Las Vegas, Nevada was given its name 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 1800s, areas of the Las Vegas Valley contained artesian wells that supported extensive green areas, hence the name Las Vegas, Spanish for The Meadows.
Southern Paiutes – Moapa- Las Vegas Paiutes wearing traditional Paiute basket hats. Paiute cradleboard and rabbit robe.
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.
1800 – 1900 – Las Vegas’ origins
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 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 new comers 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, 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.
The property (which was expanded to 1,800 acres), stayed with the Stewart Family despite Archibald’s murder in July of 1884 until it was traded in 1902 to Montana Senator William Clark for his ownership of the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad.
Las Vegas circa 1895
The State Land Act of 1885 offered land at $1.25 per acre ($309/km²) 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.
1900 – 1929 – The birth of Las Vegas
During the 1900s, water from the wells was 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.
In 1905 the railway from Southern California and Salt Lake City was completed and run by William Clark’s brother. 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 ac (445,000 m²), 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.
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. Highway 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 revitalizing 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 – 1946 – Hoover Dam and the beginning of the resort 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. 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 city issued the first gambling license in 1931, to the Northern Club. As 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 received the city’s first traffic light in 1931.
In 1940, U.S. Highway 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’s first permanent radio station, KENO, began broadcasting replacing the niche occupied earlier by transient broadcasters.
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.
Three years later, 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 showed pubilcly the influence of organized crime on Las Vegas. Bugsy Siegel, with help from Meyer Lansky built The Flamingo in 1946.
1947- 1966 – The Strip explodes—as well as nuclear bombs
The Flamingo lost money and Siegel died in a hail of gunfire. However, organized crime still 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.
All these casinos were run by different organized crime organizations, but Meyer Lansky was the guiding force. Even with the public knowledge of the dubious owners of these casino resorts by 1954, over 8 million people were visiting Las Vegas yearly pumping 200 million dollars into the casinos. Gambling was no longer the only attraction; the biggest stars of film and music like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Abbott and Costello, Bing Crosby, Carol Channing, and others perfomed 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.
While The Strip was booming, the 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 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 exapnded into Las Vegas in 1954.
Bumps along the way
The first bump for Las Vegas was that The Strip did not reside in Las Vegas proper. Because of this, tax revenue was lost to the city. 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 Strip properties into an unincorporated township called Paradise City. Under Nevada Law, an incorporated town, Las Vegas, cannot annex an unincorporated township.
The second was the Las Vegas Sun. 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 Jones as the state’s national committeeman for the Democratic Party.
The last hurdle was when a two-year investigation by Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce concluded that Organized Crime money was incontrovertibly tied to the Las Vegas casinos. This led a porposal 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.
Las Vegas – The Mississippi of the West
As Las Vegas grew, racial tensions grew with it. 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. There was a bright spot during that decade. 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 racially integration were sown. Along with the rest of the country, Las Vegas experienced the struggle for civil rights. Activists like James B. McMillan, Grant Sawyer, Bob Bailey, 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 improvments 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 make infrastructure improvements for them. His work helped reverse the trend of minority population decreasing. Local legislation kept up with the national legislation and integration was established. The only real violence was school integration with violent riots and fights occurring from 1969 to 1971.
On November 21, 1980 the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (today called Bally’s Las Vegas) suffered a devastating fire. A total of 87 died and 785 were injured in what remains the worst disaster in Nevada history.
Construction boomed in the 1990s as Las Vegas became one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. Numerous landmark hotels and other structures were razed to make way for ever-larger and more opulent resorts. In April 2005, Wynn Resorts Limited opened its new flagship, the Wynn Las Vegas, constructed at a cost of US$2.7 billion.
- Las Vegas website
- Ainlay Jr., Thomas & Gabaldon, Judy Dixon. “Las Vegas The Fabulous First Century”, Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
- Denton, Sally & Morris, Howard. “The Money and the Power – The Making of Las Vegas and It’s Hold on America – 1947-2000”. Knopf, Borzoi Books, 2001.
- Land, Barbara & Land, Myrick. “A Short History of Las Vegas”. University of Nevada Press, Reno, 1999
- Paher, Stanley W. ” Las Vegas -As It Began – As It Grew”, Nevada Publications, Las Vegas, NV, 1971.