The city of Las Vegas, Nevada has a rich and colorful history. It has been an oasis for those seeking refuge in the desert to gamble, since the days of early American settlers like Jean-Louis Lalande. This former trapper and trader was the first European to come across the valley on a scouting mission for a new trading route in 1829. The city's history is a complex one, with many different legends and stories from different eras. From mobsters running casinos and strip clubs in the 1940s to sprawling mega-resorts of more recent vintage, this is the story of how Las Vegas became what it is today.
The Early Days of Las Vegas
Las Vegas was founded in 1905 and originally named after the nearby Las Vegas Springs. The town's name is derived from the Spanish word for "the meadows." The railroad built a station there in 1906, which spurred some growth. A few hotels and casinos were built, but gambling was outlawed until 1931 when the Nevada Legislature legalized it within city limits. In 1941, a man by the name of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel, which began to attract attention and visitors to the area.
The 1940s: Mobsters and Glamour
After the United States entered World War II in 1941, Las Vegas began to see many changes. The opening of the El Rancho Vegas by Thomas Hull was a significant moment in this era. This was the first hotel on US soil to have air conditioning. It had an open-air gambling area that became a popular attraction for servicemen who were stationed nearby.
One of the biggest draws for these customers was the casino and nightclub run by Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who also operated a casino at his Beverly Hills Hotel. In 1946, Siegel's friend and associate Johnny Rosselli helped set up a meeting with national Mafia bosses Carlo Gambino and Vito Genovese in order to extend his operations into Nevada.
This sparked off a conflict between those who wanted to keep gambling illegal (the so-called "Wets") and those who wanted it legal (the "Drys").
The Dry faction won out while Siegel's time as mobster came to an end when he was gunned down on June 20th 1947 in Los Angeles by rival gangsters from Detroit.
The 1950s-1960s: A Flood of New Hotels
Las Vegas was a small town of less than 5,000 people in the 1950s. But when developer Wilbur Clark built The Flamingo Hotel and Casino in 1946, it sparked interest in Las Vegas from big-time investors. In the early 1960s, Howard Hughes had taken residence in Las Vegas and he bought up the Desert Inn for a record $13 million. This purchase helped kick off an era of rapid growth that would make Las Vegas the gambling mecca we know today.
Even though movie stars like Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant came to town to gamble during this time, mob syndicates still controlled most of the casinos. They were able to do so because Nevada legalized gambling but only regulated its games of chance rather than outlawing them like other states did. Mobsters used their connections with politicians to keep their casino holdings protected against outside competition.
The 1970s: Modernization and More Development
The 1970s represented a turning point in the history of Las Vegas. The city's first high-rise hotel and casino, the Royal Nevada, opened its doors in 1973. The next year, the Fremont Street Experience was unveiled for all to see. This outdoor mall turned downtown Las Vegas into an attraction for tourists as well as locals. In 1976, Howard Hughes Corporation completed construction on the first megaresort on the Strip: The Desert Inn.
The 1970s also saw Nevada take a hard look at regulation of its lucrative gambling industry. A referendum was passed in 1974 that led to new licensing procedures being enacted to investigate applicants' backgrounds before issuing licenses. That same year, Nevada legalized slots machines up to seven times larger than those in use elsewhere in America - and they were among the most popular games played by Americans at casinos around the country.
From 2000 to Today: Resorts and Casinos Still Thrive in Sin City
Technically, the city of Las Vegas landed on the map in 1905 with the completion of a railroad line between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. However, it was not until 1931 that Nevada legalized gambling. The city's first casinos were little more than roadside attractions, like the Pair o' Dice, but would soon grow into sprawling resorts. In 1941, mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel opened The Flamingo, which is now owned by MGM Resorts International. It was also in 1941 that mobster Bugsy Siegel opened The Flamingo casino and hotel in Las Vegas.
In 1944-45, there were only six casinos operating in Las Vegas. Today? There are over 200 on the strip alone! This includes mega-resorts like Wynn and Encore at 3,000 rooms each; and the Palazzo with 2,632 rooms; Venetian with 3,049 rooms; and Stratosphere Tower at 1,149 feet high (the tallest free-standing tower westward).
Las Vegas is not just a city; it’s an experience. With the history of Las Vegas, it’s easy to see how the city has evolved and how Sin City has always been a booming hot spot. Take some time to explore this article and learn more about how Las Vegas became the city we all know and love today.