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Tombstone Tales: Las Vegas pioneers buried at Woodlawn Cemetery

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If you see a group of figures roaming among the headstones at Woodlawn Cemetery around dusk in the evenings leading up to Halloween, don't get spooked. It's just a harmless look at our area's haunted history.

Woodlawn is on land that was part of the original Las Vegas Ranch owned by pioneer Octavius Decatur Gass.

After Gass failed to pay off a loan with the property as collateral, Archibald Stewart foreclosed and moved down from Pioche with his young wife Helen. Soon thereafter, Archibald was shot to death in a dispute with a neighbor, and Helen elected to maintain farming and boarding operations there.

She finally sold out in 1902 to the railroad operation which created the Las Vegas we know today. Over the decades, it has become the final resting place for many of the those instrumental in developing the character of this area.

"The kind of wild people that made our history and the stalwarts and pillars of our community," explains Nevada Preservation Foundation Executive Director Heidi Swank about what participants might take away from the walking tours. "And to kind of help people feel that connection to our past."

One headstone which caught Swank's attention early on is engraved with the name J.T. McWilliams, as well as his wife Iona.

"It made him very real to me. And that's what we're trying to do is bring that history back to folks. To get them to see that we have this great past. And a lot to be proud of here in the City of Las Vegas.”

If J.T. McWilliams does not ring a bell, consider that had things gone slightly differently, our county might bear his name.

"Almost," muses Swank. "He's the 'almost' father of Las Vegas."

Shortly after Helen Stewart had sold her land, McWilliams designed a townsite on the west side of the tracks, which was mostly a tent city in the early days. But as a competing townsite was designed east of the tracks, McWilliams found himself at a disadvantage to William Andrews Clark, who the county is named after today.

"Where you had Clark. William Clark and the Clark Townsite. You had the backing of the railroad, water rights," says Swank. "And then you had McWilliams kind of battling it out for who was going to become the actual City of Las Vegas."

McWilliams later designed Woodlawn Cemetery on land donated in 1914. Many of the names on the headstones might be recognizable even if you don't know the story behind them.

Thomas Foley was the patriarch of the family of lawyers and judges, and you've probably seen his name on the federal building downtown. Harley Harmon was a prominent attorney and civic booster whose name in on the street halfway between Tropicana and Flamingo.

If Harmon is known mostly as a street name today, the same might be said for Yomeda "Bill" Tomiyasu, who arrived here from Japan in 1914 and spent many decades raising crops in the area which now includes Sunset Park. He and his wife Toyono are buried in Woodlawn.

"If you know Tomiyasu Lane which is right near Wayne Newton's 'Casa de Shenandoah,' that kind of marks one edge of what was the Tomiyasu farm."

Tomiyasu was well established in Las Vegas by the time World War II broke out in 1941. Soon thereafter, most Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps for the rest of the war. Not Tomiyasu, who was seen as a patriotic contributor to the U.S. war effort.

"Provided produce for local groceries. For Nellis Air Force Base. A lot of the food that was produced here in Las Vegas came from Mr. Tomiyasu’s farm.”

Going back to an earlier conflict, there’s the curious pair of adjacent graves that represent a healing of our nation. Even though Nevada saw no Civil War action, at Woodlawn you'll find the headstones of a Union and Confederate soldier together. Enemies earlier in life and friends at the end.

"Very few people know that it's here," says Western High School history teacher Jason Coffey. "And in fact, in the United States, it's fairly uncommon and unique to have something like this where a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier chose to be buried under the same headstone."

Coffey also is a Civil War re-enactor on the side. Each Memorial Day, he can be found with several others in similar garb for a ceremony at the gravesites of the former enemies.

"We provide a uniform firing team of the Union Army. And we stand back over there and provide a 21-gun salute."

On Memorial Day 2018, an addition was made to another section of Woodlawn, which had changed over time. In the first years of operation, little thought was given to ethnicity.

"You have everyone kind of put together in one big area," says Swank. "It isn't until the 1930s that we start to see a separation based on religion and on race here in the cemetery."

That resulted in "Section O", which the local African-American community had successfully petitioned the city for, to have their own area. By that time many blacks whose families did not provide money for burial had been placed in unmarked graves.

This year on May 28, an engraved granite bench was unveiled to pay tribute to the unknowns.

"To be able to provide a voice in history for those people in that section that did not have the benefit of knowing their history," said Darell White, founder of the Nevada African-American Genealogy Society." We are giving them a foundation right now to know that they existed and they mattered."

Another monument featured on the tour is where "Nick the Greek" Dandolos is interred. He was a colorful gambler thought to have won and lost somewhere around a half-billion dollars over the course of his life. That included one match that left a legacy which carries on today.

"He got into this really amazing poker game that lasted for five months against a gentleman named Johnny Moss," says Swank. "And it happened at Benny Binion's Las Vegas Club."

That match became the inspiration for the World Series of Poker, which these days takes place each summer at the Rio.

Other graves to be found in Woodlawn include the rough and tumble Sam Gay, the first Sheriff of Clark County. Or by contrast, the gentle, smiling Bill Briare who saw a staunch defender of Las Vegas in the 1970s and 80s.

"And I get almost a paternal feeling that...you can say anything you want, but don't say anything about my kid," Briare told News-3 on his last day in office in 1987

Wandering through Woodlawn provides a sense of the spirits that built this town. The last of the Preservation Foundation's walking tours is on Nevada Admissions Day...which is also Halloween.

"But it's not as much about ghosts as about that haunting history that we have here in Las Vegas," clarifies Swank.

There are two more of the guided tours scheduled for this year. One is this Saturday and the other on October 31st. They start at 4:30 p.m. and last about two hours. Tickets are required.

For those who are interested but unable to attend the guided tours, Woodlawn is a city-owned facility. People are free to explore on their own.

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