Okay, don’t go to sleep on me. 

And if you’re like me and literally a discussion about how the Fremont Street Experience staff cleans gum from the sidewalks can make your ears perk up, this post will have you on the edge of your seat. 

But as we start quite a long (and incomplete, as it will always be) journey through the history of Las Vegas, we have to start at the beginning. Like the very beginning. 

So, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word… 

Fine. I’ll skip ahead. 

Once upon a time, there was an oasis in the desert where three springs converged to form two huge ponds. Native American Paiute tribes had gathered there since 700 A.D. — as the petroglyphs show — joined a millennium later by ranchers and cattle hands, prospectors, and hopeful settlers passing through on Rafael Rivera’s trade route, the Old Spanish Trail between New Mexico and California. 

Rivera even coined a name for the site: Las Vegas, which meant The Meadows, because of the grassy plots that welcomed thirsty guests. When Las Vegas and Henderson separated from Arizona Territory to become part of Nevada in 1877, small farming communities and ranches were established.

In their reports, John Fremont (boy would I love to show him a Vegas Vickie shirt and tell him some tales from the modern era) and Kit Carson publicized the Springs, prompting a flock of folks to move to Nevada, hoping to get their homesteads. As new arrivals purchased property, the Paiute were pushed off their traditional lands, displacing them and threatening their way of life. Pioneer rancher Helen J. Stewart did not want the Paiute culture to disappear, so she gave the tribe 10 acres of her Las Vegas Rancho property, a place where the Paiute could start “The Colony,” now 31 acres in size.

In 1902, W.A. (William) Clark (you know, Clark County… you’re catching on) purchased land from Helen Stewart to first build part of the railroad system to and from Las Vegas. He parceled lots to create a township in 1905, opening the door to expansion. Mrs. Stewart certainly was the “First Lady of Las Vegas.”

Location, Location, Location           

The San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad arrived in 1905, offering area residents better access to the Pacific Coast and the country’s main rail lines. In turn, those wishing to venture west and north to find new land to call their own now had an easier way to reach Nevada. The future downtown of Las Vegas was plotted and auctioned by railroad magnates and backers, leading to the incorporation of Las Vegas in 1911.

Because of divorce laws (no blood tests or waiting periods), folks had been visiting the state for years, staying at “dude ranches” and little establishments for quickie marriages and even quicker divorces. 

…My wife has been begging to go to a “dude ranch” and I’m more suspicious than ever…

Entrepreneurs recognized the need for more permanent, comfortable establishments to serve their clientele. The Nevada Hotel became the first official gambling hotel and casino, and when it was sold in 1905, the new proprietors renamed it the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino.

While Nevada outlawed gambling in 1930, speakeasies and underground facilities kept it alive, leading to infiltration by organized crime, aka The Mob. The combination of gambling, money laundering, “Ladies of the Night,” and financial gain made this state irresistible. Mob involvement in the development and growth of Las Vegas and the inception of many casinos is legendary. 

the Mob Museum in Las Vegas
Visit the Mob Museum for a full tour of Vegas’ dark past. It’s worth it. 

Not too long and you’d see Vickie’s predecessor, Vegas Vic, appear. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. I’m excited!!

Dams, Magnesium, and Hoovervilles

The building of Hoover Dam brought a real boom to Las Vegas. At least 21,000 workers arrived to begin construction, meaning work camps such as Pittman in Henderson needed to be established, since Las Vegas didn’t have enough developed space or room for such an influx. These “Hoovervilles” served the crews well, first in dam construction and later in the building of the Basic Magnesium Plant in 1941 to aid the war effort. Communities such as Pittman Camp and individual housing were established for families, allowing the Henderson area, closest to both enterprises, to flourish. Restaurants, stores, bars, and casinos were multiplying. Nevada was on a roll!

Just a Roll of the Dice

The Golden Gate was the first in the line of many casinos. The El Cortez (1941) was next and is the longest continually-existing casino in Las Vegas. It became so popular that mobsters Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum, and Moe Sedway purchased it. Famed mobster Guy McAfee followed suit with the building of the Golden Nugget on Fremont Street (1946). Next, Bugsy Siegel and his partners took over the construction of the Flamingo (1946), which many say he named after his girlfriend’s long, skinny legs. But, the truth is a bit more boring. Our favorite competitor… oh, who are we kidding he makes us look pathetic… our favorite Vegas blogger has a fun article on the truth. Though don’t take his sarcastic word for it, it’s well documented in a number of publications. 

The ultra-cool Dunes (1955) was the 10th casino to open on the Strip. Then came the famous Sahara (1952), the home turf of many notable performers and entertainers. The Tropicana (or Trop), constructed in 1957, made the news for Mob skimming. The world-famous Aladdin (now the Planet Hollywood next to the Paris Las Vegas), once known as the Tallyho Hotel, joined the list in 1966. Caesars (1966) is still vibrant and alive with its impressive and iconic Colosseum. Circus Circus (1968) was one of a kind: a casino before it was a hotel. And they just kept on coming…

Caesar's in Las Vegas
Caesar looks a bit different these days

Pure Moxie and Changing Times

Of all the casinos, old or new, luxury or affordable, nothing beats the breathtaking Bellagio with its dancing and swaying fountains (we even made a Bellagio mug and another Bellagio mug that honors it!), choreographed in synchronization with the music you can hear from the street. But did you know that the stately Bellagio arose from the Dunes with its retro themes, iconic performers, and posh amenities? Then again, why not? After all, this is Las Vegas, baby, and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas (I absolutely can’t hear that phrase any more without thinking of the follow-up from The Hangover), even when it comes to rebuilt and redesigned casinos!

Up next, The Dunes!