How Vegas became Vegas
1829: Las Vegas Valley gets its name
Inhabited by nomadic Paleo-Indians first and then Anasazi and Paiute peoples, Las Vegas Valley was first visited by Europeans in 1829 when Rafael Riviera arrived in the valley in search of a new route from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Inspired by the abundance of wild grass and desert spring waters usually so sparse in the Mojave Desert, he named the valley Las Vegas – Spanish for “the meadows”. Pictured here are petroglyphs in the Valley of the Fire State Park left behind by the Anasazi some 2,000 years ago.
1855: first permanent settlements
As more and more pioneers headed west in search of gold in the second half of the 1800s, it was the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons) who chose to build a fort in Las Vegas, marking halfway between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The remnants of the Old Mormon Fort have been reconstructed and can still be seen at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue. Although the Mormons abandoned the fort a few years after building it, this inspired the first pioneer settlements in the area.
1905: the city is founded
Up until the turn of the century, Las Vegas was still sparsely populated. But its fortunes changed with the arrival of mining magnate William A. Clark (for whom the present-day county was named). Clark was the principal investor in a Union Pacific Railroad project, building a railroad from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. Recognizing the potential of the location, Clark purchased land, secured water rights to the springs and had a railroad depot built. The city was founded on 15 May 1905 when Clark auctioned off his landholdings, including Las Vegas’ first casino at the station café.
1906: the first casino opens
Opened in 1906, The Golden Gate Casino is the city’s first and longest-running gambling establishment. Located on Fremont Street, once the city’s central and most important street, it was a hotel and a casino called Hotel Nevada, considered the height of luxury at the time. In 1931, it was expanded and renamed as Sal Sagev (Las Vegas spelled backwards), but it regained its former name in 1974. The original building still stands today with well over $12 million spent on renovations. The Golden Gate is also famous for its cheap shrimp cocktail, served from 1959 to 2017.
1910s: gambling takes off
Due to the harsh conditions – hot weather, unproductive soil and limited water resources – Las Vegas grew slowly at first. There was an exception to the rule though. One area flourished, rapidly developing as a red light and gambling district. Even though the state outlawed gambling in 1910, illegal casinos continued underground until 1931 when it was legalized again. The nickname Sin City is thought to have originated from the two original blocks of Fremont Street, where gambling, ladies of the night and liquor were all easily accessible.
1930s: Hollywood vacations here
By the 1930s, Las Vegas had already established itself as a popular vacation destination, mostly for residents of Los Angeles and especially people employed by the Hollywood film industry. Attracted by the pleasant climate, gambling and Nevada’s newly relaxed divorce laws, Las Vegas’ population exceeded 5,000 by 1930 and almost doubled in the next decade. Check out these vintage photos of Hollywood stars on vacation.
1931: first gambling license is issued
A so-called quickie divorce was attractive to many a film star at the time (meaning divorce could be attained after just six weeks of residency), so these short-term visitors often stayed at dude ranches – working ranches also hosting guests. As soon as gambling was legalized again, it became the favorite pastime of people waiting for their divorces to be finalized, people on vacation and Hoover Dam construction workers on their days off. The first Las Vegas gambling license was issued to Mayme Stocker at the Northern Club.
1936: Hoover Dam changes everything
The construction of the Hoover Dam is still probably the most significant development in the city’s history. Its construction brought in new residents (and gamblers) and it gave the valley’s economy a much-needed boost during the Great Depression. It also provided two key commodities in ample supply – water and electricity. Finished in 1936, it’s still one of the largest and most ambitious public works ever undertaken by the federal government.
1940s: Las Vegas weddings take off
Las Vegas wasn’t just a go-to place to get a divorce, it was also the perfect wedding destination for couples looking to get hitched quickly and cheaply. Thanks to marriage laws that didn’t require blood tests and long waiting periods like most other states, Nevada became a popular place to tie the knot. To meet the growing demand of aspiring newlyweds, Las Vegas’ first two wedding chapels opened in 1940. None is more famous than A Little White Chapel which has hosted the weddings of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jordan, Britney Spears and many others.
1941: the military arrives
After successful lobbying from a Nevada senator, two major projects were approved in Las Vegas with the advent of the Second World War: a magnesium-processing plant and the Las Vegas Army Airfield. Today known as Nellis Air Force Base, it later grew to a vast Air Force testing site and is now home to the United States Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic team (Thunderjet is pictured here in 1954). These, and several other defense-related projects, brought in thousands more residents and visitors.
1941: the first hotel-casino opens on the Strip
As the demand for hotels, gambling and entertainment grew, hotels had to expand past Fremont Street. On 3 April 1941, the 63-room El Rancho opened its doors, becoming the first casino-hotel on the Strip. This was swiftly followed by the Last Frontier (1942), Flamingo (1946) and Thunderbird (1948). After the Second World War, many returning soldiers decided to settle in Las Vegas as this was one of the few places with plenty of jobs going, nearly tripling the city’s population between 1940 and 1950.
1940s: the mob takes over
An extremely attractive location for organized crime, Las Vegas quickly became a city run by the mob. Rich on cash made from bootlegging spirits during Prohibition, some of the biggest names in the mob history all came to Las Vegas – Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (pictured center) all played a key role in the development of the Las Vegas Strip. Their fortunes quickly ran out though. By the late 1950s, the newly established Nevada Gaming Commission began to curtail the freedom of these gangsters. The courthouse where the mob hearings were held is now The Mob Museum.
1946: Flamingo sets the precedent
Opened in 1946 by Bugsy Siegel, Flamingo was the first luxury hotel on the Strip. The 105-room hotel was billed as “the West’s Greatest Resort Hotel” and it remains both the oldest resort as well as the last remaining operating casino on the Strip that opened before 1950. Flamingo’s success and unprecedented lavishness encouraged more ventures to crop up, both along the Strip and in wider Las Vegas, ensuring that bright neon lights, luxurious hotels and big-name entertainment became synonymous with the city. Pictured here is an aerial view of the newly completed Flamingo.
1946: Golden Nugget opens
One of the oldest Las Vegas hotel-casinos still around today, Golden Nugget first opened its doors in 1946. Its massive neon sign instantly became an icon of Fremont Street (pictured here in 1958) and along with The Apache Hotel, El Cortez and The Mint, it became known as the Glitter Gulch thanks to the tall neon signs looming over the narrow street. The hotel has been featured on the big screen several times, including Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas and Diamonds Are Forever. Now check out these abandoned movie sets time forgot.
1951: atomic bomb tests define the city
A new decade ushered a new era in Las Vegas’ history. Established in 1950 within the limits of Nellis Air Force Base, the Nevada Test Site earned Las Vegas the nickname Atomic City. The primary testing location for nuclear devices between 1951 and 1992, a total of 928 tests were carried out here. During the 1950s, the test mushroom clouds, which could be seen from Downtown hotels, became a tourist attraction in itself.
1950s: hotel boom
Several of Sin City’s most famous hotels opened in the 1950s, solidifying Las Vegas’ position as the gambling and entertainment capital of the US. In 1952, the Sahara and the Sands opened, and Riviera, Royal Nevada and Dunes followed in 1955. Tropicana launched on 4 April 1957 and Stardust – the largest Nevada hotel at the time – opened in 1958. Collectively, these hotels are largely responsible for bringing about Las Vegas’ Golden Age.
1953: Frank Sinatra’s first performance
Although entertainment had been flourishing in Las Vegas for some time, none had quite left the mark that Frank Sinatra was about to. First appearing on stage in 1953 at the Sands Hotel, Frank Sinatra (pictured here at the Sands in 1954) loved Las Vegas and Las Vegas loved him. Sinatra headlined some of the biggest stages in the city, along with fellow performers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford who collectively became known as the Rat Pack. They would make frequent joint stage appearances as well as gamble, drink and eat all across the city.
The Rat Pack (pictured here) are often praised for their desegregation efforts in Las Vegas. When Sammy Davis Jr headlined at the Frontier Casino, he wasn’t allowed to stay in the city’s hotels, like all Black performers at the time. He wasn’t provided with a dressing room and was required to wait outside by the pool between acts. With the Rat Pack’s support, Davis Jr later refused to work in any establishment with racial segregation until full desegregation in 1960. When The Moulin Rouge opened in May 1955, it became the first integrated casino in Las Vegas.
1959: Las Vegas sign is erected
Today the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign is recognized all over the world. The original sign (there are three replicas) stands at what is considered the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip. The sign was built and installed in 1959 by Western Neon and it was designed by Betty Willis, an employee of the company. She considered it a gift to the city so there is no copyright on it. Funnily enough, it’s never marked the actual city limits of Las Vegas. Even today it sits around four miles (6km) from the actual city of Las Vegas.
1960s: Howard Hughes takes over
A business magnate from Texas, Howard Hughes began a buying spree after overstaying his booking at the Desert Inn (pictured). Unwilling to leave, he started negotiations and eventually bought the hotel. During the 1960s he went on to purchase the Desert Inn, the Sands, Frontier, Silver Slipper, Castaways and Landmark. Hughes was instrumental in changing Las Vegas’ image from its Wild West roots to a refined cosmopolitan city with numerous remodelings and multi-story additions. His business model paved way for corporate ownership of hotel-casinos so common today.
1960s: a performer with no limits
It’s difficult to imagine Las Vegas becoming what it is today without Liberace. The world’s highest-paid entertainer for two decades, Liberace embraced a flamboyant lifestyle both on and off the stage that eventually became synonymous with the city itself. After initial success in the 1950s, he returned to Vegas in the 1960s with the nickname Mr. Showmanship. Dressed in capes and costumes adorned with ostrich feathers, chauffeured onstage in a Rolls-Royce or dropped in flying on a wire, nothing was off-limits at a Liberace show.
1960s: new hotels with a twist
By the late 1960s, it was clear that to compete with existing hotels and casinos, new ventures would have to be special. Cue Caesars Palace and the Circus Circus. Opened in 1966 and 1968 respectively, both hotels were banking on their themed decor to bring in the dollars. Caesars Palace (pictured here in 1970) took inspiration from the Roman Empire, complete with marble columns and statues while the Circus Circus’ main structure was designed as a giant circus tent – these hotels were first to set the trend for themed hotels in Vegas.
1970s: Elvis rules Vegas
After a disappointing Las Vegas debut in 1959, Elvis Presley came back to Vegas 10 years later and what a comeback it was. A VIP-only show on 31 July 1969 marked the start of what would become a seven-year-long residency at the International Hotel (now Westgate). Performing 636 sold-out shows, his captivating performances, rock ‘n’ roll spirit and flashy outfits propelled Las Vegas to new heights.
1980s: the glamor fades
As the 1980s began, Las Vegas was struggling. Stripped of the mob money and big-time real estate investors in the middle of a difficult economy, Las Vegas became a tourist trap with aging casinos, cheap restaurants with bad food and showrooms filled with performers trying to squeeze a couple more years out of their careers. On top of that, a devastating fire at the original MGM Grand took 85 lives and Reagan-era conservatism combined with legalization of gambling in Atlantic City, meant Las Vegas’ glamor had all but gone.
1989: the era of megahotels starts
What Las Vegas needed was a new exciting hotel and that came in the form of Polynesian-themed The Mirage. The sparkling exterior featured five-story waterfalls, lagoons, tropical foliage and a volcano that erupted regularly. The 3,044-room hotel was the largest in the world at the time and its top five floors were used exclusively for high-roller games and penthouse suites. The first hotel to be built on the Strip in 16 years, The Mirage went all out and signed Siegfried & Roy to create the most spellbinding illusionist headline show that Las Vegas had ever seen. These are the most historic hotels in America.
1990s: family-friendly Vegas
Inspired by The Mirage’s success, themed family-friendly megahotels took over the Strip one after the other – Excalibur, Luxor Las Vegas and Steve Wynn’s Treasure Island all opened in quick succession. Hard Rock Hotel, the French Riviera-themed Monte Carlo and the jaw-dropping New York-New York (pictured) all opened in the following years. If that wasn’t enough to entice visitors, 1999 saw the opening of The Venetian and Paris Las Vegas too. Take a look at these vintage photos of the world’s most famous landmarks.
1995: Downtown transforms too
During the slump of the 1980s, Fremont Street and the original Downtown became an increasingly seedy and rundown destination. Everything changed in 1995 when the new and improved Fremont Street Experience – a pedestrian mall with attractions, casinos and concert stages – was unveiled. Occupying five blocks, including the Glitter Gulch, the street was closed to traffic and covered with a massive light canopy in a bid to revive the spirit of Downtown. Check out America’s most charming and historic downtowns.
1998: Bellagio signals the future
During Las Vegas’ history there have been several hotels that have set the city on a new course and the Bellagio is one such hotel. Opened in 1998 (pictured here on opening night), the hotel and the Fountains of Bellagio, a choreographed water feature with performances set to light and music, were built on the site of the demolished Dunes. One of the most spectacular hotel-casinos to ever open on the Strip, it shifted the focus to luxury and helped create the image of modern Las Vegas with appearances in films like Ocean’s Eleven and The Hangover.
2000s: luxury above all else
The new century brought new trends to Las Vegas. Hotels expanded to mega resorts, wacky themes were quietly phased out and the motto ‘more is more’ seemed to grip everyone. No other project embodied the new spirit of Las Vegas quite like the massive CityCenter. A 4,000-room resort with two boutique hotels, condos, shopping centers, fine dining restaurants and nightclubs, it’s a city within a city, covering more than 67 acres. Take a look at America’s most historic towns and cities.
2010s: from all-you-can-eat to Michelin-starred
Gone are the days when Vegas’ food culture meant all-you-can-eat buffets, cheap steaks and uninspiring prawn cocktails. In the last 10 years, the city has earned itself a place on the culinary map and transformed into a destination for food-lovers. With 10 Michelin-starred restaurants that have a total of 14 stars among them and names like Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse, Michael Mina and Thomas Keller attached to swanky joints, dining in Las Vegas is luxurious and world-class.
2012: The Year of Downtown
In a further attempt to distribute visiting crowds across the whole city, projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars were finished in 2012. As part of the Downtown revitalization project The Year of Downtown, attractions like DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, The Mob Museum and The Neon Museum all opened their doors in 2012. A new City Hall complex and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts were unveiled, and the old City Hall became the new corporate headquarters for Zappos.com.
2020s: Las Vegas continues to grow
While the COVID-19 pandemic has put many a plan on hold, Las Vegas’ skyline is still ever-changing. Exciting additions coming soon include the Allegiant Stadium (NFL Raiders’ new home), the grand opening of Resorts World (the first new hotel to open on the Strip in the last 10 years) and the launch of MSG Sphere – a 366-foot-tall (111.5m) circular venue covered in ultra-high-definition screens inside and out. Fremont Street Experience will also be getting a flashy new hotel in the form of Circa Resort & Casino.
What’s next for Las Vegas?
A contender for this century’s biggest travel breakthrough, Virgin Hyperloop has been carrying out successful tests in North Las Vegas since 2017. Originally, an idea conceived by Elon Musk and Silicon Valley investor Shervin Pishevar, Hyperloop partnered with Virgin Group in 2017. Hoping to connect Los Angeles with Las Vegas, zipping passengers from one city to another in under 30 minutes, the company aims to open first commercial lines by 2022. Now take a look at groundbreaking planes that changed the world.
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