History of Las Vegas
Today’s marvels of Las Vegas are steeped in a bold and rich history. Much like a fine wine or flavorful cheese, and our very own Lucy Vegas, you might say “Sin City” is timeless and aged to perfection. Here, we’ll take you back to the roots of Las Vegas with a brief introduction to its rich history, courtesy of Wikipedia.org.
The prehistoric landscape of what is now the Las Vegas Valley and most of southern Nevada was a virtual marsh of abundant water and vegetation. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, rivers that were present sank into the ground, and the marsh receded. The valley evolved into a parched, arid landscape that only supported the hardiest of animals and plants.
At some point in the valley’s geologic history, the water that had been submerged below the terrain sporadically resurfaced and flowed into what is now the Colorado River. This helped proliferate luxurious plant life, creating a wetland oasis in the Mojave Desert landscape.
Evidence of prehistoric life in Las Vegas Valley manifested in 1993 when construction workers discovered the remains of a Columbian mammoth. Paleontologists estimate that the mammoth roamed the area some 8,000 to 15,000 years ago.
The Las Vegas Valley was discovered in 1829 by a trade caravan of 60 men which was lead by the Mexican merchant Antonio Armijo, whilst creating a trade route to Los Angeles by following a tributary from the Colorado River which eventually led to the Las Vegas Valley. The travelers named the area “Las Vegas,” which was Spanish for “the meadows.”
Las Vegas circa 1895
John C. Frémont traveled into the Las Vegas Valley on May 3, 1844, while it was still part of Mexico. He was a leader of a group of scientists, scouts and observers for the United States Army Corps of Engineers and made camp at the Las Vegas Springs. On May 10, 1855, following annexation by the United States, Brigham Young assigned 30 Mormon missionaries, led by William Bringhurst, to the area to convert the Paiute Indian population. A fort was built near the current downtown area. The Mormons abandoned the site in 1857, due to internal disagreements between Bringhurst and newcomers who had more liberal views. The skeleton staff that was left behind mistreated the Paiute Indians. The Paiute retaliated and seized the upcoming harvest, forcing the last of the settlers back to Salt Lake City.
The U.S. Army, in an attempt to deceive Confederate spies in 1864, falsely publicized that it reclaimed the fort and had renamed it Fort Baker. In 1865, Octavius Gass re-occupied the fort, and started the irrigation works renaming the area to Los Vegas Rancho. Due to his ability to make wine on his ranch, Las Vegas was known as the best stop on the Mormon Trail. By 1872, Gass was able to expand his ranch to 640 acres (260 ha), and as a legislator, was able to have the territory his ranch resided on included as part of Nevada instead of Arizona. In 1881 as a result of mismanagement, Gass lost title to his ranch to Archibald Stewart, who acquired it to pay off a lien he had on the property. In 1884, Archibald’s wife, Helen J. Stewart, became the Las Vegas Postmaster.
The property (which was expanded to 1,800 acres (730 ha)), stayed with the Stewart Family, despite Archibald’s murder in July 1884, until it was acquired in 1902 to by the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad, then being constructed across southern Nevada. The railroad was a project of Montana Senator William Andrews Clark, the namesake of Clark County, Nevada. Clark enlisted Utah’s U.S. Senator and mining magnate Thomas Kearns to ensure the lines completion through Utah to Las Vegas.
The State Land Act of 1885 offered land at $1.25 per acre ($309/km) drawing many, including farmers, to the area. As a result, farming became the primary industry for the next 20 years as farmers used the wells to irrigate their crops. The Mormons returned in 1895.
1905-1929: Birth, Growth and Crisis
St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church near 4th and Bridger in downtown was founded in 1910.
During the 1900s, water from the wells were piped into the town, providing a reliable source of fresh water and providing the means for additional growth. The increased availability of water in the town area allowed Las Vegas to become a water stop, first for wagon trains and later railroads, on the trail between Los Angeles, California, and points east such as Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad from Salt Lake City to southern California was completed in 1905. The SP,LA & SL RR was started by U.S. Senator William Andrews Clark who was also the majority owner. The railroad was incorporated in Utah. Among its original incorporators were Utah’s U.S. Senator Thomas Kearns and his business partner David Keith. Kearns, one of the richest and most powerful men in Utah and David Keith were the owners of Utah’s Silver King Coalition Mine, several mines in Nevada and owners of The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper. Kearns and Keith helped Clark ensure the success of the new railroad across Utah and into Nevada to California. That year also set the stage of the two Las Vegases. The east-side Las Vegas (which encompassed the modern Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard) was owned by Clark and the west-side Las Vegas (which encompassed the area north of modern day Bonanza Road) which was owned by J.T. McWilliams, who was hired by the Stewart family during the sale of the Los Vegas Rancho and bought available land west of the ranch. In 1905, both auctioned lots on their land.
With the revenue coming from the rails and the mining town of Bullfrog, Las Vegas took off. On May 15, 1905, Las Vegas was founded as a city, when 110 acres (45 ha), in what would later become downtown, were auctioned to ready buyers.
Las Vegas was the driving force in the creation of Clark County, Nevada in 1909 and the city was incorporated in 1911 as a part of the county. The first mayor of Las Vegas was Peter Buol who served from 1911 to 1913.
Nevada reluctantly was the last western state to outlaw gaming. This occurred at midnight, October 1, 1910, when a strict anti-gambling law became effective in Nevada. It even forbid the western custom of flipping a coin for the price of a drink.
Las Vegas continued to grow until 1917 when the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad went broke. Although William Clark sold the remains of the company to the Union Pacific Railroad, a nationwide strike in 1922 left Las Vegas in a desperate state.
With U.S. Route 91 reaching Las Vegas in 1926, Vegas was finally connected to California with a road. Even the addition of a modern road did not help to revitalize Las Vegas. In 1929, John Calhan, a newspaperman, said People in the city of Reno, or northern Nevada would have been very happy if Las Vegas had seceded from the state.
1930-1941: Hoover Dam and the first casinos
On July 3, 1930, President Herbert Hoover signed the appropriation bill for the Boulder Dam. Work started on the dam in 1931 and Las Vegas’ population swelled from around 5,000 citizens to 25,000, with most of the newcomers looking for a job building the dam. The casinos and showgirl theaters first appeared in Las Vegas to entertain the largely male-majority dam construction workers.
Las Vegas tried hard to put on a respectable air when the Secretary of the Interior Lyman Wilbur visited in 1929 to inspect the site. However one of his subordinates came to him with alcohol on his breath (this was during the time of Prohibition) after a visit to Block 16. It was decided that a federal-controlled town, Boulder City, would be erected for the dam workers. This still did not stop the flow of federal and dam worker money into Las Vegas and the city was recharged, literally, when the dam was completed in 1935. In 1937, Southern Nevada Power became the first utility to supply power from the dam, and Las Vegas was its first customer. After much discussion, the name of the dam was changed from Boulder to Hoover Dam.
With gambling legalized in 1931, Las Vegas started its rise to world fame as the gambling capital of the world. Gambling (although already legal in Las Vegas) became organized and regulated. The county issued the first gambling license in 1931 to the Northern Club, and soon other casinos were licensed on Fremont Street like the Las Vegas Club and the Apache Hotel. Fremont Street developed its nickname as Glitter Gulch from all of the lights that were powered by electricity from Hoover Dam. Hoover Dam and its reservoir, Lake Mead, turned into tourist attractions on their own and the need for additional higher class hotels became clear. Fremont Street was the first paved street in Las Vegas and received the city’s first traffic light in 1931.
Helldorado Days started in 1934 as an effort to stem the flow of workers from the dam.
In 1940, U.S. Route 95 was finally extended south into Las Vegas, giving the city two major roads that provided access from the rest of the country. Also in 1940 Las Vegas’ first permanent radio station, KENO, began broadcasting replacing the niche occupied earlier by transient broadcasters.
1941-1945: War years
On January 25, 1941 the U.S. Army moved into Las Vegas when Las Vegas Mayor, John L. Russell, signed over land to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps for the development of a flexible gunnery school for the United States Army Air Corps. The gunnery school would become Nellis Air Force Base. The U.S Army was not pleased with prostitution being legal in Las Vegas and in 1942 used its clout to force Las Vegas to outlaw the practice, handing Block 16, which since the inception of Las Vegas, was the equivalent of the city’s red-light district, its death sentence.
On April 3, 1941, hotel owner Thomas Hull opened the El Rancho Vegas. It was the first resort on what would become the Las Vegas Strip. The hotel gained much of its fame from the all you can eat buffet that it offered.
On October 30, 1942, R. E. Griffith rebuilt on the site of a nightclub called Pair-O-Dice, that first opened in 1930, and renamed it Hotel Last Frontier. A few more resorts were built on and around Fremont Street but the next hotel on the Strip publicly demonstrated the influence of organized crime on Las Vegas. Gangster Bugsy Siegel, with help from friend and fellow mob boss Meyer Lansky as well as other hoods, built The Flamingo in 1946.
1947-1963: Postwar boom & organized crime
The Flamingo initially lost money and Siegel died in a hail of gunfire in Beverly Hills, California. However, many people, including some involved with organized crime, saw the potential that gambling offered in Las Vegas. From 1952 to 1957, they built the Sahara, the Sands, the New Frontier, the Royal Nevada, the Showboat, The Riviera, The Fremont, Binion’s Horseshoe (which was the Apache Hotel), and finally The Tropicana.
Some of these casinos were run by people involved with organized crime, including Meyer Lansky. However, gambling was quickly becoming a legitimate business. Even with the general knowledge that some of the owners of these casino resorts had dubious backgrounds, by 1954, over 8 million people were visiting Las Vegas yearly pumping 200 million dollars into casinos. Gambling was no longer the only attraction; the biggest stars of films and music like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Abbott and Costello, Bing Crosby, Carol Channing, and others performed in intimate settings. After coming to see these stars, the tourists would resume gambling, and then eat at the gourmet buffets that have become a staple of the casino industry.
A two-year investigation by Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce in 1950-51 concluded that organized crime money was incontrovertibly tied to the Las Vegas casinos. This led to a proposal by the Senate to institute federal gambling control. Only through the power and influence of Nevada’s Senator Pat McCarran did the proposal die in committee.
The rapid growth of tourism in Las Vegas is credited with dooming Galveston, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and other illegal gaming centers around the nation. Nevada’s legal gaming as well as increased scrutiny by local and federal law enforcement in these other locales during the 1950s made their demise inevitable.
1950s: Atomic testing
While the Strip was booming, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission on January 27, 1951 detonated the first of over a hundred atmospheric explosions at the Nevada Test Site. These atmospheric tests would continue until enactment of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 when the tests moved underground. The last test explosion was in 1992. Despite the dangers and risks, greatly under-estimated at the time, of radiation exposure from the fallout, Las Vegas advertised the explosions as another tourist attraction and offered Atomic Cocktails in Sky Rooms that offered a great view of the mushroom clouds.
The influx of government employees for the Atomic Energy Commission and from the Mormon-controlled Bank of Las Vegas spearheaded by E. Parry Thomas during those years funded the growing boom in casinos. But Las Vegas was doing more than growing casinos. In 1948, McCarran Field was established for commercial air traffic. In 1957 The University of Las Vegas was established. In 1959 the Clark County Commission built the Las Vegas Convention Center, which would become a vital part of the area’s economy. A new utility company, Southwest Gas expanded into Las Vegas in 1954.
1955-1980: The beginning of modern Las Vegas
In 1966, Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire hero of the American aviation industry, moved to Las Vegas. Initially staying in the Desert Inn, he refused to vacate his room and instead decided to purchase the entire hotel. Hughes extended his financial empire to include Las Vegas real estate, hotels and media outlets, spending an estimated $300 million, and he quickly became one of the most powerful men in Las Vegas. He was instrumental in changing the image of Las Vegas from its Wild West roots into a more refined, cosmopolitan city.
The local newspaper Las Vegas Sun and its editor Hank Greenspun led a crusade in those days to expose all the criminal ties, activities, and government corruption in Las Vegas. His investigative reporting and editorials led to the exposure of Clark County Sheriff Glen Jones’ ownership of a brothel and the resignation of Lieutenant Governor Clifford A. Jones as the state’s national committeeman for the Democratic Party.
One problem for the City of Las Vegas was that the Strip did not reside in Las Vegas proper. Because of this, the city lost tax revenue. There was a push to annex the Strip by the City of Las Vegas, but The Syndicate used the Clark County Commissioners to pull a legal maneuver by organizing the Las Vegas Strip properties into an unincorporated township called Paradise. Under Nevada Law, an incorporated town, Las Vegas, cannot annex an unincorporated township. To this day, virtually all of the Strip remains outside the City of Las Vegas.
Organized crime-owned casinos were off-limits to African Americans except those who provided the labor for low-paying menial positions or entertainment. They were confined to frequenting businesses and clubs on the “west side” of the tracks. Hispanics fared worse and their population actually decreased ninety-percent from 2,275 to just 236. On May 24, 1955, Wil Max Schwartz, and some investors, opened the Moulin Rouge. It was a very upscale and racially integrated casino that actually competed against the resorts on the Strip. By the end of the year though, the casino closed as Schwartz and his partners had a falling out. But the seeds for racial integration were sown.
Some sources have credited Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack as a significant driving force behind desegregation in the casinos. One famous story tells of Sinatra’s refusal to perform at the Sands Hotel unless the hotel provided Sammy Davis Jr. with a room. The famed performing group made similar demands at other venues forcing owners to amend their policies over time.
In 1960, the NAACP threatened a protest of the city’s casinos for their policies. A meeting between the NAACP, the mayor and local businessmen resulted in citywide casino desegregation. Along with the rest of the country, Las Vegas experienced the struggle for civil rights. Activists like James B. McMillan, Grant Sawyer, Bob Bailey, and Charles Keller dragged Las Vegas to racial integration.
Another big force for equality was Mayor Oran Gragson. Spurred into local politics by a crooked ring of cops who repeatedly broke into his appliance store, he implemented infrastructure improvements for the minority neighborhoods in Las Vegas. He championed the cause of the Pauite tribe that owned a small portion of Las Vegas and stopped the U.S. government from evicting the tribe and actually made infrastructure improvements for them. His work helped reverse the decrease of minority populations in Las Vegas. Local legislation kept up with the national legislation and integration was established. The only real violence came as a result of school integration, with violent riots and fights occurring from 1965 when Clark High School experienced student fights to 1971.
On November 21, 1980 the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, now Bally’s Las Vegas, suffered a devastating fire. A total of 87 people died and 785 were injured in what remains the worst disaster in Nevada history.
Since 1970: Explosive growth
On a percentage basis, Las Vegas and Clark County have experienced incredibly high growth rates since the 1930s; the population of the city more than doubled in each decade. The rate slowed down in the 1970s, but never dropped below 60% (1980-1990), and has even accelerated since 1990. By 2000, Las Vegas was the largest city founded in the 20th century, and by 2006 it was the 28th largest city in the US with a population of 552,000 in the city, and nearly 1.8 million in Clark County. The explosive growth has resulted in rapid development of commercial and residential areas throughout the Las Vegas Valley. The strong boom in the resort business led to many new condominium developments all across the strip and downtown area. Also suburban sprawl development of single-family homes continued across the valley building the areas of Henderson, North Las Vegas, Centennial Hills, and Summerlin. During this period of time, American author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote and published his seminal novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, detailing the experience of his 1971 trip to the city.
Since 1989: The megaresort era
The megaresort era began in 1989 with the construction of The Mirage. Built by developer Steve Wynn, it was the first resort built with money from Wall Street, selling $630 million in junk bonds. Its 3,044 rooms, each with gold tinted windows, set a new standard for Vegas luxury and attracted tourists in droves, leading to additional financing and rapid growth on the Las Vegas Strip. Numerous landmark hotels and other structures were razed to make way for ever-larger and more opulent resorts. This included the 1990 arrival of the Rio and Excalibur, 1993 arrivals of MGM Grand Las Vegas, Treasure Island, and Luxor, 1996 arrivals of the super tall Stratosphere Tower and the Monte Carlo, 1997 arrival of New York-New York, and finally in the late 1990s came the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, The Venetian, Paris, and Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino). In April 2005, Wynn Resorts Limited opened its new flagship, the Wynn Las Vegas, constructed at a cost of US$2.7 billion.
Helldorado Days was resumed in 2005 for the City of Las Vegas’ centennial celebration.
Late 2000s: The Economic Bust
Despite the success, the home mortgage crisis and the Late 2000s Recession affected the economic success. Properties were foreclosed, gaming revenue fell and construction projects were either canceled, postponed, or continued with financial troubles. Some of these projects included the MGM Mirage property of CityCenter, Fontainebleau, Echelon, and The Plaza.