This city doesn’t need an introduction. It is the most famous gambling city in the World, but its history was a fuss! Here we begin a long series of its in-detail backgrounds…
The first reported European visitor to the Las Vegas Valley was Raphael Rivera in 1829. Las Vegas was named by Spaniards in the Antonio Armijo party, who used the water in the area while heading north and west along the Old Spanish Trail from Texas. In the 19th century, areas of the valley contained artesian wells that supported extensive green areas or meadows (vegas in Spanish); hence the name Las Vegas.
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. On May 10, 1855, following annexation by the United States, Brigham Young assigned 30 missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints led by William Bringhurst to the area to convert the Paiute Indian population to Mormonism. A fort was built near the current downtown area that served as a stopover for travelers along the “Mormon Corridor” between Salt Lake and the briefly-thriving colony of saints at San Bernardino, California. Mormons abandoned Las Vegas in 1857, during the Utah War.
Las Vegas was established as a railroad town on May 15, 1905, when 110 acres (44.5 ha) owned by the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad was auctioned off in what is now downtown Las Vegas. Among the railroad’s most notable owners and directors were Montana Senator William A. Clark, Utah U.S. Senator Thomas Kearns, and R.C. Kerens of St. Louis. Las Vegas was part of Lincoln County until 1908, when it became part of the newly-established Clark County. The St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church near 4th and Bridger in downtown was founded in 1910. Las Vegas became an incorporated city on March 16, 1911; Peter Buol was the first mayor.
Las Vegas started as a stopover on the pioneer trails to the west, and became a popular railroad town in the early 20th century. It was a staging point for mines in the surrounding area, especially those around the town of Bullfrog, that shipped goods to the rest of the country. With the proliferation of the railroads, Las Vegas became less important, but the completion of the nearby Hoover Dam in 1935 resulted in growth in the number of residents and increased tourism. The dam, located 30 mi (48 km) southeast of the city, formed Lake Mead, the US’s largest man-made lake and reservoir. Today, tours are offered into lesser-known parts of the dam. The legalization of gambling in 1931 led to the advent of the casino hotels for which Las Vegas is famous. Major development occurred in the 1940s, “due almost entirely” to the influx of scientists and staff from the Manhattan Project, an atomic bomb research project of World War II. Atomic test watching parties were sometimes thrown. American organized crime figures such as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky managed or funded most of the original large casinos. The rapid growth of Las Vegas is credited with dooming Galveston, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and other major gaming centers in the 1950s.
Businessman Howard Hughes arrived in the late 1960s and purchased many casino hotels, as well as television and radio stations in the city. Legitimate corporations began to purchase casino hotels as well, and the mob was run out by the federal government over the next several years. The constant stream of tourist dollars from the hotels and casinos was augmented by a new source of federal money from the establishment of what is now Nellis Air Force Base. The influx of military personnel and casino job-hunters helped start a land building boom which is now leveling off.
The first casino to be built on Highway 91 was the Pair-o-Dice Club in 1931, but the first on what is currently the Strip was the El Rancho Vegas, opening on April 3, 1941, with 63 rooms. That casino stood for almost 20 years before being destroyed by a fire in 1960. Its success spawned a second hotel on what would become the Strip, the Hotel Last Frontier, in 1942. Organized crime figures such as New York’s Bugsy Siegel took interest in the growing gaming center leading to other resorts such as the Flamingo, which opened in 1946, and the Desert Inn, which opened in 1950. The funding for many projects was provided through the American National Insurance Company, which was based in the then notorious gambling empire of Galveston, Texas. Several decades ago, Las Vegas Boulevard South was called Arrowhead Highway, or Los Angeles Highway. The Strip was reportedly named by Los Angeles police officer Guy McAfee, after his hometown’s Sunset Strip.
In 1968, Kirk Kerkorian purchased the Flamingo and hired Sahara Hotels Vice President Alex Shoofey as President. Alex Shoofey brought along 33 of Sahara’s top executives. The Flamingo was used to train future employees of the International Hotel, which was under construction. Opening in 1969, the International Hotel, with 1,512 rooms, began the era of mega-resorts. The International is known as the Las Vegas Hilton today.
The first MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, also a Kerkorian property, opened in 1973 with 2,084 rooms. At the time, this was one of the largest hotels in the world by number of rooms. The Rossiya Hotel built in 1967 in Moscow, for instance, had 3200 rooms; however, most of the rooms in the Rossiya Hotel were single rooms of 118 sq. ft (roughly 1/4 size of a standard room at the MGM Grand Resort. On November 21, 1980, the MGM Grand suffered the worst resort fire in the history of Las Vegas, killing 87 people as a result of electrical problems. It reopened eight months later. In 1986, Kerkorian sold the MGM Grand to Bally Manufacturing, and it was renamed Bally’s. The Wet ‘n Wild water park opened in 1985 and was located on the south side of the Sahara hotel. The park closed at the end of the 2004 season and was later demolished.
The opening of The Mirage in 1989 set a new level to the Las Vegas experience, as smaller hotels and casinos made way for the larger mega-resorts. These huge facilities offer entertainment and dining options, as well as gambling and lodging. This change affected the smaller, well-known and now historic hotels and casinos, like The Dunes, The Sands the Stardust, and the Sahara. In 1995, following the death of Dean Martin, the lights along the Strip were dimmed in a sign of respect to him. This was repeated in 1998 in honor of the recently deceased Frank Sinatra. In 2005, Clark County renamed a section of Industrial Road (south of Twain Avenue) as Dean Martin Drive, also as a tribute to the famous Rat Pack singer, actor, and frequent Las Vegas entertainer.
In our next episode, we’ll look at the rise of the El Rancho and the Flamingo, and also write a portrait of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.