Bullhead City and the surrounding cities of Laughlin, Nevada, Needles, California, Lake Havasu City and Kingman, Arizona make up a rich community brought to life by the Colorado River.
This hot, dry region known as the tri-state area is the geographic meeting point of San Bernardino County, Calif., Mohave County, Ariz. and Clark County, Nev.
Scant rainfall and searing heat transformed this once-lush region into the desolate, unforgiving desert wilderness that is dissected by the life-giving Colorado River as it makes its way to the Gulf of California. Lizards, rattlesnakes, desert tortoise, jack rabbits, coyotes, badgers, kit foxes and desert bighorn sheep were the sole inhabitants for centuries.
Scientists and archaelogists do not agree on the date when man first inhabited this area. Ancient peoples lived near modern-day Laughlin, Nevada between 3,000-4,000 years ago, leaving behind petroglyphs and rock drawings.
Patayans, among the first Native Americans to inhabit the tri-state area, appeared around 900 AD. They eventually split into the Hualapai and Mojave Indian Tribes. Being less developed than the Anasazi peoples to the north, the Patayans lived in brush shelters, leaving behind no permanent dwellings. They gathered seeds and plants which were ground into food on grinding stones which have been unearthed in the region.
The National Park Service has located more than 150 Patayan campsites in the Lake Mohave area, between Willow Beach (10 miles from the base of Hoover Dam) and Pyramid Canyon (the site of Davis Dam). Early peoples made sharply tipped stone weapons for hunting game and adorned themselves with gypsum ornaments, sea shells from the Pacific Coast or Gulf of California and turquoise. Artifacts including sandals made of fiber from yucca trees, as well as Patayan pottery have been found.
While the Patayans did little farming, their descendants, the Mojave Indians, planted extensive crops in late winter and early spring along the banks of the Colorado River, depending on the annual floods for irrigation. The Mojaves were undaunted by the fierce climate and still live on the river, for which they took their name, “people who live near the water.”
The Spanish explorer Melchi Diaz is believed to be the first European to visit the region in 1540 AD. Father Garces, a Spanish padre, crossed the Colorado River in 1776 AD at a broad, shallow point near the modern-day site of Katherine’s Landing, north of Davis Dam.
Steamboats cruised into the tri-state area from Port Isabel in the Gulf of California, delivering supplies to miners and returning to port loaded with precious metals. For more than 50 years from the maiden voyage in 1852, stern wheelers were the fastest and safest mode of travel into the searing wasteland. It cost a traveler $44 to sail from what is now Bullhead City, AZ south to the Gulf of California and then north to San Francisco.
Lt. Edward Beale was hired in 1857 to survey an immigrant road from Fort Smith, Ark. to the Colorado River. It was he who established Fort Mojave near the present site of Bullhead City. Pioneers en route to California frequented the fort for comfort and protection on their journey.
Beale tested a caravan of 28 camels for the war department while stationed in Fort Mojave. For a while the camels were used to deliver the mail throughout what is now Mohave County.
William Harrison Hardy crossed the Colorado River in 1864. He established a river port and supply center on Cottonwood Island and operated the Colorado River Ferry. Hardy also founded Hardyville, the fore-runner to Bullhead City, and became the first postmaster in 1865, the year that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Hardyville, once the county seat for Mohave County and the port for steamboats to unload supplies for the booming mining district, businessmen, and saloon keepers, was eventually destroyed by fire.
By this time mines pocked the area, the largest of which was the Katherine Gold Mind. Discovered in 1900 and operated intermittently until it was closed in 1942, it produced over $12 million worth of ore. The mine and mill was capable of processing 300 tons of ore into 600 ounces of gold and silver in 24 hours. The mine and the surrounding area today carries the name of one of the miner‘s sisters.
Davis Dam was completed in 1953 two miles upstream of present-day Laughlin and Bullhead City, bringing flood control and power generation to the area. Lake Mojave, the reservoir created by Davis Dam extends 67 miles to the base of Hoover Dam and is 4 miles across at its widest point with a shoreline of over 150 miles!
Bullhead City originated in the 1940’s as a construction camp for Davis Dam. Named for Bull’s Head Rock, a geologic formation used as a navigation point by steamboat captains, which is now mostly submerged beneath Lake Mojave. During construction, several other small communities sprang up including the town of Laughlin. Originally called South Pointe due to it’s proximatey to Nevada’s southern tip, Laughlin initially consisted of a small motel and bar, which both closed when Davis Dam was completed and the business generated by the project stopped. Bullhead City also lost most of its population, leaving only a few government workers, river people and retirees who chose to live in the small community.
In 1964, Don Laughlin flew over the tri-state area in his private plane and liked what he saw. The former owner of the 101 Club in Las Vegas purchased the boarded up motel and 6.5 acres of riverfront property for $250,000. In less than two years, he established the Riverside Resort, offering all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for ¢.98, 12 slot machines, 2 live gaming tables and accomodations in four of the motel’s eight rooms. The Laughlin family occupied the other four.
The Golden Nugget-Laughlin was the next of many establishments to follow. Residential development in Lauglin and Bullhead City has kept pace with the explosive growth of casinos. Bullhead City was Arizona’s fastest growing community between 1980 and 1990 and has since expanded even more.