Las Vegas is steeped in history and is so much more than casinos and showgirls. This comprehensive guide to the history of Las Vegas explores the many interesting aspects that have shaped Las Vegas today. Whether you’re going to Las Vegas alone or with your family, learning about the history of the city will help you understand all that Las Vegas has to offer.
What is the history of Las Vegas, Nevada?
There was a lot of extreme stuff going on in Vegas at the time. The first people known to have inhabited the area that is now Las Vegas were the Southern Paiute, who arrived around 300 AD. These Native Americans were hunter-gatherers who settled in the canyons and mountains. They were excellent weavers, they made baskets, hunted, and gathered plants to eat.
Given Nevada’s arid climate, it’s not surprising that water was a prized commodity for the Southern Paiutes. The Southern Paiutes believed in various spirits that lived in nature, including the coyote. They lived in relative peace for centuries, but everything changed when the first Europeans arrived in the region.
The arrival of the Europeans (1800):
The first Europeans to set foot in what is now Nevada were Spanish traders traveling to Los Angeles. They named the area ‘Las Vegas, which means ‘prairie’ in Spanish. The route stretched from Salt Lake City to California, and these traders stopped in Nevada to rest and resupply.
Las Vegas was still part of Mexico at the time. However, after a brief war with Mexico, the United States annexed Nevada in 1835. However, the land was still largely unsettled, and American settlers did not begin arriving in earnest until the 1850s. these settlers were Mormon missionaries sent to convert the Native Americans who lived in the area.
Specifically, in 1855 William Bring and 30 Mormon missionaries settled in what is now downtown Las Vegas. They built a fort to protect themselves. His remains can still be seen today at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park. However, the missionaries faced many difficulties, such as water shortages, extreme heat, and internal conflicts.
After their hasty return to cool Utah, the area remained largely uninhabited until the arrival of American troops in 1864.
US Army Arrivals (the 1860s):
The United States Army arrived in present-day Las Vegas in 1864 as part of an effort to protect traveling settlers from the Confederates on the newly built Pacific Railroad. The soldiers also built an adobe ranch house nearby. This is now one of the oldest buildings in Las Vegas history.
The presence of the army brought much-needed stability to the area, and more settlers began to move in. One of them was Octavius Gass, a businessman, and politician who was tasked with seizing an abandoned fort. Gus built a large country house in what is now downtown Las Vegas and became one of the most successful businessmen in the area.
Gus also helped build the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, which runs through Las Vegas and connects to the rest of the country. The railroad brought more people and businesses to Las Vegas, cementing its position as a boom town. When farmers arrived in the area, they began to grow alfalfa, wheat, and cotton.
Birth of Las Vegas (1905-1929):
With the completion of the railroad, Las Vegas became a tourist destination, and the city began to grow rapidly. Thanks to the construction of wells and irrigation systems, there was a constant supply of water, and the business was growing.
US Senators Thomas Kahn and William Clark were two of the most important figures in the early history of Las Vegas. Clark began another rail development that eventually led to land auctions in what is now downtown. The city was incorporated in 1911, and Peter Bull became its first mayor.
Following other western states, Nevada was forced to ban gambling. However, the economy of Las Vegas was still booming with the construction of the Hoover Dam which was created nearby Lake Mead.
In 1931, construction began on the Hoover Dam. It was one of the largest engineering projects in US history and made Las Vegas famous as a destination for tourists and workers alike. The small town of 5,000 grew to 25,000 when the dam was completed in 1935. Most of these newcomers were single workers, so the town became known for its many brothels and gambling establishments.
When the Dumb Workers finished their project, another group of workers arrived in Las Vegas: The Mafia. They set up pirated casinos and other businesses to use as a cover for their illegal activities. The mob’s presence in Las Vegas will continue for years to come.
Boulder City, named for the first Hoover Dam, was built to house workers. It was a dry town with strict laws against gambling and alcohol. Many of the dam workers would sneak into Las Vegas on their days off to engage in vicious activities prohibited in Boulder City.
Remember, this happened during Prohibition. So, moonshine flowed freely in Las Vegas. Nevada decided to legalize it in 1931 after seeing how much money was left on the gambling table. This was a turning point in the history of Las Vegas and would begin its rise to win the title of the world capital of gambling.
An establishment had to obtain a special license from the state to offer to gamble. These were hard to find, and as a result, there were only a handful of casinos in Las Vegas at the time, most on Fremont Street, later known as Glitter Gulch because of its bright lights.
These bright lights come from electricity generated by the Hoover Dam, making Las Vegas one of the few cities in the country that is lit up at night. It was a spectacular sight and brought more people to the city.
The legalization of gambling has led to an influx in the construction industry as new casinos and hotels were built to accommodate the growing number of tourists and residents who restricted their movement because they still did not like making or making a fuss. A new “hidden highway” was built to allow workers to get to Las Vegas unseen. These same smuggling routes are also used by the mob to transport liquor during Prohibition.
The Golden Age of Las Vegas (1930-1960):
The 1930s were a boom time for Las Vegas. With the construction of more and more hotels and casinos, the city began to establish itself as an entertainment and gambling destination, and people from all over the world tried their luck at the casino tables.
They became known as the “Rat Pack” and their performances cemented Las Vegas’s reputation as the entertainment capital of the world.
During this era, mobsters were also very well known in Las Vegas. Men like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky are household names, and their casino is one of the most popular in town. When Jewish mobster Sigurd opened the Flamingo Hotel in 1946, it quickly became a hotspot for Hollywood’s elite.
During World War II, Las Vegas was a training camp for soldiers heading to the Pacific theater. After the war, many of these soldiers stayed in Las Vegas and made it their home. This further increased the city’s population.
Prostitution was also prevalent in the history of Las Vegas. It was technically legal for a while but was eventually criminalized by the government. This did little to stop illegal activity and it remained a part of Las Vegas culture for many years.
The Strip of Las Vegas:
Thomas Hull set the standard for contemporary Las Vegas hotel-casinos when he built “El Rancho Vegas” in 1941. One of the first facilities to offer exhibit rooms, swimming pools, and air conditioning was this one. Additionally, the hotel was well-known for its star-studded entertainment and gourmet cuisine.
However, El Rancho Vegas was not simply a hotel. It is also where the Las Vegas Strip was created. The Las Vegas Strip is a highway that runs through the city and is 4.2 miles long. Home to the Flamingo, Caesars Palace, and Bellagio, three of the most well-known hotels and casinos in the world.
Initially, the Las Vegas Strip was a two-lane highway. However, the city was expanded to accommodate all the traffic as more and more people came to visit. The renowned casino hotel opened on the Las Vegas Strip in 1955. The magnificent establishment with an African theme was The Sahara, which continues to operate today. It marked the beginning of a new era in the history of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas after the war (50-60):
Las Vegas experienced a boom in the 1950s and 1960s. The number of hotels and casinos skyrocketed, as did the city’s population. In terms of luxury hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, Siegel set the standard, and other developers have followed suit. During this time, the Sands, Riviera, Fremont, and Tropicana were constructed.
Additionally, Las Vegas Bank took part. Because it was the first time a major bank had lent money to a gambling establishment, it was a huge blow to the city. During this time, the president of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa, also invested in Las Vegas.
Movie stars, musicians, and other famous people came to Las Vegas for the makeover. With top acts like Barbra Streisand and Dean Martin, The Rat Pack frequently performed in city showrooms. This made Las Vegas’s reputation for having fun and excitement even stronger.
During this time, the horde had serious areas of strength in Las Vegas. They were associated with large numbers of the city’s clubs and inns. However, as the decade ended, the FBI began to take action against such conduct. His power and influence dwindled because of this manipulation.
During this time, an unrelated atomic test was also carried out outside of Las Vegas. The United States government carried out one hundred experiments in the region from 1951 to 1962. The city was covered in radioactive fallout because of these experiments, which have been the subject of controversy over the years. The mushroom cloud we tested could be seen clearly from the Las Vegas Strip.
The test was a popular tourist attraction for years despite the controversy. Additionally, they added more jobs to the city.
From 1960 to 1980, Modernization:
Although the 1960s and 1970s were less exciting than the previous two decades, Las Vegas history still experienced a boom and the city was visited by numerous additional artists and tourists. Famous people like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, a local favorite.
Elvis helped establish the city’s reputation as a fun and exciting destination by recording the album “Viva Las Vegas. “His time there attracted a lot of people and brought his talents to new audiences.
The Rat Pack kept tourists coming to Las Vegas and made it the entertainment capital of the world. They were also the first to separate the city’s casinos and hotels. African Americans were not permitted to stay in most white-owned hotels in Las Vegas before their arrival. His presence helped break down racial barriers in the city.
The rest of the world changed and grew alongside Las Vegas. The Vietnam War came to an end in the 1970s, and Watergate broke out. The United States was significantly affected by these events, which resulted in a recession. Las Vegas was particularly hard hit as the economy slowed. There have been fewer tourists, and numerous casinos have failed.
From 1980 to 2000, Renaissance:
In the 1980s, a new generation of entrepreneurs emerged, and everything changed. Las Vegas began to regain its reputation as a premier destination after the birth of “Mega Resorts. “Las Vegas has been put back on the map thanks to these new hotels, which are bigger and better than before.
Las Vegas experienced rapid expansion during the 1990s. During this time, the population of the city doubled, as did the number of tourists. This is in part because of the city’s growing reputation as a destination for conventions and the rising popularity of luxury resorts.
“Theme” hotels, which aimed to immerse guests in a specific experience, also took off in the 1990s.In the past ten years, famous hotels like the MGM Grand, Bellagio, and Planet Hollywood have opened. They shaped the Las Vegas skyline we know and love and quickly became popular with tourists.
From 2000 to the Present:
Las Vegas has changed even more in the new millennium. There was a huge construction boom in the city, which resulted in numerous brand-new hotels, eateries, and attractions. Las Vegas has transformed into a haven for families since the gangs’ demise.
Although some may argue that Las Vegas lost its appeal in the 2000s, the city is still a major player in the entertainment industry. You’ll never run out of things to do in Las Vegas, whether it’s during the day or at night. Some extravagant shows and chefs are known around the world, as well as extreme and iconic venues that locals love.
The new Palazzo and The Cosmopolitan bring luxury to the Strip, and venues like the Stratosphere Tower and the High Roller provide breathtaking views of the city. Outside of the Strip, there is a lot to do, including seeing Red Rock Canyon and Hoover Dam.