LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — On a Sunday morning in April 1909, an engineer was pushing 31 cars of oranges from the railroad depot in Kelso to Cima, a steep 19-mile run in what would become California’s Mojave National Preserve.
One steam engine in front on the Union Pacific line, two in back. When the crown sheet — the top plate on the furnace box – on the lead engine dropped, the ensuing explosion hurled the engineer and his fireman 40 feet from the cab.
Right about then, according to historical accounts, the concussed and dazed engineer, Harley A. Harmon, decided enough of this train stuff. The blast “blew him right into politics,” one old-timer recalled years later.
Harmon envisioned a growth for Las Vegas, which in 1906-07 had added the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad with stops in mining towns Beatty, Bullfrog, Rhyolite and Goldfield on the way to Tonopah. He probably didn’t see modern Southern Nevada, which honors his contributions, especially in the political arena, in the naming of Harmon Avenue (slightly more than 10 miles from Spring Valley in the west to Boulder Highway in the east) and the Harley A. Harmon Elementary School.
So, goodbye, railroad. A career in politics in the newly created county of Clark seemed a much safer career choice.
Harmon’s father was an attorney in Kansas and moved the family to Los Angeles in 1901. In 1903, when Harmon was 23, he ran unsuccessfully for city clerk of Los Angeles.
In Las Vegas, where he landed because of railroad opportunities, he found social and political success with a gift of gab, a friendly manner and a persuasive style. Berkley Bunker, one of Southern Nevada’s early settlers who became a United States senator, said in a University of Nevada (Reno) oral history project: “Harley was a good speaker. He was a convincer.”
Perhaps the best example of his power of persuasion came in 1908, during the state convention in Pioche for the split of Lincoln County to form Clark County. Voting was at a stalemate, and at the end of a long day Harmon went to the wealthy Ed Clark, a noted businessman who desired a new county (no, not the man for whom Clark County is named; that’s William Andrews Clark). Harmon convinced Clark to spring for a case of whiskey and told him he’d do the rest.
The next day, as Harmon’s son, Harley E. Harmon, tells KPNR in its “The Las Vegas I Remember Series,” the stalemate was broken, hardened opinions no doubt softened by alcohol. Several months later, the Nevada Legislature approved splitting off a portion of Lincoln County to create Clark County.
Harley A. became city clerk when Las Vegas was incorporated in 1911. He passed the bar examination in 1919, and in 1921 he was elected Clark County district attorney, an office he held until 1934. He twice ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor. After his second loss, the newly elected Gov. Richard Kirman, a Democrat, appointed Harmon chairman of the Nevada Public Service Commission.
He also was a member of the Colorado River Commission, which obtained water and power rights tied to the Colorado River and the Hoover Dam.
As district attorney, Harmon is credited with settling the unlawful crowd that came to the valley with the construction of the Hoover Dam. In 1931, according to historical accounts, Harmon and assistant DA Roger Foley successfully prosecuted five murder cases, getting four death sentences and one life sentence. Violent crimes tied to the dam workforce dwindled, remember many of the old-timers.
John F. Cahlan, who starting in the late 1920s spent 34 years as a newspaperman, including a stint as Las Vegas Review-Journal editor, remembered in his interview with the University of Nevada oral history project that Harmon and Foley had those five murder charges, “one right after the other. They convicted and sentenced to death all five of ‘em, and as a result, they didn’t have much more trouble with murders in the community.” (More accurate accounts indicate four death sentences, one life sentence).
Harmon died in 1947, just after he finishing a speech at a gathering of the Young Democrats in Reno. He closed his fiery address, according to the Review-Journal, saying, “I’d give my last breath to the Democratic Party.”
He then sat down and slumped to the floor, dead at 55 of a heart attack.
NOTE: Eastern Avenue was originally named Harmon Road, after Harley A. Harmon. Its name was changed in 1956. Later that year, the Harmon name was added to the current roadway. Source: “Asphalt Memories: Origins of Some Street Names of Clark County,” by Mark Hall-Patton.