Women in History

Helen J Stewart

Helen J Stewart: Image source: Las Vegas Historical Society.

The core of Las Vegas history is directly tied to the strength and grit of Helen J Stewart, known as the First Lady of Las Vegas. She was a pioneer, entrepreneur, and supporter of American Indians in Southern Nevada. The excerpt below is from the book “Helen J Stewart, First Lady of Las Vegas” by Sally Zanjani and Carrie Townley Porter.

Helen J. Stewart owned the ranch that became the core of Las Vegas once she sold it to the railroad for $55,000 in 1902. Then she went on to become a leading figure in the town — the first postmaster, the first woman to serve on a jury, a founder of the Mesquite Club, a women’s group that continues to this day. She was a founding member of the Christ Episcopal Church, also active today. She was a women’s rights advocate as well as an advocate for Native Americans.

Helen J Stewart, Note the beautiful dress and work boots. Sculpture. Image Source: Las Vegas Review Journal.

Helen J Stewart was born in Springfield, Illinois in 1854. At the age of 9 she moved with her family to Sacramento, California. At 18, she married Archibald Stewart, 38 and in 1880 moved to Las Vegas for a temporary two year stay. In 1884, her husband was killed in a gun dispute on Kiel Ranch leaving Helen J Stewart a widower with 4 children and pregnant with their 5th. In 1902 she sold approximately 1800 acres of land to the Oregon, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. By signing this contract she signed was is considered the “de facto birth certificate” of the city of Las Vegas.

Make a point of going to the Old Vegas Mormon State Park in North Las Vegas located near Helen J Stewart’s original stomping grounds. Benjamin Victor designed a sculptor in her honor, thanks to a project supported by the Friends of the Fort who received $99,000 from the Las Vegas Centennial Commission to honor the achievements of Helen J Stewart. Her 160th birthday was recognized and celebrated in April 2014.

Betty Willis

Betty Willis. Image Source: S2 Art

The Welcome to Las Vegas sign was installed in 1959 by Western Neon. It was designed by Betty Willis, a talented woman born in Las Vegas in 1923, who worked as a graphic designer at Western Neon. Did you know the sign was designed in the Googie architecture style? The fantastic futuristic atomic age look and feel of the Googie design, at the core of pop culture  of Mid Century Modern in the 50s and 60s, developed after World War II.

Betty Willis never copyrighted her design for the Welcome to Las Vegas, instead she made her design a gift to the city of Las Vegas. She makes no money from the use of her design whether it’s a souvenir keychain, bottle opener, poster, t-shirt, or replica.

The Neon Museum documents her work with an extensive list of images and summaries.