting and uncertainty, but finally, beginning May 15, 1905, the auction began and there was a big crowd in Las Vegas and many lots were sold.

Just the other day I came across an interested old document, a list made out by the Las Vegas Land & Water Company, showing all the lots in Clark's Las Vegas Townsite sold to that date and to whom. I think this is the only such list list in existence.

It is worthwhile noting that J. Ross Clark and the senator remained in nominal control of the railroad until along in the '20s when the Union Pacific took over and consolidated the road as an important unit of its great system.