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Transcript of interview with James M. Lancaster by Linda Voorvart, March 4, 1980




On March 4, 1980, Linda Voorvart interviewed former senior safety engineer and power plant operator, James M. Lancaster (born July 5th, 1911 in Trinidad, Colorado) in his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. Lancaster explains how he first came to Southern Nevada from Mexico and Cuba. Lancaster then goes on to explain his occupational history, and the different jobs that he held in Southern Nevada, specifically at the Nevada Test Site.

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Lancaster, James M. Interview, 1980 March 4. OH-01057. [Transcript.] Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

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UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster i An Interview with James Lancaster An Oral History Conducted by Linda Voorvart Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas Special Collections and Archives Oral History Research Center University Libraries University of Nevada, Las Vegas UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster ii © Ralph Roske Oral History Project on Early Las Vegas University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2019 UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster iii The Oral History Research Center (OHRC) was formally established by the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada System in September 2003 as an entity of the UNLV University Libraries’ Special Collections Division. The OHRC conducts oral interviews with individuals who are selected for their ability to provide first-hand observations on a variety of historical topics in Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. The OHRC is also home to legacy oral history interviews conducted prior to its establishment including many conducted by UNLV History Professor Ralph Roske and his students. This legacy interview transcript received minimal editing, such as the elimination of fragments, false starts, and repetitions in order to enhance the reader's understanding of the material. All measures have been taken to preserve the style and language of the narrator. The interviewee/narrator was not involved in the editing process. UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster iv Abstract On March 4, 1980, Linda Voorvart interviewed former senior safety engineer and power plant operator, James M. Lancaster (born July 5th, 1911 in Trinidad, Colorado) in his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. Lancaster explains how he first came to Southern Nevada from Mexico and Cuba. Lancaster then goes on to explain his occupational history, and the different jobs that he held in Southern Nevada, specifically at the Nevada Test Site. UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster 5 The informant is James Lancaster. It's 9:30 in the morning, on March 4th, 1980. The place is 5717 Elks Drive, and the interviewer is Linda Voorvart. We're going to be talking about the growth of Nevada and the growth of the Test Site. Mr. Lancaster, where were you born? I was born in Trinidad, Colorado, on July 5th, 1911. So how old are you now? Older than some other (unintelligible). (Laughs) I'm sixty-eight so far. (Laughs) Sixty-eighth birthday? So when you were born in Colorado, where did you go from there? Did you just stay there for very long? Or did you move? No, we moved to Mexico. My father was a fisherman in Mexico and we moved there and lived in (Unintelligible) until the town was done. We were fortunate to leave Mexico because of (unintelligible). My family was on a train going out of (Unintelligible) going towards San Pedro, and it was dark by the lake in Mexico. And it was late. And the revolution was on one side of the lake and federal troops were on the other side, and either one wasn't going to change through, and so we had to move. And the train was stopped. My sister and mom, after some, probably by the time we got to San Pedro, we moved from the United States in North America to Cuba. We lived in Havana and while we were there, my brother was born. We lived at (Unintelligible) in Havana. It was a suburb. And while we were there, we were about three or four blocks up the hill from Havana Race Track. And (unintelligible) was a very famous jockey at the time, was married while we were (unintelligible) and we moved from there back to Mexico, where my youngest sister was born, while we were living in Chihuahua, Mexico. At the time, my father UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster 6 was (unintelligible) and while we were living in Chihuahua, there was one of the revolutionaries, not at this time, not at this battle, but when it had taken place, one of the revolutionary generals came up to take the town. That was where my sister was born, and not too long after that my mother passed away (unintelligible) and after that (unintelligible) we moved up to the United States. And we moved to a house in El Paso, Texas, where we lived for several years. Now I went to grade school there. And they went from there to Roswell, New Mexico. We came out of Mexico about 1919. And at about 1922, in Roswell, Mexico, I finished grade school, and I went to Northern High School. And then moved from there, we moved from Roswell back to El Paso, where I finished high school. Oh no, I didn't finish high school. I left a little bit earlier. And then we moved from there to Clovis, Mexico, where I attended most of the year and high school, and then moved to Las Vegas from Mexico, where I graduated in 1929, I guess it was. And then I attended the (unintelligible) where it's now Holland University. Attended that for two years. And then I went to the southwest at the University of Georgetown, where I graduated. And then in the meantime, my (unintelligible) so that when I graduated from school, I was in the middle of what we call the Depression. I came home, and then for several months at a time, I went to work at the El Paso Gas and Electric Company. And then about in nineteen—I graduated in 1933. By 1936, I moved to El Paso, Texas, where I transferred and was there 1947 or something like that. What types of work did you do at these power plants? Well, I was, down in Vanhorn, I was power plant operator, tornado reader, just a general jock of all trades. Is that what you got your degree in college in? Or? No, I majored chemistry and minored in math. Did you— UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster 7 Might as well have majored in farming and minored in (unintelligible) or something (Laughs) Did you basically learn on your own? Yes. On the power plant? Yes. I took some correspondence courses in electrical engineering, and then when I moved up to the (Unintelligible) fire plant, I was an operator and an assistant fireman. And then I went to road dispatcher. (Unintelligible) And then—so why did you quite the power plant? Did you get a better job offer? I went to work at Fort (Unintelligible) for a while and it was for a while as a Coast Safety Director, and then we (unintelligible) and some brothers-in-law decided to go into business with a lot of money. So we went into the (Unintelligible) business in Seminole, Texas back in 1951. I have heard that in 1938, in El Paso. So we moved as a family, as families, over to Seminole Texas and stayed there until '55. What was your job in the business? What was your part in the business? I was Vice President in charge of sales. And you said you left the dry cleaning business and that's why you came to Nevada? No, I went to work for the architect engineers who were in charge at the Air Force academy, and then it was after that, that I went to Nevada, in 1959. In 1959? And why did you come to Nevada? Was it your job that brought you here? No. And when you came, you said that you lived out of the Test Site for the first six months? Yes, I came out here, it was like yesterday. I was out by Colorado Springs. She was teaching there. Her son graduated from high school there. So we really didn't want to move her until the UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster 8 school year was finished, so in June. I worked at the Test Site from February '69 to June 17th or 18th, or something like that. And when you first came here to Nevada, what was the town like in general? Was it very large? Or was Las Vegas very large? We didn't think it was very large. We didn't come from a cosmopolitan, and we just came to Las Vegas to, you know, just go around town. You never planned on staying here? No. We were real perturbed about bringing teenage children here because we had, I mean, coming from Las Vegas, gambling corrupts and they would be chasing girls. That sort of thing. Uh-huh. We were real perturbed about that, but it turned out to be a fantastic place to be. Tell me about the looks of Nevada, I mean, the different types of hotels that were here when you came here, at Las Vegas, and the university, how it stood, the different parts of town? Well, we have the El Rancho Vegas was still in existence. And since (unintelligible) and the rest of the rest of them, like the Stardust, were recently finished. The Desert Inn was still going strong. The Sahara and The Thunderbird, the Riviera, Tropicana, Hacienda, Moulin Rouge, the Sands, most of the hotels were here. There was no, there was no Landmark, there was no Las Vegas Hilton, there was no Caesar's Palace. A number of the larger hotels had never, I guess hadn't even thought of 'em. And the first year I was here, I was working out of the Test Site, and they opened up the Convention Center. Mm-hmm. That was the biggest place they had. (Unintelligible) UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster 9 Did most people come here—when you first came to Las Vegas, did you find that most of the people that you met here were very transient and weren't staying very long or did they seem to be pretty well, permanent, other—? A boom and bust type thing the laboratories (unintelligible) they developed a whole plan, a whole series of experiments. And then they would rush out here, full blown experiments-- Where is home for them? Littlemore laboratories in California, (unintelligible) and some of them were in Albuquerque. And we went in and had, the Test Site population fluctuated like crazy. For example, when I went out there, there were about eight hundred people there, all total. Then the laboratories would come in series of experiments and would bring three thousand people, and everybody was (unintelligible) even though (unintelligible) and there was, since for a long time, I didn't live in town, for the first six months, I didn't really live in town, I really didn't know about this transient business. But I do know that part of a—I came out with the family in 1959. And the, they lived at 2223 (Unintelligible) Way, the neighborhood seemed to be fairly stable. There were keepers and security people—security people and dealers, and carpenters, and the guy who owned the business Downtown that was fairly stable. We'd been there for about a year and a half. Oh, hold on. I'll tell you about, some (unintelligible) about the university. It was like a stage when we came here. She had applied for and was accepted as a teacher in the Clark County School System. And she had to take a course in law and civics. So she had to go to the university to take that. She had to go out way out on the dirt road towards the edge of town between two small buildings. And that was the university. Same sort of commentary on the growth of the town. (Unintelligible) for the dirt roads in between. The buildings out on the edge of town. Where now, the university has sort of transposed itself right into the middle of town around Maryland UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster 10 Parkway, which is now a big wide main street. The buildings, there are—I don't know how many of them there are now—but there are about 9,000 (unintelligible) and architectural examples out there, my goodness. Something the university (unintelligible) in town. And then Mrs. Lancaster went to go teach and she taught at Red Rock School. And the part of town that we live in now, was not in the (unintelligible) because Mrs. Lancaster had to come to Decatur, go south off on Decatur until Evergreen, get off of Evergreen and Ogden and then come up to the school. Alta Drive wasn't cutting through, none of the rest of them—there were no houses out here, period. And the ones they did have, it was this area that was building up the vicinity, so the place was just as— And so the first few years that you were here, did you find that people came here to vacation? Or was it more of a novelty thing just to see? I know that a lot of people now come for vacations, maybe a week or two weeks, and for gambling and having a good time. Did they come here then, for that? Or primarily? Quite a number of people came here to go to work in construction. And that’s--I'd reckon there were also a number of people who came here for the gambling and (unintelligible) and so forth, but it's like there were two different towns. There was the gambling part, and then there was the part where people lived, worked, go to church, and all those other sorts of things. So I'd rather imagine the percentages of transience or I mean, for the tourists, and the percentages of those who came here to work, (unintelligible) You've always been very active in Church, and your church in particular. Were there any churches here in Las Vegas when you first came here? I remember there were about eighty some of 'em. I think one of the things that most people brag about is that we have more churches per capita than almost any other place in the world. What UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster 11 the—there's an interesting commentary there. We were attending the County Methodist Church down on Third and Bridger. And the minister, came, was a legendary sermon—and he said that he had gotten a letter, from some town in Iowa that was so small that you had to get a county map to find it. And the letter was addressed to the pastor of the Methodist Church in Las Vegas, if there is one. (Laughs) So there we were, we were one of the oldest churches in town, and there were about eighty some odd churches around here, and they were all—and we were a sophisticated center here. We knew what was going on. These people outside thought of Las Vegas as nothing, but you know, the usual. Sin City. Yes, Sin City. But it's been a matter of almost, well it’s a wonder, and (unintelligible) how fast the time has been. With your work with the Test Site now, you've already told me that the population was quite flexible at the very beginning. What sort of work did you do out there? I came here from the Air Force academy. I was a senior safety engineer. And our work had to do with carrying on the construction and maintenance and housekeeping rules of the Test Site. They found contractors, like Reynolds electrical engineering company—they did everything. The people who were there, they did all the construction, they did all the—they practically took care of the whole place. There was in this, in this whole business, there was sort of a philosophy about construction, in that you get it done any way that you can. And for that reason, the emphasis on construction safety was possibly not as good as it might've been. And that was one of the reasons why I came here. And we identified all the various codes we were supposed to be UNLV University Libraries James Lancaster 12 (unintelligible) and construction tours and this sort of thing. And the (unintelligible) at that time, which had been about average for the construction industry. (Unintelligible) so it's actually most of the safest and securest place in history. Mm-hmm. How long were you out at the Test Site? Eighteen years and like three months. I retired there. Uh-huh. And now you are a safety engineer for private firms and private companies? I had (unintelligible) construction outfit, and the sales— What other types are you into, do you do? I'm doing some (unintelligible) work and also for the university, UNLV. I'm there continuing education there in business and construction and engineering seminars that they have. That's the most fascinating sort of thing because there, the (unintelligible) seminars who are (unintelligible) in their field, and it's been a most interesting job. Between the safety engineering, that's only worth (unintelligible) but at the university, and some of the work at the Church, trying to figure out how to fix up the Methodist Church. My, I remember the jobs that I have to do at (unintelligible) somewhere, so I'm experimenting (unintelligible)—so everything, all the part time jobs that I've had, are actually, you know, I believe, interesting and challenging.