History of Las Vegas

Prehistoric Southern Nevada was a virtual marsh of abundant water and vegetation.

As eons passed, the marsh receded. Rivers disappeared beneath the surface. The once teeming wetlands evolved into a parched, arid landscape that supported only the hardiest of plants and animals. Water trapped underground in the complicated geologic formations of the Las Vegas Valley sporadically surfaced to nourish luxuriant plants, creating an oasis in the desert as the life- giving water flowed to the Colorado River.

Construction workers in 1993 discovered the remains of a Columbian mammoth that roamed the area during prehistoric times. Paleontologists estimate the bones to be 8,000 to 15,000 years old. Hidden for centuries from all but native Americans, the Las Vegas Valley oasis was protected from discovery by the surrounding harsh and unforgiving Mojave Desert.

Mexican trader Antonio Armijo, leading a 60-man party along the Spanish Trail to Los Angeles in 1829, veered from the accepted route.

While Armijo's caravan was camped Christmas Day about 100 miles northeast of present day Las Vegas, a scouting party rode west in search of water. An experienced young scout, Rafael Rivera, left the main party and ventured into the unexplored desert. Within two weeks, he discovered Las Vegas Springs.


The exact date is unknown, but Rafael Rivera became the first known non-Indian to set foot in the oasis-like Las Vegas Valley.

The abundant artesian spring water discovered at Las Vegas shortened the Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, eased rigors for Spanish traders and hastened the rush west for California gold. Between 1830 and 1848, the name "Vegas," as shown on maps of that day, was changed to Las Vegas which means "The Meadows" in Spanish.

Some 14 years after Rivera's discovery, John C. Fremont led an overland expedition west and camped at Las Vegas Springs on May 13, 1844.

His name is remembered today in neon as well as museums and history books. The Fremont Hotel-Casino in Downtown Las Vegas bears his name as does Fremont Street -- the main thoroughfare through the heart of casino-lined Glitter Gulch.


Mormon settlers from Salt Lake City traveled to Las Vegas to protect the Los Angeles-Salt Lake City mail route and in 1855 began building a 150-square-foot fort of sun-dried bricks made of clay soil and grass, a substance known as adobe.

The Mormons planted fruit trees, cultivated vegetables and mined lead for bullets at Potosi Mountain. Mormon pioneers abandoned the settlement in 1858, partly because of Indian raids. A portion of the "Mormon Fort" has withstood the ravages of time and is an historic site today near the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard North and Washington Avenue. Scientists began an archeological dig on the site in November 1992.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) currently make up about 12 percent of the Southern Nevada population and in December 1989 dedicated a Mormon Temple in Las Vegas. The temple spires are visible in the foothills of Sunrise Mountain to the east of the city.


By 1890 railroad developers had determined the water-rich Las Vegas Valley would be a prime location for a stop facility and town. More than a quarter century earlier, Nevada, known as the Battle Born State, had been admitted to the Union in 1864 during the Civil War.

Work on the first railroad grade into Las Vegas began the summer of 1904. The tent town called Las Vegas sprouted saloons, stores and boarding houses.

Rails were connected with the eastern segment of track in October 1904. The San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, later absorbed by its parent the Union Pacific, made its inaugural run from California to points east on Jan. 20, 1905.

The railroad yards were located at the birthplace of a partially paved, dusty Fremont Street. Jackie Gaughan's Plaza Hotel, located at Main and Fremont streets in Downtown Las Vegas, today stands on the site of the original Union Pacific Railroad depot. Freight and passenger trains still use the depot site at the hotel as a terminal -- the only railroad station in the world located inside a hotel-casino.

Advent of the railroad led to the founding of Las Vegas on May 15, 1905. The SanPedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, owned by Montana Senator Williams Andrews Clark, auctioned off 1,200 lots in a single day in an area which today is casino-lined Glitter Gulch.


Nevada was the first state to legalize casino-style gambling, but not before it reluctantly was the last western state to outlaw gaming in the first decade of the 20th Century.

At midnight, Oct. 1, 1910, a strict anti-gambling law became effective in Nevada. It even forbid the western custom of flipping a coin for the price of a drink.

The Nevada State Journal newspaper in Reno reported: "Stilled forever is the click of the roulette wheel, the rattle of dice and the swish of cards."

"Forever" lasted less than three weeks in Las Vegas.

Gamblers quickly set up underground games where patrons who knew the proper password again jousted day and night with Lady Luck. Illegal but accepted gambling flourished until 1931 when the Nevada Legislature approved a legalized gambling bill authored by Phil Tobin, a Northern Nevada rancher. Tobin had never visited Las Vegas and had no interest in gambling.

He said the legalized gambling legislation was designed to raise needed taxes for public schools. Today, more than 43 percent of the state general fund is fed by gambling tax revenue and more than 34 percent of the state's general fund is pumped into public education.

Legalized gambling returned to Nevada during the Great Depression. It legitimized a small but lucrative industry. That same year construction started on the Hoover Dam Project which, at its peak, employed 5,128 people.

The young town of Las Vegas virtually was insulated from economic hardships that wracked most Americans in the 1930s. Jobs and money were prevalent because of Union Pacific Railroad development, legal gambling and construction of Hoover Dam 34 miles away in Black Canyon on the Colorado River.

World War II stalled major resort growth in Las Vegas. But the seeds for future expansion had been planted in 1941 when hotelman Tommy Hull built the El Rancho Vegas Hotel-Casino on what is now vacant land opposite the current Sahara Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

During World War II, nearby Nellis Air Force Base grew into a key military installation. Originally built to train B-29 gunners, it later became the training ground for the nation's ace fighter pilots. Many key military personnel assigned to Nellis during World War II later returned as civilians to take up permanent residency in Las Vegas. Today thousands of people are connected to Nellis in the form of active duty personnel, civilian employees, military dependents and military retirees.


The success of the El Rancho Vegas triggered a small building boom in the late 1940s including construction of several hotel- casinos fronting on a two-lane highway leading into Las Vegas from Los Angeles. The stretch of road evolved into today's Las Vegas Strip. Early hotels included the Last Frontier, Thunderbird (Still standing as the Arubu Hotel & Spa) and Club Bingo.

The El Rancho Vegas was razed by fire on June 17, 1960. As time passed, many other first-generation Strip resorts lost their identity through absorption by new owners, demolition, extensive renovation and name changes.

By far the most celebrated of the early resorts was the Flamingo Hotel, built by mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, a member of the Meyer Lansky crime organization.

The Flamingo with a giant pink neon sign and replicas of pink flamingos on the lawn, opened on New Year's Eve 1946. Six months later, Siegel was murdered by an unknown gunman who fired a shotgun blast as Siegel sat in the living room of the Beverly Hills, Calif., home of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill.

Siegel's life was the subject of a 1992 movie entitled "Bugsy." Although the historic accuracy of the movie is questionable, the movie prompted the Flamingo to open the "Bugsy Celebrity Theater" in November 1992. The Flamingo, after numerous ownership changes, is now owned and operated by the Hilton Hotel Group. Its proper name is the Flamingo Hilton.

While the El Rancho Vegas and other 1940s resorts followed a western ranch-styled theme, the Flamingo was what Siegel called a "carpet joint." It was modeled after resort hotels in Miami. Only the Flamingo Hotel name has survived the 1940s era of Las Vegas Strip development. The final end of the Flamingo as Bugsy knew it was announced early in 1993 when Hilton Corp. revealed plans to construct a $104 million tower addition at the Strip resort -- the last of a six tower master plan. The addition opened in the spring of 1995.

Architectural plans included razing the outmoded, motel-style buildings at the rear of the property, dooming the fortress-like "Bugsy Suite" and bullet proof office used by the gangster before his death in 1946. In December 1993, the last remnants of Bugsy Siegel and his residence were destroyed when the hotel bulldozed the Oregon Building that held the suite in which the gangster once lived.


Resort building continued to accelerate in Las Vegas in the 1950s. Wilbur Clark, once a hotel bellman in San Diego, Calif., opened the Desert Inn in 1950. Two years later, Milton Prell opened the Sahara Hotel on the site of the old Club Bingo. The Sands Hotel opened that same year, 1952. Those hotel names have survived but the properties have undergone numerous ownership changes.

In 1955, the Riviera Hotel became the first Strip highrise in at nine stories. Previously, Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn had offered guests the highest unobstructed panoramic view of the Las Vegas Valley from the resort's third-floor Skyroom, a cocktail and dancing haunt of visitors, residents and celebrities.

Other resorts that opened during the building boom begun in the 1950s included the Royal Nevada, Dunes, Hacienda, Tropicana and Stardust hotels on the Strip and the Downtown Fremont Hotel-Casino. The Royal Nevada later was absorbed into the adjoining Stardust Hotel property.

In another part of the city, the Moulin Rouge Hotel-Casino opened in 1955 at a time when blacks were not welcomed guests at Strip casinos and black entertainers were required to live off- premise while entertaining Strip audiences. The Moulin Rouge, frequented by all races, was built to accommodate the growing black population.

Joe Louis, the late heavyweight champion of the world, was a Moulin Rouge owner-host. The Moulin Rouge has had a stormy past, closing and re-opening many times over the years. As times and attitudes changed, Louis became a much loved casino host at Caesars Palace on the Strip. The Moulin Rouge was declared a national historic site in 1992 when plans for its revival were announced.

City and county community leaders also realized in the 1950s the need for a Las Vegas convention facility. The initial goal was to fill hotel rooms with conventioneers during slack tourist months.

A site was chosen one block east of the Las Vegas Strip and a 6,300-seat, silver-domed rotunda with an adjoining 90,000-square- foot exhibit hall opened in April 1959 on the site of the current Las Vegas Convention Center.

The silver dome was demolished in 1990 to make room for convention center expansion to a 1.6-million-square-foot facility of which 1.3 million square feet is exhibit space. It is currently one of the largest single-level facilities in the world.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, supported mainly by room tax revenues, today is a major player in attracting more than 28.2 million visitors to Las Vegas in 1994, including more than 2 million convention delegates.


Entertainment, along with gambling, built Las Vegas' reputation as a playland getaway of the world. People began to flock to the city not just to gamble, but also for the fantastic entertainment that Las Vegas shows provided.

When the El Rancho Vegas was the only resort on the Las Vegas Strip in 1941, singers, comedians, strippers, instrumentalists, dancers and a wide variety of performers were booked to entertain hotel guests in the resort's small, intimate showroom.

The hotel-casinos that followed copied the successful star format for a number of years.

The Stardust was the first hotel to break with the star policy by debuting a stage spectacular as its main entertainment feature. The resort imported the Lido de Paris from France. It was acclaimed by critics as a more spectacular version than the Paris original.

The Lido had a 31-year run at the Stardust Hotel. It was replaced in 1991 with a new spectacular entitled Enter The Night.

The success of Lido encouraged other resorts to adopt a production show policy.

The Dunes, which disappeared from the skyline in a fiery, dusty staged implosion in 1993, engaged Minsky's Follies in 1957, the first time that topless showgirls debuted on the Las Vegas Strip.

The Tropicana Hotel bought the American rights to the spectacular Folies Bergere. It remains a showroom favorite to this day. Backstage tours are a hot Las Vegas attraction.

During the 50s and 60s, casino lounges also provided continuous entertainment from dusk to dawn at no charge to the customer except the cost of a drink. These lounges, which became major entertainment attractions in their own right, spawned the names of Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene, Alan King, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, the Mary Kaye Trio and many others.


In the initial years of the Las Vegas Strip, "no" was a big word -- no cover, no minimum, no state speed limit, no sales tax, no waiting period for marriages, no state income tax and no regulation of gambling as it is known today. In modern times about the only "no's" remaining are no state income tax and no waiting period to obtain a marriage license. No cover charge is still the rule in some casino lounges.

The state legislature has imposed sales taxes and strict gambling regulation laws. The federal government has forced Nevada, as well as other states, to adopt highway speed limits.

Nevada gambling styles, games and machines evolved to keep pace with more sophisticated, affluent players. Baccarat, known in France as chemin de fer, appeared in high-roller Strip casinos. Keno writers no longer used black indelible ink brushes to mark tickets. Mechanical slot machines, once affectionately termed "one- armed bandits," became antique collector items in the age of electronic gaming.

Blackjack dealers no longer dealt single decks but switched to "shoes" that held multiple decks. Silver dollars, once the coin of the realm in Nevada, disappeared and were replaced in casinos with silver-dollar-size tokens.

In the 60s, multiple coin slot machines debuted. Mechanical penny and nickel slot machines that took one coin at a time evolved into the popular computerized dollar slot machines capable of accepting multiple tokens simultaneously. High-roller slot players today can find machines that accept $500 tokens. The size of jackpots grew from a few hundred dollars to $10 million dollar progressive jackpots paid on a computerized statewide network of slot machines.

In the 70s, video machines that substituted television screens for reels, were introduced. Computerized slot machines now feature poker, keno, blackjack, bingo and craps.

Some slot machines accept credit-card style gambling. Casinos continue their evolution toward high-tech wagering with every applicable breakthrough in modern technology.


In 1976, when casino-style gaming was legalized in Atlantic City, N.J., it became apparent to Las Vegas casino owners that Nevada no longer could claim exclusive rights to gambling casinos. It perhaps hastened the beginning of another era for the Strip -- the megaresort.

Hotel-casinos began the race to become full-blown destination resorts for travelers, vacationers, gamblers, conventioneers and all members of the family.

Circus Circus Enterprises Inc., in October 1968 already had opened a circus-tent-shaped casino complete with midway games and rides for youngsters. A hotel was added in 1972. Owners of the resort have developed a $90 million water theme park called Grand Slam Canyon on five acres adjoining the Circus Circus Hotel-Casino.

The entertainment park, a takeoff on the Grand Canyon, includes 140-foot mountains, a 90-foot Havasupai Falls, and a coursing river where the adventuresome can assault river rapids, plunge over a 50-foot waterfall, fly through the canyon and caverns in a double-loop, cork-screw roller coaster or lounge on beach- rimmed, lagoon-like pools.

Grand Slam Canyon, which opened Aug. 23, 1993, is climate- controlled and enclosed by a vented pink space-frame dome.

The 3,049-room Mirage Hotel-Casino opened in the fall of 1989 at a construction cost of $630 million. It features a white tiger habitat, a dolphin pool, an elaborate swimming pool and waterfall and a man-made volcano that belches fire and water.

Mirage owner Steve Wynn, who also owns the Golden Nugget Hotel-Casino in Downtown Las Vegas, constructed the 2,900-room Treasure Island adjacent to The Mirage at a cost of $430 million. The hotel features Buccaneer Bay where a full scale pirate ship and British frigate engage in a battle of cannon fire. In the end, the pirates blast the British and the frigate slowly sinks beneath the churning waves.

With Treasure Island, which opened Oct. 27, 1993, and the Mirage side by side on the Las Vegas Strip, Wynn has nearly 6,000 rooms on a 100-acre site.

Additionally, Wynn purchased the 164-acre Dunes Hotel and Country Club on the Las Vegas Strip for $75 million in 1992. He spent $1 million renovating the country club on the golf course. In October 1993, the flamboyant casino owner staged a $1.5 million spectacular in which the north tower of the Dunes Hotel was imploded and the famous Dunes Hotel sign destroyed amid a shower of fireworks never before equaled west of the Mississippi.

More than 200,000 people crowded onto the Strip to witness the spectacular.

Wynn plans to build a resort named Beau Rivage on the Dunes site and has announced a deal with Gold Strike Resorts to construct a hotel/casino on another part of the property north of the Tropicana Avenue and the Las Vegas Strip intersection.

The Excalibur, a 4,000-room colossus, opened June 19, 1990. The imaginative medieval "castle" was developed by Circus Circus Enterprises Inc. for between $260 and $290 million. Some floors are devoted solely to non-gambling entertainment for children and the young at heart. Court jesters perform in public areas. The showroom features jousting on horseback by knights of King Arthur's court. William Bennett, founder of Circus Circus Enterprises Inc., constructed the 2,526-room, pyramid-shaped Luxor a quarter mile south of the Excalibur.

The Luxor, a modern marvel which cost $375 million dollars to build, is linked to the Excalibur by monorail.

The Luxor features a full-scale reproduction of King Tut's Tomb. The world's most powerful beam of light shines from the top of the pyramid. It is visible to planes 250 miles away in Los Angeles. The atrium in the middle of the pyramid could hold nine Boeing 747s stacked one atop of another.

The most ambitious resort project in the history of Las Vegas is located at the intersection of the Las Vegas Strip and Tropicana Avenue. It is the MGM Grand Hotel & Theme Park -- the largest resort hotel in the world and the dream of pioneer Las Vegas hotel developer and multimillionaire entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian.

The $1 billion, 112-acre resort hotel, casino and theme park highlights the MGM Hollywood image. With the 33-acre theme park as the center piece, the 5,005-room hotel boasts a 171,500-square-foot casino, 12 theme restaurants, a 1,700-seat production showroom, a 630-seat production theater, three swimming pools, five tennis courts, a child care center and a 215,000-square-foot, 15,200-seat special events arena for concerts, sporting events and exhibitions. The MGM Grand Hotel and Theme Park opened Dec. 18, 1993.

In August 1994, MGM Grand Inc., and Primadonna Resorts Inc., revealed a joint venture to build a 1,500-room hotel/casino on 18- acres at Tropicana Avenue and the Las Vegas Strip. The $300 million resort, named New York, New York, will highlight the best the "Big Apple" has to offer. The property's skyline will feature replicas of such New York City landmarks as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. The resort is scheduled to open sometime in 1996.

The huge hotel conglomerate ITT Sheraton Corp. made it's first foray into Las Vegas and gaming in 1993 when it purchased the Desert Inn Hotel Casino from Kerkorian's Tracinda Corp.

Late in 1994, Sheraton announced a deal to purchase Caesars World Inc., the parent company of Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip for $1.7 billion. The deal was expected to be finalized sometime in 1995, pending approval from a host of state and federal regulatory agencies.

When New Year 1994 dawned in Las Vegas, the dusty railroad town that started its race toward the 21st Century in 1905 boasted more than 86,000 hotel and motel rooms and had become home to 13 of the 20 largest resort hotels in the world. By the start of 1995, the city was awash with more than 88,500 rooms.


Downtown Las Vegas, where it all began, has launched an extravagant project to keep pace with the booming Strip. The multimillion dollar project is called "The Fremont Street Experience." The Nevada Legislature passed enabling laws in 1993 to make the project financially feasible and construction was started in 1994. The project is scheduled to be completed by September 1995.

The Jerde Partnership, a firm specializing in creating lively urban centers, plans to wrap the entire downtown area in light and sound. "The Fremont Street Experience" is a public/private partnership between the Fremont Street Experience Company -- an entity owned and operated by a group of Downtown casino operators -- and the city of Las Vegas.

The $63 million project consists primarily of a space frame that will rise nearly 100 feet and stretch approximately 1,500 feet along Fremont Street from Main to Fourth streets.

Set into the inner surface of the space frame will be 1.5 million lights. The lights will come to life nightly in a multi- sensory show that will be combined with such theatrical effects as smoke, fog and robotic lights.

The Fremont Street Experience also calls for landscaping and patterned paving. Street performers will entertain patrons enjoying sidewalk cafes or viewing goods on festive pushcarts and kiosks. Enhanced security and cleaning will help contribute to a safe, enjoyable visit.

Also planned is a Downtown parking building for 1,500 vehicles with an entertainment-style retail shopping plaza.

The Fremont Street Experience will become a center for festivals, holiday celebrations and live entertainment when completed, according to planners.

Fremont Street was officially closed to vehicle traffic Sept. 7, 1994. On Sept. 8, state and city officials, prominent Las Vegans and members of the Fremont Street Experience participated in a "cruise through history," in a line-up of classic cars from the Nevada Car Club Council that made the last vehicular ride down Fremont Street to celebrate the next step in the evolution of Glitter Gulch.

The Public grand opening of the Fremont Street Experience was on December 14, 1995. The Fremont Street Experience features Viva Vision, the world's largest video screen which is 1,500 feet long, 90 feet wide and suspended 90 feet above the urban pedestrian mall. Viva Vision features nightly spectacular light and sounds shows with 12.5 million LED lights and a 550,000-watt sound system. Fremont Street Experience is a one-of-a-kind venue which includes free nightly concerts and entertainment on two stages. With direct pedestrian access to 10 casinos, more than 60 restaurants and specialty retail kiosks, Fremont Street Experience attracts over 17 million annual visitors.

From the modest beginnings of Las Vegas, Fremont Street initially was in the forefront of the gambling industry. It became the city's first paved street in 1925, the first street to have a traffic light and it is the site of the first Downtown highrise -- the Fremont Hotel, built in 1956.

The Apache Hotel on Fremont Street in 1932 was the first Las Vegas resort to have an elevator. The Horseshoe was the first casino to install carpet. And the first gaming license was issued to a Downtown Fremont Street gambling hall.

Downtown Las Vegas already had 36 years of history by the time the El Rancho Vegas became the first hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip in 1941.

Most of the above information provided by the Las Vegas News Bureau.