Edward and Emily Bunker, Mormon Pioneers of Southern Nevada

From the photo collection of Mormon pioneers in the Territorial State House State Park & Museum, Fillmore, Millard County, Utah.

In 1877, Edward Bunker was sent by Brigham Young to settle Southern Nevada, or, as their great, great grandson Richard Bunker described it, “hell in the desert.”

Forced off the land in the 1930s by the US Bureau of Reclamation for the construction of Hoover Dam, the Bunker family settled in Las Vegas where they became pillars of the community and were key in building, among other things, the Las Vegas water system.

As fate had it, just as Reclamation started the dam, Nevada legalized gambling. In the 1970s, Richard Bunker became a leading Latter Day Saint to reconcile his faith with gambling. The casinos that sprang up to serve dam workers had turned Las Vegas into a boom town… and a mob town. The Mormons, led in good part by Bunker, elected to wrest control of the casino business from the Mafia. They would run it while themselves not touching the dice. Already one of the most influential men in local water politics, Bunker became head of the Gaming Control Board then an unmatched political lobbyist for the Las Vegas gaming industry.

Nothing about Steve Wynn’s mega resorts or the city where a chamber maid might dream of buying an affordable home would have been possible without Richard Bunker. Having turned “hell in the desert” into the fastest growing city in the West, he has declared his last ambition to be securing water from the Great Basin Aquifer. One of the regions that stands to suffer the worst from the Las Vegas pipeline proposed by Bunker is Millard County, Utah, the place Brigham Young declared the seat of the Utah territory and where the portrait of Bunker’s great great grandparents hangs in the statehouse.

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    Emily Green by e-mail at emily.green [at] mac.com
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