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Work of Art: Grand Avenue in the '50s

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By Art Trujillo

The construction that made Grand Avenue a true four-lane highway took place in the early ‘50s. Traffic got routed through Railroad Avenue and even New Mexico Avenue during the several months that improvements took place.

This month, a $4.4 million project began on the same stretch of road. The news of the project has sparked memories about the major job some 60 years ago.

Before the ‘50s project, the pavement covered only two lanes, the rest being dirt and gravel, and even the slightest sprinkle of rain managed to get cars stuck.

And woe be unto those who lived east of Grand or even on the east side of that street, as they needed to skirt around huge chunks of concrete to go anywhere on foot. At the time, only construction traffic was allowed.

At night, highway workers placed flares along the construction site, probably to aid in visibility. The burners were spheres about the size of a bowling ball, filled with kerosene and remaining lit for hours.

Usually after we’d finished selling newspapers downtown, some friends and I would gather ‘round one of the burners, ignite tightly rolled up pages of Time and Life magazines and pretend to smoke them. We felt like such big shots then. That was one of the few acts we imps committed, the news of which miraculously didn’t make it to our homes before we did.

There being no interstate, virtually all traffic took this highway. When the job was completed, Grand, much straightened, with uniform streetlights, contained a series of 3-inch-high cemetery-type markers. Each flat mound was about 10 feet long and 2 feet wide. Although it was possible to attempt a yew-ee (pronounced you we) without losing your an old pan, muffler or transmission, the dividers certainly kept people in their own lane.

Probably because few people had cars, traffic was mostly touristy, and a number of businesses thrived once the project was completed. We could always spot a tourist by the ever-present canvas water bag attached to the hood ornament, and by an air-cooling  device resembling a canister vacuum cleaner. It was held in place by the rolled-up window on the passenger’s side.

This contraption, I recall, operated by outside wind force entering the tube. The windward side had vents allowing the air to enter and spin a fan. Some believed that people filled the canister with dry ice, but I never knew for sure. We assumed the tool was motorless, operating only when the car moved.

We once saw a motorist leaving Jimmy’s Market rushing to his parked car, opening the window to let the cab cool but forgetting the window was holding up the air conditioner. The crash of the falling object failed to amuse the driver.

Back to the tombstone-like dividers:

Most of us had never seen them before. Once set in place, the mounds provided safe harbor for us jaywalkers, as we were able to walk halfway across the street and stand on one of the plots with relative assurance that we wouldn’t get hit. The dividers have since disappeared, either having been removed or simply leveled with each new layer of tarmac placed on Grand over the years.

A few years later, my friend Ben, a student at then-Vegas High, and one of the few kids with his own car, picked me up at Immaculate Conception School; then he drove to McFarland Hall where he’d promised to give two girls a ride home.

With the four of us in the car, Ben set out to impress the passengers by pretending to be unaware of the purpose of the middle-of-Grand-Avenue dividers. When on the 100 block of Grand, he straddled the mounds and raced north, all the way to Mills, acting as if  the median were a Las Vegas-type expressway.

The mile-long trip took only a minute or two, and shocked drivers cleared the way. Remember that Grand Avenue was the thoroughfare in those days, years before the completion (or even the conception) of anything resembling an Interstate. Traffic that didn’t drive through Grand went as far west as New Mexico Avenue. Mills Avenue was in its infancy, and the other artery, Seventh Street, was barely a factor.

Remember, this was years before Seventh Street became heavily trafficked and way before the recent stopulation explosion. Now, we’re invited to drive that stretch of highway, stop at several intervals while still being told it’s for local traffic only.

About a week before Ben’s traffic stunt, I’d been riding with my friend Charlie when he made a yew-ee at a traffic light on Grand and Douglas. A city policeman was there ready to nab us, and that five-dollar fine (we shared) convinced me that Grand was indeed patrolled. It made me wonder why no cops were around when Ben committed a much more egregious violation.

Rather than becoming an instant hero, Ben incurred the wrath of his female passengers, one of them saying, “I’ll never get in a car with you again!” Of course, she made that pronouncement long after allowing Ben to drive all of us around town, taking in the sights.

She didn’t need to enter his car again. A few months later Ben died from a sudden health condition, nothing related to cars or traffic.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.