Las Vegas History

Las Vegas, in southeastern Nevada, is a booming metropolis with over 644,000 (2019) permanent residents, the largest city in the state. It's also an internationally known mecca for vacationers, gambling enthusiasts, and fun-seekers. Just the word, "Vegas," has come to be synonymous with fun, extravagant hotels and nightclubs, and 24-hour attractions. Las Vegas, however, as recently as 1900, was just a small oasis in the middle of the desert. The legalization of gambling in Nevada in the 1930's and the influx of vacationers has transformed this sleepy desert outpost into an international resort. Click to book your Las Vegas tours.

Early History

Vintage Las Vegas, Nevada Postage Stamp
A vintage Las Vegas, Nevada postage stamp
Las Vegas is named after the Paiute Indian words for "the meadows." Although they are long dried, during the 1800's, areas of Las Vegas Valley contained a series of artisan wells that supported large green spaces - hence the name. John Fremont (for whom the Downtown Las Vegas thoroughfare is named), a scout for the US Army Corps of Engineers, was one of the first non-natives to explore the Las Vegas area. He arrived in 1844 and was soon followed by 30 Mormon missionaries, who established a fort and settlement there. The Mormons, however, abandoned the site in favor of Salt Lake City within two decades. The Land Act of 1885, which offered land to settlers at $1.25 per acre brought an influx of new residents to the area, many of them farmers. The railroad lines, added in 1905, that connected Las Vegas to southern California and Salt Lake City, brought further settlers. Mining companies followed farmers and Las Vegas grew large enough to be incorporated as a city in 1911. Click to book your Las Vegas tours.

The 1930's: Hoover Dam and the Advent of Gambling

When President Herbert Hoover signed the appropriations bill for "Boulder Dam" (later, Hoover Dam) to be built across the Colorado River between Nevada and Arizona in 1930, workers rushed to the Las Vegas area in pursuit of work. Overnight, the area's population soared from 5000 to 25,000 residents. Ever though a separate community for the workers, Boulder City, was later constructed, money and people still flowed into Las Vegas during the dam's seven-year construction. The legalization and regulation of gambling in Nevada in 1931 set Las Vegas on the path that would lead it to become the mega-resort that the city is today. The first Las Vegas gaming license was issued in 1931 to the Northern Club on Fremont Street. Other downtown Las Vegas casinos followed soon thereafter and the street gained its moniker "Glitter Gulch." The first Las Vegas Strip hotel, the El Rancho, opened in 1941. It became famous for its "all-you-can-eat" buffet and a Las Vegas tradition was born. Five years later, "Bugsy" Siegel and his mob affiliates opened the Flamingo Resort on the Las Vegas Strip. It was the first Las Vegas resort to combine a luxury hotel, name entertainment, and gambling, and was to become the prototype for the lavish Las Vegas casino-resort in the 1950's.

Vegas in the 1950's

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign
The iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign was installed in 1959
The Flamingo was followed by the Sahara, the Sands, the Tropicana, the Showboat, the Riviera, and several other casino resorts. By 1954, over 8 million people were visiting Las Vegas each year, drawn by the lavish resort and name entertainers as much as by the gambling. Top performers, such as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dean Martin played in intimate cabaret-style theaters. The 1950's was also the era of nuclear arms testing in Nevada. Between 1951 and 1963, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated over 100 explosions. Despite the dangers (largely ignored and underplayed at the time), many casinos promoted the tests as tourist attractions and even built "sky rooms" from which to view the mushroom clouds. The 50's also saw the city of Las Vegas develop from a casino town to a functioning city. McCarran Airport was built in 1948; The University of Nevada Las Vegas was established in 1957; and the Las Vegas Convention Center opened in 1959. By 1960, Las Vegas had a permanent population of over 64,000.

Howard Hughes and the 1960's

Many of the early Las Vegas casinos, such as "Bugsy" Siegel's Flamingo Hotel, had ties to, and received financing from, organized crime syndicates from the Midwest and East Coast. In the 1960's, this began to change. Corporations, led by the example of Howard Hughes' acquisition of the Desert Inn, started seeing Las Vegas casinos as legitimate business ventures. By the end of the decade, organized crime was all but out of the gaming business.

Steve Wynn, the 80's, and 90's Deals
The opening of Steve Wynn's 3300-room Mirage Hotel & Casino on the Strip in 1989 ushered in a new era of Las Vegas resorts. Gone and going were the simple gambling halls in favor of huge theme resorts, complete with resident attractions, headliners, and elegant restaurants as well as casinos. Funding for these mega-resort's was unique also. The Mirage was the first resort to be constructed with a junk bond offering. The free volcano attraction in front of the hotel as well as the resident, Siegfried and Roy show became the model for Las Vegas resorts in the 1990's. The city of Las Vegas boomed also. By 1995, the city's population had skyrocketed to over 350,000 residents, spurred by an incredible 9 percent annual increase in jobs. Downtown Las Vegas also experienced a renaissance in the 1990's. Fremont Street transformed itself in 1995 into a pedestrian mall, enclosed by a 90-foot high domed screen onto which an elaborate sound and light show is projected every hour after dark. The area also boasts street performers, interesting shopping, and frequent free concerts. To make more room for the new generation of Las Vegas resorts, developers began imploding, or blowing up, the old 1950's-style hotels and erecting new resort palaces in their ashes. Such was the fate of the Dunes, the present site of the Bellagio Hotel & Casino; the Sands, the present site of The Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino; and the original Aladdin Hotel in favor of the new Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.

Las Vegas Today

Las Vegas today offers something for visitors of all ages. In addition to the lavish casino, the city boasts theme parks, some of the nation's best restaurants, elaborate pool complexes, and one-of-a-kind shopping arcades. Over 34.7 million travelers visited Las Vegas in 2005. As the city grows, it faces many challenges. The roadway system, particularly in and around the Strip, is increasingly inadequate to handle the huge number of vehicles that travel it daily. In addition, the water supply is becoming stretched as this desert community adds more and more new residents.

What's Next for Vegas?

Las Vegas continues to reinvent itself. New condominium buildings and resort hotels are under construction, and more are proposed. The most ambitious and exciting of these plans is the Project City Center, a 66-acre mixed-use development on the Las Vegas Strip. The plans call for a 4000-room resort and casino hotel, 2800 luxury condominium units, two smaller (400 rooms each) non-gaming boutique hotels, and 470,000-square feet of dining, retail, and entertainment space. The complex will be linked with a state-of-the-art people mover. Project City may just change the face of Vegas once again.

Just Outside of Town Las Vegas is surrounded by a handful of prosperous suburbs that are as far away in attitude and tempo as can be from the frenetic Las Vegas Strip. Among these are Henderson, Boulder City, and the nearby Nellis Air Force Base.

Boulder City Boulder City was initially founded as a home for the thousands of workers who flocked to Nevada to work on Hoover Dam (originally, Boulder Dam). Located about 20 miles from Las Vegas, just outside of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Boulder City is a quiet community of around 17,000 residents. Zoning restrictions, such as requiring hotels to have no more than 35 rooms, have kept the city from becoming a resort area like some of the neighboring communities. Boulder City boasts two public golf courses and a myriad of water sports at adjacent Lake Mead.

Henderson Henderson, five miles southeast of Las Vegas, is the fastest growing large city in the United States. The city has grown from approximately 175,000 residents in 2000 to around 250,000 in 2005. The quiet upper middle class neighborhood is home to many who work in Las Vegas, but prefer to live a little away from it. Henderson is frequently featured in the hit TV series, "CSI."

Nellis Air Force Base Nellis Air Force Base, on the northeast side of Las Vegas, is a small community in itself. It is home to over 9000 service personnel and their families as well as civilian base workers. Nellis covers over 11,000 square miles, 60 percent of it undeveloped. Founded in 1940, the base is a major training facility for US and foreign fighter pilots. Nellis Air Force Base is named for William Harrell Nellis, a Las Vegas resident and WWII pilot, who was killed during the Battle of the Bulge. Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, part of Nellis is Area 51, the secretive airstrip and test facility, rumored to be involved in extraterrestrial research. The government has never acknowledged the existence of a government facility at Area 51, although the site is surrounded by armed guards, barbed wire, and motion detectors.

By: Denise Marie
Published On: 2015-12-18
Updated On: 2020-11-19

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