Before gambling, gigantic hotels, shops, restaurants, a vibrant nightlife, and literally tens of millions of tourists came along – Vegas, Nevada was a very different place.
In fact, when you look at the photos (within this article) and on the web dating back to the 1800s, it’s totally unrecognizable.
So, what is the history of Las Vegas and how did “Sin City” come about, huh?
Continue reading for all the answers (plus a bunch of cool fun facts) you need…
The Birth of LV, Where Did it All Begin?
In 1821, LV got its name from Rafael Rivera who was just passing through the area and stopping off for water with the Antonio Armijo trading party on its way to LA from New Mexico.
Since some parts of the area contained wells and surrounded by greenery, it was named “Las Vegas” which is Spanish for “meadows”.
In 1902, people started colonizing Vegas – especially farmers who used a railroad which linked LA to Salt Lake City.
1911, LV was made a part of Clark County – a county which was named for William Andrews Clark who was a US senator.
1931, work commenced on the Boulder Dam (now the Hoover Dam) in the Black Canyon for controlling floods, providing irrigation water, and also powering the area.
Fun Facts: Did You Know?
The Dam cost nearly $49 million to build and was built by 21,000 young men from across the US (100 of whom sadly lost their lives due to accidents) during the Great Depression.
Some were hired as “High Scalers” to remove loose rocks. These crazy and fearless guys (consisted of former sailors, circus acrobats, and Native Indians) sure loved to put on a show for the crowd.
A combination of local business owners and the Mafia considered the project as a great opportunity to cash in from the workers, so Casinos and Theaters were built in LV, which marked the beginnings of “Sin City”.
A City of Sin in The Making…
Since the Dam was completed within a 5-year period, LV business owners and Mobsters had plenty of opportunities to throw up casinos and showgirl theaters for the thousands of Dam workers.
However, with so many workers spending a fortune on gambling and alcohol (and some probably unfit for work lol), the Government built ‘Boulder City’ – a town with “federal control” which kept them on tight leashes.
After knowing that gambling meant big business, the Nevada state legislature actually legalized it for the locals in 1931 – which opened up the floodgates and set the ball rolling.
DAM, I’m kinda getting better at these Puns! LOL!
The ‘Northern Club’ on Fremont Street was the very first casino to get the green light from the county to operate legally.
From 1920, the club was sold to various owners and changed from the Northern Club to Turf Club to Monte Carlo Club to Coin Castle, and then finally to La Bayou in 1999 which closed down for good in 2016.
Fremont Street also became the first paved street in LV, which is obviously why Downtown LV became (and still is) a big hit with tourists.
History was certainly made in that part of Vegas, Baby!!
Unfortunately, the Federal Government placed restrictions on the Dam workers when it came to gambling in LV, so then routes for smuggling were created as a way around it.
In 1924, the city’s leading figures put a stop to these gambling dens in an attempt to stop the workers and criminal figures dead in their tracks – resulting in a decline in profits, which was a good thing for LV.
In 1937, Hoover Dam started powering LV, and Fremont Street was referred to as “Glitter Gulch” due to the brightness of its lights.
The number of Dam workers in the area declined, and Hoover Dam along with its ‘Lake Mead’ reservoir started attracting tourists from all over, thus creating demand for high-class hotel accommodation.
LV During The 1940s War Time…
April 3RD, 1941 was a very important day for the city of LV because Thomas Hull opened up ‘El Rancho Vegas’ (resort hotel and casino) – which was the very first resort on the future Las Vegas Strip.
After that, a handful of other resorts were built both on and around Fremont Street.
However, it was ‘The Flamingo’ (next hotel built on the strip) which attracted attention for all the wrong reasons because it was “Mafia-owned”.
The “most feared” Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel (with help from mob buddies) sent cash through banks owned by Mormons for legitimizing the start of his new hotel in 1946, which was frowned upon by locals.
Fun Facts (Kinda):
By 1947, Bugsy’s checks started bouncing and The Flamingo cost over $6 million to build which is a pretty big chunk of change.
Bugsy’s hotel lost money and he was killed in 1947 when he got sprayed with bullets by a drive-by shooting in Beverly Hills.
The killer was never caught either. Hmm, it’s a total mystery!
Postwar Time, Things Blew up (Literally)…
During 1952 – 1955, things really started to heat up for LV!
Between Mormon elders, other mobster criminals, and also thanks to lenders – the ‘Sahara’, ‘New Frontier’, ‘Royal Nevada’, ‘Showboat’, ‘The Riviera’, ‘The Fremont, ‘Binion’s Horseshoe, and ‘The Tropicana’ hotels/casinos were built.
Although the hotels were partly funded from dirty money generated by crime lords, it still didn’t put 8 million tourists off spending $200 million in casinos by 1954.
However, the control of the steering wheel wanted to be taken away from the criminals by Senator Estes Kefauver who did a 2-year investigation into certain groups.
While The Strip was on the up, in 1951, a first of many atmospheric explosions was detonated at the Nevada Test Site.
Despite the atomic testing being potentially lethal to the residents and tourists, LV actually used it as a marketing gimmick for inviting more tourists.
“Gas masks and chemical warfare suits, at the ready!!”
Modern LV on The Horizon…
1959 – 1969 marked the beginnings of the “modern” LV.
In 1966, Howard Hughes (American business man) bought LV real estate, media outlets, and also a number of hotels – especially ones funded by crime bosses.
Mr. Hughes spent a staggering $300 million in total!
In 1955, Will Max Schwartz (a Jewish crime boss) + a bunch of investors opened the ‘Moulin Rouge’ hotel and casino for $3.5 million.
But Sheriff’s deputies closed the doors by the end of the year when Will and his partners had a tiff.
The world-famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (designed by Betty Willis) was sold to LV for only $4,000 and erected in 1959.
Probably one of the cheapest signs around that time too!
Although a salesman sold the sign, Betty didn’t want a single penny for the design because she created it as a “gift” for every Sin City lover to enjoy.
Did you also know that you can buy a dead bulb from the sign’s border (from $30) as a keepsake?
Sin City, The Mega-Resort Era
Finally, during the 1980s, the “Mafia/Rat Pack” era came to an end with crime elements dealt with by LV and newly successful Entrepreneurs wanting their slice of the “Sin City pie”.
With gangsters out of the picture and a new era, Vegas was able to grow into a commercialized fun-filled fairytale land for the whole family to enjoy.
1989 – 2010, saw some pretty amazing hotel resorts built with pools, shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment – The Mirage, MGM Grand, Planet Hollywood, Wynn, and Bellagio, to name a handful.
And just in case you’re wondering about Caesars Palace – that one was actually built in 1966, although you wouldn’t think it by its elegance would you?
OK, Let’s Wrap it up…
I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s more to Vegas than playing the slots, downing a few cocktails around the pool, enjoying a nice slap-up dinner, and hitting the shops for a few bargains.
LV, like any other big and well-known city worldwide has it’s own interesting story to tell.
In my opinion, when you research the history of LV before you book that flight to Sin City, it sure adds that extra “fun-factor” to your experience, and you’ll know the historical landmarks to visit too.
Remember: “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas!“
Your Friend, Neil 😀
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