Each year, over 42 million visitors flock to the Mojave Desert to see the sights and sounds of Las Vegas. While many people are familiar with the glitz and glamour of the Strip, a surprising number of people are unaware of the vast history of Las Vegas.
In reality, Las Vegas has undergone a number of major developments and shifts over the century that have shaped it into the entertainment mecca it is today.
Putting Las Vegas on the Map
While Las Vegas was officially founded in 1905, its history spans some 80 years prior when a Spanish explorer traversing the Old Spanish Trail gave it its name. Las Vegas, meaning “the meadows,” was named after the large green area where wells fed the Las Vegas Wash. The name would live on among natives in the area.
In the mid-1800’s, explorer John Charles Fremont took an expedition to the area while working to map the west for the United States government. Fremont camped near the spring, learning the Las Vegas name from the natives. He included the location on his map of the area, literally becoming the person to “put Las Vegas on the map.”
As Fremont’s maps were distributed to settlers, many moved to the Las Vegas area. In 1905, an official settlement was created with financial tycoon William Andrews Clark making Las Vegas a stop along the Salt Lake Railroad. He created 1,200 lots surrounding the train station and Fremont Street. The area was later named Clark County in his honor.
Modern Las Vegas History
A major event in the history of Las Vegas occurred in 1931 when construction started on the nearby Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam). With many workers needed, this caused the population of Las Vegas to grow from 5,000 to 25,000. The fact that the workers were primarily male led entrepreneurs and members of organized crime to develop casinos and showgirl venues after the state legalized gambling that same year.
Casinos have been a staple of Las Vegas ever since. The first was the Northern Club; however, many others began to quickly line Fremont Street. When the dam was finally completed, it began generating power, allowing electricity to flow to Las Vegas, which took on the name “Glitter Gulch” due to the bright lights that made the city stand out at night.
After the dam was completed and workers left, Las Vegas began to search after a new type of clientele. The seedier of the gambling dens disappeared and more high class resorts slowly began to develop.
The first was pioneered by Thomas Hull, a California businessman who broke down in Las Vegas. Sitting amidst a hot summer’s day, he realized that Las Vegas would be a great location for a resort. He founded the El Rancho Vegas Hotel and Casino on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue.
The success of resorts in Las Vegas did not just attract travelers; they also attracted the mafia. Bugsy Siegel had resided in Las Vegas for some time, operating the Northern Club. However, the fame of El Rancho Vegas led him to decide to expand his operation.
After W. R. “Billy” Wilkerson, a Los Angeles nightclub owner, constructed the Flamingo in 1946, the mob moved in to collect on the money they had loaned to him, eventually leading him to sell the property to the mob. Siegel would run the property until he was caught embezzling and murdered in 1947.
History of the Las Vegas Strip
The legacy of the founding of the Flamingo was that it signaled the beginning of the creation of the miles long neon drive that is now known as the Strip.
Money started being loaned for the creation of more Vegas casinos and resorts. In the ensuring years, the Sahara, the Sands, the Riveria, Binion’s Horseshoe, and the Tropicana were all constructed along with a number of other properties. This rapid growth was backed by the fact the Vegas was rapidly becoming a prominent tourist destination by the 1950s.
With the popularity of Las Vegas gaining traction and casinos generating large profits, the city began to evolve once again. It became a popular location for celebrities, bringing in performances from the famed Rat Pack as well as people like Bing Crosby and Liberace. This trend would hold true making Las Vegas home to frequent concerts by some of the top names in music.
One of the most interesting stories in the city’s history is that of aviation entrepreneur Howard Hughes. In 1966, he checked into a room at the Desert Inn. Rather than checking out, he ultimately decided to purchase the entire hotel.
By the time Hughes was finished, he had reportedly spent over $300 million in Las Vegas real estate, taking over some of the most high profile casinos and resorts. It was perhaps Hughes more than anyone else who was responsible for changing the city’s image from one of a mob den to one of High Rollers.
However, there were two other individuals that served to help gradually transform Las Vegas into the city that can be seen today. The first was Kirk Kerkorian, the “Father of Mega Resorts.” He created the vision for concepts such as Caesar’s Palace and the MGM Grand.
The second was Steve Wynn, who got his foot in the door with the purchase of the Frontier Hotel and Casino and later controlling interest of the Golden Nugget. His vision included bringing in top tier entertainment and making Las Vegas a playground for the wealthy.
Over the years, he unveiled many of the Strip’s mainstays including the Mirage, Bellagio, Treasure Island, and Wynn Las Vegas. This explosive growth lasted primarily through the 1990s and early 2000s, seeing Vegas transform near the modern landscape.
The Future of Las Vegas
Today, Las Vegas has a few new names that are continuing to exert influence on the city.
Sheldon Adelson certainly comes to mind with his role as majority shareholder of Las Vegas Sands. Meanwhile, Zappos founder Tony Hsieh has taken on the goal of revitalizing downtown Las Vegas.
Las Vegas has begun to expand its footprint in the sports world. Bill Foley and the Maloof Family worked to bring a National Hockey League franchise to the city when the Vegas Golden Knights began play in 2017, where they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first ever season.
Later this year, the Las Vegas Raiders will make their debut in the brand new Allegiant Stadium after relocating from Oakland.
Over the years, Las Vegas has gone through a number of transitions and quite a history has been written.
From a lush green meadow on the banks of a wash to the seedy early days of casinos, the mafia era, a rapid expansion of High Roller resorts, and today’s status as an iconic mecca of entertainment, dining, retirement and gambling, Las Vegas has established itself as one of the premier cities in the world.