On April 19, 2009 we departed Los Angeles, California, heading north on Interstate I-15. After almost 300 miles, we stopped for the night at Mesquite, Nevada, which lies eighty miles north of Las Vegas. There, we spent a quiet night at an RV Park behind the Casablanca Hotel and Casino. On our previous trips through Mesquite, we had ignored the town, assuming that it was not worth so much as a fuel stop in the desert. After a quiet night at the RV Park, we drove through town, looking for remnants of its pioneer history.
While driving along West Mesquite Blvd., we saw contemporary buildings and businesses. Even on a clear spring day, both traffic and business activities were light. Like many Western towns, Mesquite’s proximity to open land and abundant water drove a recent economic boom. Like Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada, Mesquite rode a swell of economic exuberance which ended abruptly with the mortgage crisis of 2008. As it had several times in its history, Mesquite again became a land of busted dreams. Of the three casinos that recently called Mesquite home, only the Casablanca currently operates with full services.
Midway on its journey from origins in Southwestern Utah and its submersion in Lake Mead, the Virgin River skirts Mesquite on its south side. The early Spaniards named it El Rio de Sulfureo, after nearby hot sulfur springs. In honor of John Adams, the second U.S. president, Jedediah Smith may have named it the Adams River. Ironically, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president and son of John Adams held that high office at the time of Smith’s 1826-27 transit. Some records claim that Smith named the river after Thomas Virgin, a member of his party. Wounded by Indians near Mesquite Flat, Virgin later died in the fight at Umpqua River, along the California-Oregon border.
The Pleistocene Era dominated much of the Northern Hemisphere for 1.8 million years, apparently ending only 10,000 years ago. During that period, repeated glaciation forced plants and animals from the north to share a migration route through the Virgin River Gorge, toward the more temperate south. As the glaciers retreated, flora and fauna made their way back up the gorge and into new lands exposed by the melting ice shield. Since the freeze-thaw cycle took between ten thousand and more than one hundred thousand years, some species may have traveled north and south many times, adapting to new conditions as they regained what had been their old territory.
In the 1830’s, the Old Spanish Trail, between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles, California utilized the Virgin River Gorge as part of its route. At the time of early Anglo exploration and commerce, the Southern Paiute (Nuwuvi) lived in the area. In a unique adaptation to their environment, the Nuwuvi combined a hunting-gathering subsistence system with some flood-plain gardening along the river. Although Thomas Virgin sustained injury during an altercation in that locale, we do not know which Indians he fought. Was it the relatively peaceful Nuwuvi or the more aggressive Utes, who may have migrated south as encroaching Anglo hunters stressed their game supply?
In the 1880’s, the first two Mormon pioneer settlements failed at Mesquite Flat. After flash floods along the Virgin River ruined the water diversion trenches of first two settlements, a third group rebuilt the system and succeeded. With an abundant, if erratic water supply from the Virgin River, Mesquite became a subsistence farming community. There was slow growth in the area until the 1973, when Interstate I-15 replaced Old Highway 91. Because of early twentieth century engineering challenges, Old Highway 91 avoided the gorge, instead taking a longer route to the west. Once the I-15 route through the gorge became a reality, Mesquite began shipping farm products eighty miles south to Las Vegas and forty miles north to St. George, Utah.
The now defunct Peppermill Casino, opened in the 1970s, beginning the diversification of Mesquite’s economy. By the mid-1990s, with other casino resorts open, Mesquite marketed itself as a getaway from Las Vegas and a more laid-back gambling option for residents of Cedar City, Kanab and St. George, Utah. As its population grew, residents adopted the shorter “Mesquite” as the official town name. The City of Mesquite incorporated in 1984. The 2000 Census placed the population at 9,000. At its 2008 peak, the population had ballooned to over 19,000.
As I made my way along West Mesquite Blvd. on that spring morning, historical remnants of Mesquite Flats showed through in vacant lots and abandoned businesses. Although most of the historical architecture was gone, enough remained to give a feeling of what the town was like in earlier days. The remaining buildings and signs were a poignant reminder of what happens to a Western town when its commercial base disappears. Some, like Harley's Garage, look like they closed yesterday. Others, like the Desert Palms Motel operated normally, despite the missing paint and neon lights evident on their highway sign.
In one’s mind, it is easy enough to see how plant and animal life around Mesquite may have changed, yet we know that the underlying rocky landscape has remained unyielding for eons. That morning, we pictured ice dams breaking to the north, sending a deluge down-canyon and across Mesquite Flat.
Then, we saw conifers and other evergreens from temperate southern climates, moving north to colonize the mountainsides of Southeastern Utah. As game, large and small moved up the gorge, so too did the Ancient Anasazi Indians, and later the Nuwuvi.
The spirits of mountain men like Jedediah Smith and Thomas Virgin passed by our location, moving south, in search of big game. Although they did not find the abundant game that earlier mountain men found in the Rocky Mountains, they did find the vast and abundant land called California, lying just beyond the deserts of the Great Basin.
Soon, Mormon pioneers traipsed by our historical viewing port, followed by others seeking the excitement of gaming at flashy casinos. Finally, the land speculators, golf pros and second-home buyers found their way to this “virgin territory”. Many of them arrived just in time for the greatest economic downturn since the destruction of the original Mesquite water diversion trenches. For many, their only choice was to migrate again, in search of greener economic pastures.
Will Mesquite Flat grow again? Will new residents at least occupy all the vacant homes and condominiums still waiting for buyers? Can anything surpass Mesquite’s recent peak of growth and excitement? As long as the waters of the Virgin River continue to bring live-giving sustenance to the bone-dry desert at Mesquite Flat, our answer is, “Yes”. We wonder if there is a “betting line” at the Casablanca Casino as to when that resurgence might occur.Email James McGillis