In 1941 the El Rancho Vegas resort opened on a section of U.S. 91 just outside the city’s jurisdiction. Other hotel-casinos soon followed, and the section of highway became known as “the Strip.” Most were built around the regional or Old West themes that were popular on Fremont Street. In 1946 mobster Bugsy Siegel, backed by East Coast Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky’s Mexican drug money, opened the Flamingo, a swank resort that took its cues from Hollywood, not Deadwood. Top-drawer talent was booked for its lounges and dozens of celebrities attended its Christmas Dayopening.
Siegel was murdered in 1947, but his vision for Las Vegas lived on: During the 1950s and 1960s, mobsters helped build the Sahara, the Sands, the New Frontier and the Riviera. Money from organized crime combined with funds from more respectable investors—Wall Street banks, union pension funds, the Mormon Church and the Princeton University endowment. Tourists flocked to the resorts—8 million a year by 1954—drawn by performers such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley, and by rows of slot machines and gaming tables.
From the 1940s onward Las Vegas enjoyed a military boom as World War II bases gave way to Cold War facilities, most famously the Nevada Test Site, where over 100 nuclear bombs were detonated above ground between 1951 and 1963. Mushroom clouds were often visible from the hotels on the Strip, and postcards proclaimed Las Vegas the “Up and Atom City.”