It’s hard to imagine a time before the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. But before the endless slot machines, flashing lights and constant partying, this was a different place. Las Vegas history is as interesting as the place itself and it’s fascinated me for years.
Vegas was built on cold, hard cash and that is still the name of the game in this town today. It’s a playground for adults that caters to all their vices. After all, it is called Sin City for a reason.
Las Vegas history – the beginning
The name Las Vegas means “the meadows” in Spanish. However, long before the Spaniards showed up in 1829, the Native Americans have cultivated squash and corn here for centuries. This area was part of Mexico until Nevada became a U.S. state in 1844.
It was a steady and slow growth for the next few years. Town of Las Vegas was established in 1905. A new railroad soon connected it with the major railroads in the country, thanks to the Mormon missionaries who located here. It soon became a largely agricultural town and home to railroad workers. The City of Las Vegas officially incorporated in 1911, ironically one year after Nevada banned gambling.
As the Hoover Dam project started in 1931, and the city experienced an influx of workers brought it to build it. By this point, Las Vegas was on the brink of extinction. This massive project breathed new life into the area. As this was during the Depression, there was no shortage of applicants for this dangerous work. Others came hoping to find additional work.
While the local population grew from 5,000 to 25,000, it created a market for entertainment. Nevada legalized gambling the same year, creating a perfect environment for what was to come. As most of the dam workers were male, there was a sudden need for keeping them entertained. Enter showgirls, casinos and savvy business men who knew how to turn a profit. Las Vegas suddenly became a little oasis in the middle of the desert.
The mob years
The history of Las Vegas can’t be complete without the mob. As gambling, booze and prostitution flourished, so did the business opportunities. Once World War II ended, the organized crime bosses set their eyes on Vegas.
The only available place for Americans to gamble freely at that time was in Cuba. The Mafia families from Chicago and New York saw this bustling playground of vices as an opportunity. The allure of easy money and tax evasion were irresistible.
Mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky arrived to scope out the opportunities. They opened the Flamingo hotel and casino and the rest is history. Other followed suit and big hotels like the Tropicana and the Sands became part of the entertainment culture.
The mob built casinos and secret tunnels, made deals and offered unparalleled entertainment that attracted celebrities, tourists and shady characters alike. Fortunes were made and lost. For some, dreams came true while for others turned into nightmares. After all, anything can happen in Sin City.
The likes of Elvis, Frank Sinatra and others were becoming a staple of the local scene. The casinos catered to the rich and famous by offering privacy and discretion. A series of underground tunnels, concealed rooms and private areas offered plenty of anonymity to anyone seeking to escape their fame. Those were also handy for illicit activities.
As nothing lasts for ever, neither did the mob. As Vegas grew and prospered during the 1940’s and 50’s, all types of crime organizations ran the town. It was becoming difficult to distinguish who owned what as they negotiated and made deals between each other. As the mob skimmed profits from the casino profits, the rest of Vegas fell into decline.
Enter the 1960’s. Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes arrived in Las Vegas after a stint as a movie director in Hollywood. Born to a wealthy family, he indulged in his passions and one of them was Vegas, where he bought land some two decades earlier. After he moved into a penthouse of the Desert Inn hotel, he chose to buy it instead of moving out. This was the beginning of legitimate business dealings over mob interests and corruption.
Hughes bought casinos, real estate and the media. He had wealth and power, and potential ties to the CIA. He was a man of mystery and one that valued his privacy. I think that makes him a perfect addition to Las Vegas history. After the Hughes period, it didn’t take long for the mob to be totally done in Vegas. But that’s not the end of Sin City.
New era of casinos
The 1980’s and 90’s brought a new life to Vegas. A lot of the old properties were demolished to make way for newer, slicker and larger ones. Once mob-owned, casinos were sold off to more legitimate owners, like Hughes and large corporations. This was the new age of Sin City.
Enter the age of megaresorts. As business men of a different kind moved in, they developed their own concept of entertainment. The Sin City we know today had its beginnings during this time. The ownership might have changed, but money is still king here. And there is an opportunity to spend it or make it around every corner.
Many of the iconic hotels we know today were built during this time. From the Venetian, Bellagio and Paris to Monte Carlo, Luxor and New York-New York, the world is at your fingertips. Between the Eiffel Tower, canals filled with gondoliers, pirate ships and even a pyramid, you can find it all here.
There is something about Las Vegas that seems larger than life. The amount of money that changes hands here is astonishing. There are slot machines at the airport, shopping malls and restaurants. You can spend the whole time in a casino den without leaving your hotel.
Then there are the lights. Lots of shiny, flashing lights everywhere you look. There are people whose job is to change burned out lightbulbs. Can you imagine changing burnt out bulbs all the time? There are so many of them!
Vegas is a party town. Big acts have residencies here for months. Major sporting events, concerts and conferences are all done on a massive scale. Entertainment in every form is here for your choosing. The restaurants, the clubs, the pool parties and the shows attract people of all walks of life. Inhibitions go out the window when anything is possible. I’ve seen my share of this and it’s not pretty.
Beyond the main strip
I’ve been to Vegas a couple of times. The place can be overwhelming, but not to worry, there are many things to do here if the casino scene becomes a bit much.
- Shopping: There is a great outlet mall accessible with a quick ride by bus from the main strip. An outdoor complex of shops with great deals to be found.
- Grand Canyon: Within a three-hour drive from Vegas is the Grand Canyon West Rim. You can take a nice road trip there with a stop at the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.
- Old Las Vegas: While the main strip is the most popular destination, it’s worth taking a trip to see the less visited Vegas of the years gone by. It’s a bit more old-fashioned, a bit worn out yet still lit up to the nines. There is more nostalgia here, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
- The Valley of Fire: Not too far from Vegas is a great natural park that will stun you with its beauty. It’s definitely worth the drive.
- Red Rock Canyon: This is also a great scenic drive to admire nature’s work. It’s great for hiking and exploring the local geography.
Bringing it together
The Las Vegas history is equally dark and fascinating. It’s a city that wouldn’t be what it is today without the Hoover Dam. Not only did the dam revive the area, it created a source of water and power that keeps this town on 24/7. Most people come here for the shows, the parties and the gambling. But there is more to discover if you look past the shiny lights.
Have you been to Vegas? Does its past fascinate you? Let me know!