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Here’s How Las Vegas Got Started (Explained)

Glitter Gultch in downtown Vegas is where Las Vegas got it's start

Las Vegas is one of the most visited cities in the world, and you may be wondering how Las Vegas got started? I’ve been wondering the same thing, so after a bit of research, here’s what I found.

In 1930, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill authorizing the construction of Hoover Dam. This construction project caused an influx of workers to the Las Vegas Valley seeking jobs. These mostly single male workers created a large-scale market for entertainment, and thus Las Vegas was born.

That’s the short answer, but of course, there’s more to it than that. Here’s the whole story of how Las Vegas got started.

Las Vegas In The Beginning – What’s in a Name?

In the early 1800s, a Mexican merchant named Antonio Armijo led a small trade caravan to the valley, and it was a man in the group named Rafael Rivera who gave Las Vegas its name.

In Spanish, Las Vegas means “The Meadows.” It may be hard to believe looking at it now, but at the time, there were several springs and wetlands in the valley that provided an oasis of water, making the Las Vegas area a stopover point when traveling to nearby regions.

Las Vegas The Early Years (1855 – 1905)

remant of natural spring at mormon fort in las vegas
This image shows the remnants of a natural spring at Mormon Fort, which was the site of the first settlers in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress.

It wasn’t until the mid-1850s that a small group of Mormon missionaries traveled to inhabit the Las Vegas Valley from southern Utah. They established an adobe fort, but due to the extreme summer heat and some conflict between the leaders of the group, the fort was abandoned in 1857.

In 1902 1,800 acres of land were purchased by the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, and the area began to draw a few American farmers. Upon completion of the railroad line from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, a larger number of Mormons began to migrate into the area.

As wells were dug, water began to be piped into the town allowing for more robust population growth.  This also allowed Las Vegas to become a prime water stop for trains and wagons heading to either Los Angeles or continuing east.

Nevada Gambling Outlawed (1905 – 1929)

The City of Las Vegas was founded in 1905, and in 1906 the first hotel in downtown Las Vegas was built. It was originally named Hotel Nevada, but today it is known as the Golden Gate. (See my article about the Golden Gate Hotel here).

The surrounding area known as Clark County was created in 1909.

Not long after the city was incorporated in 1911, Nevada State became the last state in the west to make gambling illegal. It even made the common custom of flipping a coin for a drink illegal. Of course, taking a popular pastime and making it illegal just drove it underground.

Crime Bosses and Sin City (1930 – 1941)

It was the beginning of the construction of Boulder Dam, or Hoover Dam, as it was later named, when the Las Vegas population really began to boom.

During off-hours, the male construction workers went looking for a good time, and local businessmen and crime bosses were happy to cash in on the demand.

slot machine players las vegas circa 1940
Slot Machine Players, circa 1940. Library of Congress

Mafia crime bosses and moneymen started developing casinos and showgirl establishments to keep the workers happy and give them something to spend their pay on.

Even though it was well known that crime figures were behind many of these establishments, Las Vegas officials tried to maintain a respectable reputation for the city.

Prohibition was still in effect throughout the country, but as everyone knows, that didn’t stop a good time if you knew where to look.

In a major scandal of the day, a federal official on a tour of the dam construction site was caught with the odor of alcohol on his breath after a visit to the Block 16 area of Las Vegas, which was a known area of ill-repute.

Because of this, the American government decided to build the town of Boulder City close to the dam for the workers. The town was federally controlled and therefore maintained a higher level of moral standards and a better reputation than Las Vegas (Read here to find out why Las Vegas is called Sin City).

Press play to learn more about the history of Las Vegas.

Gambling Makes a Comeback in Las Vegas

The Nevada State legislature, realizing how profitable gambling would be for local businesses, legalized gaming again in 1931. Since Las Vegas already had several illegally established underground gambling businesses, it took the lead in what was to become a major industry.

(Find out where you can still play coin-operated slot machines in Las Vegas in our article here).

Soon casinos started popping up on Fremont Street downtown (Wikipedia). Fremont street was the first paved street in Las Vegas and also had the first traffic signal installed there in 1931. Las Vegas was well on its way to becoming the official gambling capital of the world.

The feds did their best to keep the government dam workers away from Las Vegas, but secret routes and smuggling were developed to sneak the workers into Las Vegas anyway.

roulette players las vegas circa 1940
Roulette players. Las Vegas, Nevada 1940 Authur Rothstein Library of Congress.

Even with some of the workers still finding their way into the city, businesses in Las Vegas were hurting due to the official restriction of workers, but in 1935 the hydroelectric dam was finally completed, and the switch for electricity was turned on. Las Vegas would never be the same.

The city of Las Vegas was the dam’s first electricity customer, and the power flowed onto Fremont Street, and so did the tourists. The downtown Fremont area became known as Glitter Gulch because of all the new bright lights powered by the abundant electricity of Hoover Dam (see our article about visiting Hoover Dam here).

Even though the dam workers left after construction was completed, Lake Mead and Hoover Dam themselves became major tourism draws, and it was soon evident that more hotels needed to be built to accommodate the high-class tourists that were beginning to arrive.

Las Vegas During World War II (1941 – 1945)

During World War II, the U.S. Army moved into Las Vegas and developed a gunnery school for the Army Air Corps. The city deeded the land over to the army in what would eventually be Nellis Air Force Base. (Nellis Air Force Base website here).

The military wasn’t happy about prostitution being legal within Las Vegas and eventually forced the city to move legal prostitution outside the city limits putting the red light district and infamous Block 16, in particular, out of business.

The Las Vegas Strip is Born

In 1941 El Rancho Vegas was opened for business and became the first resort on the Las Vegas Strip. It became as famous for its delicious buffet as for the lavish property itself.

The mob was still heavily involved in Las Vegas and its casino properties behind the scenes, but mob bosses never directly owned the casinos. That changed in 1946 when mobster Bugsy Segel opened The Flamingo.

wax figure of Bugsy Segel, a notorious mobster who had a hand in operating many early Las Vegas casinos.
Mobster Bugsy Segel at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress.

Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (1906 – 1947) was a charismatic crime boss who stepped to the forefront of the development on the Strip in the early 1900s. After financing and handling (behind the scenes) several of the early casinos in Las Vegas, he took more of a hands-on role when he oversaw the final development and construction of Flamingo Las Vegas.

It’s rumored he named the Flamingo casino after his girlfriend Virginia Hill, whom he nicknamed Flamingo due to her long legs.

Post-War Las Vegas Expansion

The Flamingo lost money in the beginning, and Bugsy died in a shootout in Los Angeles, but organized crime families continued to tighten their grip on Las Vegas because they knew the payoff from legalized gambling would be huge.

Just after World War II, millions of people a year were visiting Las Vegas and injecting large amounts of cash into the local economy. Gambling wasn’t the only draw for tourism, however.

Big stars such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, and Dean Martin were performing in small intimate settings throughout the city, and tourists were lining up to see them.

As soon as the show was over, people went right back to gambling and eating. It was a big cash cow for the mob and legitimate businesses alike.

Nearby Atomic Testing

As The Strip was exploding in popularity, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was testing atomic explosions in the atmosphere at the Nevada Test Site 130 miles north of The Strip.

The dangers from atomic fallout were grossly underestimated, and Las Vegas hosted Atomic Cocktail Parties from the casino rooftops where the mushroom clouds in the desert could be watched. The nuclear testing was heavily promoted as just another Las Vegas attraction.

mushroom cloud from atomic bomb testing near las vegas, nevada
Atomic Bomb Testing Near Las Vegas in 1951. Library of Congress

The testing continued until 1963, when the explosive tests were moved underground. Atomic testing in the Nevada deserts was eventually discontinued altogether in 1992.

The Era of Modern Las Vegas Begins (1956 – 1969)

Howard Hughes, the wealthy and eccentric visionary of the aviation industry, moved to Las Vegas in 1966. After refusing to leave his room at the Desert Inn casino, he finally decided to just buy the hotel so he wouldn’t continue to be disturbed.

He used his wealth and influence to buy up many of the casinos in town and began to drive organized crime out of the city. As a result, Las Vegas started to develop more of an upscale, cosmopolitan vibe.

Because The Strip was officially located outside the city limits, the City of Las Vegas was unable to collect taxes on the money strip properties were bringing in, so they attempted to annex The Strip into the city to get their hands on the tax money.

However, the owners of the properties on The Strip outsmarted the city and pulled a fancy legal maneuver to create the unincorporated township of “Paradise.” According to Nevada state law, an unincorporated township cannot be annexed by an incorporated city. 

Even today, the majority of The Strip lies outside the official boundaries of the City of Las Vegas, meaning that most visitors to “Las Vegas” never actually step foot in the city of Vegas.

Present-Day Las Vegas

Despite various ups and downs over the years, the Las Vegas Strip has become one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations. Its modern amenities, glittering lights, and fancy shows bring in over 46 million people each year from all over the world.

view of the modern day las vegas strip
Las Vegas Strip today, Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress

Las Vegas has transformed itself from Sin City into a family-friendly mega-resort destination.

While gambling is still a major attraction, shows, shopping, fine dining, and legendary attractions have taken an equal spotlight in recent years. If you want to do something in Las Vegas and you can’t find it, maybe it doesn’t exist.

(Be sure to check out the Vegas Attractions section of our Visitor Resource Guide here).

And that is how Las Vegas, an unlikely spot in a dry, otherwise desolate desert, got started.

Related Questions

What is the oldest casino in Las Vegas? The oldest casino in Las Vegas that is still in operation today is the Golden Gate casino. It’s located in downtown Las Vegas on Fremont Street. The Golden Gate was originally opened in 1906 under the name The Nevada Hotel.

Who owns the most casinos in Las Vegas? MGM Resorts International is the largest casino owner in Las Vegas and owns more than half of the 150,000 hotel rooms on the Las Vegas Strip. MGM’s properties include; Bellagio, Circus Circus, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, and The Mirage.

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