He helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, and had just completed the famed Rock Mile tunnel in that city, when he heard he might be needed in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
He was told the land grant board in that faraway city was having trouble with its plans for a mammoth reservoir and irrigation project, which was at a standstill after D.A. Camfield gave up in frustration and abandoned the project in 1912.
He was Robert C. Storrie, and in 1916, the board of trustees of the Las Vegas land grant turned to the famed engineer to complete their grandiose plans for an agricultural paradise on the mesas and plains east of New Town. Since 1903, the Mexican land grant made to the people of Las Vegas in 1835, had been under the control of a board headed by banker Jefferson Raynolds and retired chief justice Elisha V. Long, who were determined to develop the grant for investment and settlement.
A native of Ohio, Raynolds had arrived in Las Vegas just ahead of the railroad. Having assumed the rail way would traverse the existing settlement, Raynolds and his brothers Joshua and Frederick established in Old Town, the first bank in Las Vegas, on the west side of the plaza, and subsequently erected the bank building at the southeast plaza.
Later, Raynolds was among the most ardent developers of East Las Vegas, and the Raynolds town site addition and Raynolds Avenue are both named for him. An elder in the Presbyterian church, Raynolds died in 1921, at 78, and is buried at the Masonic cemetery in Las Vegas.
Elisha Van Buren Long, a native of Indiana, arrived in New Mexico in 1885, when President Grover Cleveland appointed him chief justice of the territorial supreme court. By all accounts a brilliant jurist, Long soon settled in Las Vegas, and after leaving the bench, practiced law here until shortly before his death in 1928, at age 91. Like Raynolds, Long is also buried at the Masonic cemetery. (It was under Long that a young Luis Armijo read, or studied, law, to later become a longtime and legendary Las Vegas district judge and political boss.)
When Jefferson Raynolds and Elisha Long negotiated the future of the Las Vegas land grant with R.C. Storrie, he assured them he could complete the project, but his price was considerable. Following the failure (and death) of D.A. Camfield four years earlier, however, even Raynolds, the shrewd banker, and Long, the brilliant lawyer, agreed to Storrie’s terms: The land grant board advanced Storrie $200,000 and gave him title to more than 16,000 acres of grant lands, and title to both the reservoir and canals which he was to build, as well as the exclusive right to sell the captured water to all the new settlers who would make the great irrigation project a reality.
In the spring of 1916, R.C. Storrie, the Scotsman from San Francisco, began work on the great reservoir and irrigation project which would later bear his name. Storrie directed the work personally, and hired an enormous crew of area workmen. He also had transported to Las Vegas, a small steam engine (and dump cars) which ran by gravity down to the dam, but was powered to pull the empty cars back to the pit. (The engine was not the same dinkey used by D.A. Camfield and pictured with the previous column.)
Most fascinating were Storrie’s 10 prized Missouri mules, which worked alongside the crude heavy equipment of the day. Storrie took great care of his mules, and there is a remarkable eyewitness account of the Scotsman’s devotion to them. On one occasion, when Storrie was blasting with dynamite, the explosion buried Storrie and he was badly injured. He was discovered by workman Raymundo Angel, who later told historian Milt Callon that “Dr. McClellan insisted that he [Storrie] go to San Francisco so he might get fixed up, but he refused to go because there wasn’t anyone to look after his mules ... [which] meant more to him than his own personal health.” (See Milton Callon’s “Las Vegas, New Mexico, the Town that Wouldn’t Gamble,” 1962.)
In 1921, after five years, Storrie completed the project, which comprised an earthen dam and concrete reservoir with a storage capacity of 23,000 acre-feet of water, and 18 miles of main canals and lateral arteries — a monumental feat for that time, and with no state or federal assistance.
The dream of an agricultural paradise east of New Town would finally be realized, as planned by Jefferson Raynolds and Elisha Long.
Instead, they should have foreseen the ominous future of their best laid plans when R.C. Storrie quickly sold all his interest in the great project, and returned to San Francisco — a foreboding occurrence indeed.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.