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McWilliams, J. T. (John Thomas), 1863-1941


Nevada pioneer, engineer, and surveyor John Thomas (J.T.) McWilliams was born in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada, on December 10, 1863. In 1879, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, before settling in Chicago, Illinois in 1883. While in Chicago, McWilliams studied civil engineering at the University of Chicago, and in 1884 he began surveying for the Northern Pacific Railroad.

In 1893, he was appointed a delegate to the National Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles, California by the governor of South Dakota, Charles H. Sheldon. While in Southern California, McWilliams pursued surveying work in Needles, California, where he met his eventual wife Iona, and they were married at Fort Mohave in 1897. For the next four years, McWilliams designed municipal water systems for towns in Arizona and California.

In 1901, the McWilliams family moved to Goodsprings, Nevada, and soon after to the Las Vegas Valley when he was asked to survey the Stewart Ranch in 1902. In 1904, he purchased an 80-acre section of land from Helen Stewart, and subdivided the land into plots. He called the area "McWilliams Original Townsite of Las Vegas" and advertised the lots for sale at up to $200 each in Los Angeles newspapers for the rest of 1904. After brisk initial sales and an influx of businesses, investors, and residents, the McWilliams townsite suffered several setbacks, culminating in a fire that swept through the tents that served as buildings and pushing both residents and businesses to the new Clark townsite located a scant half mile to the east.

McWilliams' reputation in Southern Nevada was built in part on his willingness to confront the Union Pacific Railroad on issues that impacted the growing Las Vegas community; including water rights, land claims, and timber claims. Significant successes included stopping the railroad from dumping waste in Las Vegas Creek and, over the course of ten years, convincing them to pump water into what remained of his original townsite, the only city area outside of the Clark townsite to receive "city water."

Throughout the 1930s, McWilliams worked with the CCC to establish what is now the Lee Canyon Ski and Snowboard Resort; he was still planning new projects when he died in 1941. His wife, Iona, continued to hold the reins of his many interests until her death in 1969.


K. J. Evans, "J. T. McWilliams," Las Vegas Review-Journal, February 10, 1999.