A desert metropolis built on gambling, vice and other forms of entertainment, in just a century of existence Las Vegas has drawn millions of visitors and trillions of dollars in wealth to southern Nevada. The city was founded by ranchers and railroad workers but quickly found that its greatest asset was not its springs but its casinos. Las Vegas’s embrace of Old West-style freedoms—gambling and prostitution—provided a perfect home for East Coast organized crime. Beginning in the 1940s, money from drugs and racketeering built casinos and was laundered within them. Visitors came to partake in what the casinos offered: low-cost luxury and the thrill of fantasies fulfilled.
Las Vegas: Prehistory and Founding
Canyon petroglyphs attest to human presence in southern Nevada for more than 10,000 years, and members of the Paiute tribe were in the area as early as A.D. 700. The first person of European ancestry to enter the Las Vegas valley was Rafael Rivera, who scouted the area in 1821 as part of Antonio Armijo’s expedition to open up a trade route—the Old Spanish Trail—between New Mexico and California. Rivera named the valley Las Vegas, “the meadows,” after its spring-watered grasses.
Little changed in the valley following the 1848 shift from Mexican to United States rule until 1855, when Brigham Young sent a group of Mormon settlers to the area. Their settlement was unsuccessful, but their abandoned fort was taken over by Octavius Gass, who named the area the “Los Vegas Rancho” (the altered spelling was to avoid confusion with Las Vegas, New Mexico).
Las Vegas: Birth of a City
In 1905 the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad arrived in Las Vegas, connecting the city with the Pacific and the country’s main rail networks. The future downtown was platted and auctioned by railroad company backers, and Las Vegas was incorporated in 1911.
Nevada outlawed gambling in 1910 but the practice continued in speakeasies and illicit casinos. By the time gambling was legalized again in 1931, organized crime already had roots in the city.
In 1931 construction began on the massive Boulder Dam (later renamed the Hoover Dam), drawing thousands of workers to a site just east of the city. Casinos and showgirl venues opened up on Fremont Street, the town’s sole paved road, to attract the project’s workers. When the dam was completed in 1936, cheap hydroelectricity powered the flashing signs of Fremont’s “Glitter Gulch.”
Las Vegas: The Strip, the Mob and the Age of Glamour
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 Day opening.
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.”
Las Vegas: The Rise of the Mega-Casinos
In 1966 Howard Hughes checked into the penthouse of the Desert Inn and never left, preferring to buy the hotel rather than face eviction. He bought other hotels too—$300 million worth—ushering in an era in which mob interests were displaced by corporate conglomerates.
In 1989 longtime casino developer Steve Wynn opened the Mirage, the city’s first mega-resort. Over the next two decades the strip was transformed yet again: Old casinos were dynamited to make room for massive complexes taking their aesthetic cues from ancient Rome and Egypt, Paris, Venice, New York and other glamorous escapes.
Casinos and entertainment remained Las Vegas’ major employer, and the city grew with the size of the resorts and the numbers of annual visitors. In 2008, even as residents faced recession, rising unemployment and a housing price collapse, the city still received nearly 40 million visitors.