The History Of Las Vegas
Clark County, Nevada, in the Mojave Desert, surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides, most of the landscape is arid with only desert vegetation and wildlife. And in the middle is the modern, internationally renowned city of entertainment, gaming, opulence and nightlife. Billed as the Entertainment Capital of the World, the valley serves as the leading financial and cultural center for the entire state of Nevada.
However, in contrast, long before the site held major resorts and welcomed millions of tourists a year, it was a virtually unpopulated area of marshland.
THE ORIGINAL OWNERS OF THE LAND
The earliest inhabitants of the region were the Nomadic Paleo-Indians over 10,000 years ago. The Pueblo and Paiute peoples are believed to have come later, migrating between seasonal camps in the mountains and valley. Their tools and rock carvings have been discovered at several sites throughout the Las Vegas Valley.
During this time, the area we now know as Las Vegas was a very different place. It wasn’t the vast desert and arid climate of modern times; the area was wet marshland, filled with rich vegetation and wildlife. As the years passed, the waters receded, disappearing from the landscape, and leaving only desert in its place. Some water remained trapped underground, rising to the surface in key locations, forming an oasis that would benefit visitors and settlers to the region many years later.
THE SPANISH ARRIVE
Around 1829—many years after the Nomadic Paleo-Indians explored the region—the Spanish arrived. Santa Fe trader Antonio Armijo was seeking a new route to Los Angles, with a commercial caravan of around 60 people. Using the old Spanish trail, the group passed through areas of high mountains, arid deserts and deep canyons, but en-route, they decided to veer off the path. Eventually, they settled roughly 100 miles northeast of present-day Las Vegas.
After setting up camp, Rafael Rivera, and his scouting party, were sent out to find water. Rivera eventually struck out on his own, and went deep into the desert, until he found the oasis, becoming the first person since the Native Americans to do so. As the story goes, he marked the location on his map, calling it ‘Las Vegas’, which translates to ‘the meadows’ in Spanish. The landscape featured abundant, wild grasses and the desert spring waters, which benefited many westward travelers over the next century.
OTHERS QUICKLY FOLLOW
Roughly around the same time the Spaniards were allegedly naming ‘Las Vegas’, the first settlers and trappers came to the area, including legendary frontiersman Kit Carson. Nothing of note happened during their trip, but it did set the stage for Carson to return many years later.
When John Charles Frémont—American explorer, military officer and future politician—decided to lead a pioneering mission to the Las Vegas Valley, Carson served as his guide. It would be Frémont’s written accounts of Las Vegas that brought the first real publicity to the region, attracted more pioneers and eventually a permanent settlement. Modern downtown Las Vegas’s Fremont Street was named in his honor.
THE MORMONS GO BUST
By 1855, Mormon missionaries had come to the area near Las Vegas, under the leadership of church elder William Bringhurst. The Mormons built themselves a log fort, as the point between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, where they would travel to gather supplies. They surrounded it with fields of crops and set about exploring their new surroundings, but even with God on their side, they faced severe hardships.
In 1856, only a year after arriving, Bringhurst’s men discovered lead in the Spring Mountains. Church leader Brigham Young saw an opportunity for profit and sent metallurgists from Salt Lake City to develop a mine. Despite high ambitions, the mine didn’t become profitable, and it wasn’t until World War I that it proved useful, when it was developed as the Potosi mine, a rich source silver and ore.
Despite their best efforts, the Mormons failed to settle in the region permanently. The crops failed in the second year, leading to internal divisions that would eventually see Bringhurst replaced with Samuel Thompson. However, even under Thompson’s leadership, the conditions didn’t improve, and the broken and disillusioned missionaries abandoned the fort by the end of 1857. Several others returned over the years, but Las Vegas failed to keep a high, long-term population for many more decades. To this day, the remainder of the old Mormon fort can still be seen at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue.
A CITY RISES OUT OF THE DESERT
All of what is now Clark County, including Las Vegas, was originally part of Arizona’s Mohave County, but it was eventually split west of the Colorado River and called Pah-ute County. Nevada was admitted as the 36th state in the Union in 1864, near the close of the American Civil War. When the war ended, Congress decided to give Pah-ute County to the newly created state, permanently changing Nevada’s borders to include Las Vegas.
In 1890, railroad developers started looking at Las Vegas to serve as a stop along the San Pedro, Salt Lake City and Los Angles route. However, by 1900, the region was still scarcely populated, with the census recording only 30 residents, most of which were employees of a cattle ranch that had been established near the site of the old Mormon fort. It wasn’t until 1902 that the first true steps to settle the area began, with the arrival of a man called William A. Clark.
STEAMING INTO MODERNITY—THE RAILROAD COMES AROUND THE MOUNTAIN
Las Vegas remained a small isolated community until the arrival of William A. Clark, a U.S. Senator and mining magnate from Montana. Clark, a principal investor in the company building the railroad, recognized the potential of the region and immediately started working to develop the area.
Clark purchased large tracts of land in the valley, secured the water rights to the springs and arranged for a railroad depot to be built. Throughout the whole process, he used his political and economic influence by openly bribing legislators to secure favors for the railroad. The fruits of his labor saw the railroad completed in 1905, with stores, saloons and boarding houses hot on its heels. The town wasn’t officially started until he auctioned off his land adjacent to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, which was near the new railroad depot and station café, which included the town’s first casino.
The land auction—heavily advertised in the railroad’s two terminal cities—far exceeded Clark’s expectations and resulted in the sale of nearly every available lot. Clark used a portion of the proceeds to build a pipeline from the springs, which secured a steady water supply for the fledgling settlement. He also helped fund the construction of secondary rail lines to the mining towns of Tonopah and Goldfield.
The availability of water in a vast, largely uninhabited desert made Las Vegas an ideal refueling and rest stop, which meant more traffic came to the area. In 1906, what is now the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino opened as the Hotel Nevada in downtown Las Vegas. The following year, the first telephone wires were installed, but the biggest advancement came in 1909 when Clark County was officially founded, forever enshrining William Clark’s name and legacy in Las Vegas.
THE GAMING CAPITAL OF AMERICA
Gaming was outlawed in most of the United States in 1910, but the industry in Las Vegas didn’t slow down; if anything, it actually grew because of the ban. The town was still largely occupied by railroad workers and ranchers; their appetites for gaming, prostitutes and drinking saw many speakeasies and bootleg casinos arise. These ‘off the books’ establishments were the precursors to the thriving industry in Vegas today. The complete disregard for the law and the inability of anyone in charge to stop the gaming, drinking and whoring attracted the first mobsters and organized crime figures.
1911 saw Las Vegas incorporated as a city and laws allowing quick divorces after six weeks of residency were brought in. Over the next few years, the city developed with the times, prohibition came into force, outlawing the consumption, manufacturing and distribution of liquor. Still, like the gaming ban, it did little to stop residents and visitors from consuming alcohol. In 1920, the city’s population hit 2,304, while Clark County recorded 4,859 total residents. Fremont Street was paved in 1925, and only three years later, the El Portal Theatre opened.
The next big development for the growing city was the construction of the Boulder Dam, later named the Hoover Dam. At the time, it was one of the largest and most ambitious public works endeavors ever undertaken, and it brought in thousands of builders who would help fuel the growing casino and entertainment industry.
By 1931, gaming was legal again in Nevada, and new casinos and showgirl venues opened along Fremont Street, the only paved road in the city, in the hopes of attracting the dam workers to spend their hard-earned cash. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and by 1938, authorities in other states had begun to crack down on all the vices that were so freely available in Vegas, prompting more tourists to visit.
The many entertainment options on offer soon made the city a popular weekend destination for out-of-towners, and the influx of the rich and famous from the Hollywood movie industry helped fuel another growth spurt. In 1939, actor Clark Gable and his wife Ria Langham visited Las Vegas and helped give rise to Vegas’ other nickname—”Divorce Capital of the World”—when Ria famously divorced Clark.
WORLD WAR II
The outbreak of war in September 1939 temporarily stunted the growth of Las Vegas, but Nevada Senator Pat McCarran inadvertently came to the rescue. In 1941, he successfully lobbied for a magnesium-processing plant southeast of the city, and a military airfield. Dam workers were quickly replaced by defense personnel, eager to forget their woes and indulge in everything Vegas had to offer. The first hotels, El Rancho Vegas and the legendary El Cortez opened the same year.
Near the end of the war, the first advertising contracts to promote tourism were awarded. Hotel owners, encouraged by the large influx of newcomers, began to offer entertainment featuring top-name performers such as Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey.
When World War II finally came to an end in 1945, many of the soldiers chose to settle in the city permanently. As a result, the population nearly tripled between 1945 and 1955. Following World War II, lavishly decorated hotels, gaming casinos and big-name entertainment stars became synonymous with Las Vegas.
THE MOB ARRIVES ON THE SCENE
“Everyone deserves a fresh start every once in a while”—Bugsy Siegel
No discussion of Las Vegas’ history would be complete without mentioning the Mob. The 1940s brought significant changes for Las Vegas, especially after federal and local authorities began cracking down on illegal gaming and bootlegging in other states. This would see a flood of gangsters and gamblers seeking refuge in Nevada.
Bugsy Seigel, one of the most prominent mobsters, started constructing the Flamingo in 1945. The venue was the first major casino-hotel complex and would become the blueprint for future establishments. Unfortunately for Bugsy, his construction incurred a large debt with Meyer Lansky, a prominent organized crime figure, and the rumor is that a falling out with Lansky is what got him killed. The Flamingo officially opened in 1947, but Bugsy wouldn’t live to see its success; Lansky immediately took over the business.
The Flamingo’s enormous success encouraged more casinos to spring up along what had become known as the Las Vegas Strip. The Thunderbird in 1948, the Desert Inn in 1950, along with the Sands and the Sahara in 1952. Organized crime had a big hand in crafting Las Vegas’s success, and they ruled the city for many years unopposed. However, by the late 1950s, the Nevada Gaming Commission was established, they were responsible for licensing and overseeing gaming operations. By 1960, the commission had created its famous ‘Black Book’ which banned anyone listed from stepping foot in a casino. The mobs’ influence was slowly eroded. Through enforcement of the law and removal of corrupt public officials, the commission eventually succeeded in separating most casinos from mob control.
Some crime figures still held some influence until the 1980s, but these operations were mere shadows of what they had been. Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, an associate of the Chicago Outfit, successfully ran the Stardust, Marina, Hacienda and Fremont casinos for the mob from the early 1970s until 1981. However, internal divisions with his best friend—Capo, Anthony Spilotro—his wife and former dancer—Geri McGee—and trouble with the law saw it all come crashing down. The Mob’s hold on Las Vegas was broken, and they never recovered any real influence in the city again.
THE REAL CRIMINALS MOVE IN—CORPORATIONS
The 1960s saw a change come over Las Vegas; the term “gambling” was rebranded as gaming, and the city started to shift into the hands of corporations and tycoons. Howard Hughes famously started buying and building hotel-casino properties from his suite at the Desert Inn, which he eventually bought. By 1970 he had become Nevada’s largest private employer, casino owner and property owner.
The publicity brought by famous entertainers such as The Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford—helped the city reach new heights. Wayne Newton and Elvis Presley, who eventually became residents, followed in the footsteps of The Rat Pack and left their own marks on the city.
Las Vegas faltered slightly in the late 1970s; a nationwide economic recession hit, and tourism declined further after a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel killed more than 80 people in November 1980. The following year, the Las Vegas Hilton erupted in flames as well, killing another eight people. Tourism suffered for a time.
Steve Wynn, who had operated the Golden Nugget Casino since the early 1970s, used the downturn to buy and renovate old casinos, while also building new ones. The Mirage was the foremost venue to come out of Wynn’s ventures, and after it opened in 1989, its success helped ignite a resort building boom that saw The Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and The Venetian all open over the next few years.
In March 2000, MGM Grand Corporation bought the Mirage Resorts Corporation, bringing several major resorts under one corporate banner. This monopolizing has continued well into the 2000s, and nowadays a handful of corporations own most of the prominent locations in Las Vegas.
MODERN-DAY LAS VEGAS
Las Vegas has seen rapid growth well into the 21st century. According to estimates from the census bureau, the city alone had 651,319 residents in 2019, with a metropolitan population of 2,227,053. Overall revenue has also seen sizeable increases, with 169 large casinos in Vegas reporting total revenues of nearly $22 billion last year.
The most famous location in the whole city, the Las Vegas Strip, stretches roughly 4.2 miles long, and holds the highest concentration of resort hotels and casinos. Within the city, there is also plenty of greenery and museums showcasing the rich history of the region.
Las Vegas has dominated the entertainment industry for decades, but many other places outside the US have begun to equal, and in some cases, surpass it in size. However, Las Vegas will always have a famous name, thanks to its prominent history, and use in films and literature, and who knows what it will be like in another couple of hundred years. Will it still be the entertainment capital of the world?