The History of Las Vegas, Entertainment Capital of the World
Nestled in the heart of the Mojave Desert and the southern Nevada mountains, Las Vegas has, over the decades, earned an international reputation as the entertainment capital of the world. Today, the "City without Clocks" is home to nearly 650,000 residents and attracts between 35 and 40 million visitors annually. Its unique and captivating history reveals how this arid oasis became, in just a century, a vibrant symbol of gambling and fortune. Join GAMRFIRSTas we delve into the key events that birthed this iconic city.
Before Las Vegas: An Arid Western Desert
At the beginning of the 19th century, Las Vegas did not yet exist. Nevada officially belonged to the Spanish, and only the Paiute Native Americans inhabited this arid land in the American West.
Things changed in 1829 when about sixty men, led by Antonio Armijo, were sent into the plains of this sparsely populated territory. Their objective was to establish a trade route between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. On the trail of the "Old Spanish Trail," Mexican scout Rafael Rivera observed underground water sources. He marked them on maps as Las Vegas, which means "fertile plains" in Spanish. Merchants, explorers, and travelers would later use these water sources to replenish during their journeys.
From Arid Plains to American Settlement
The Beginnings of Las Vegas
In 1844, a settlement was established, and the first residents began constructing a fort. To this day, the fort remains in collective memory as the city's first official building.
Four years later, in 1848, a large campaign to evangelize the Native Americans began, organized by the Mormons. However, things quickly soured. Crop yields were insufficient, and the Paiutes rebelled. The Utah War, pitting the Mormons against the United States federal government, erupted in 1857. A year later, the conflict ended. The fort, abandoned during this turbulent period, was reclaimed by the official army and renamed Fort Baker. Travelers then began making it a regular stop on their journey through the Mojave Desert.
1905: The Birth of Las Vegas
Over the years, an irrigation system developed, ensuring more regular and higher-quality harvests. The construction of a railroad between Albuquerque and Los Angeles marked the beginning of the city's growth.
In just a few years, this typical Western town became a major railway hub for steam locomotives. On May 15, 1905, it officially adopted the name Las Vegas.
Las Vegas: The Rise of Casinos Under Mafia Influence
Several events would contribute to the development of Las Vegas. From the end of World War II until the early '80s, the mafia maintained control over the entire city.
The Key Role of the Hoover Dam in Las Vegas' Rise
In 1935, the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River gave new life to the city. The workers, housed 50 kilometers away in Boulder City, had no access to alcohol or gambling. Nevada authorities saw a promising opportunity. To attract these often idle and single men, they legalized gambling, alcoholic beverages, prostitution, and divorce. Las Vegas earned the nickname "Sin City," and every weekend, dam workers flocked to the entertainment activities offered on Fremont Street, the city's main thoroughfare.
Simultaneously, mass tourism developed around the dam's construction. Curious visitors increasingly made detours to Las Vegas. The city adorned its streets with neon lights, and many luxurious clubs and hotels were built. In 1931, the famous casino The Northern Club opened its doors on the Strip. This iconic avenue has since become the epicenter of Las Vegas.
The completion of the dam's construction in 1935 didn't end this enthusiasm. It even intensified a few years later, with the United States' entry into World War II and the establishment of several military camps in Nevada. Encouraged by the influx of visitors, Las Vegas opened the world's first resort in 1941. The El Rancho hotel offered tourists entertainment around the clock, including a casino, a pool, and performances by the biggest stars of the time.
Nuclear Tests: A Boon for Las Vegas
Another major event contributed to the city's exceptional growth. On January 27, 1951, the first American nuclear tests began in the Nevada desert. Despite health risks, numerous tourists came to admire the atomic mushrooms visible from the buildings of Las Vegas. The city took advantage of the opportunity to develop attractions around this theme.
A Glittering City Controlled by the Mafia
In 1945, bootleggers and criminals Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky invested in the city. Las Vegas then became one of the main headquarters of the mafia, where money laundering and trafficking reigned supreme. During the same period, the famous casino Sands, Desert Inn, Flamingo, Sahara, and Stardust were built. In 1966, the city celebrated the opening of Caesars Palace, long considered the world's largest hotel-casino.
In just a few years, Las Vegas became the temple of entertainment. Casinos and palaces, increasingly luxurious and spectacular, paid stars to perform on their stages. Paul Newman, Paul Anka, Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Dean Martin, and the legendary Elvis Presley were among them. Elvis dedicated a song to the city in 1964, titled "Viva Las Vegas."
The mafia retained control of this iconic Nevada location until the 1980s, bringing with it a slew of crimes and misdemeanors, including money laundering, embezzlement to Chicago, and disputes.
Fun Fact: The World's Largest Hotels
When it opened in 1958, the Stardust, with its 1,065 rooms, was the world's largest hotel. Today, several Las Vegas establishments still rank in the world's top 10. These include Luxor, Wynn Las Vegas, and MGM Grand Las Vegas.
1980 to 2000: Transition to Family-Oriented Tourism
Mafiosi Hand Over Control
In reality, the transformation began in 1966 with the purchase of Desert Inn by Howard Hughes, a wealthy American billionaire close to the Mormons. His ambition was to erase Las Vegas' mafia past and turn it into a global hub for family entertainment.
The process took time and required FBI intervention. Starting in the 1970s, the FBI began investigating the criminal underworld. Through infiltrations and surveillance, agents identified key players, their activities, and fund transfers to Chicago.
In the 1980s, things finally started to change, in part due to the arrest of Anthony Spilotro in 1981, a member of the famous Hole in the Wall Gang, a group of burglars. His testimony led to numerous investigations and arrests. Mafia members who controlled various casinos were gradually ousted. The conversions of former criminals even made headlines. For example, Oscar Goodman, a former mafia lawyer, became mayor of Las Vegas in 1999.
1990: A New Era for Las Vegas Begins
While the world witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, Las Vegas underwent its own revolution. Some casinos were demolished to make way for even more luxurious new hotels. Mega-resorts like New York New York, Bellagio, The Venetian, and Paris offered their customers extravagant entertainment 24/7, unique in the world. Tourists from around the globe flocked to see Céline Dion, Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, Adele, and Madonna perform. In addition to concerts, David Copperfield's shows, Cirque du Soleil performances, strip teases, and boxing matches ensured year-round entertainment.
The influx of tourists and economic growth led to a significant population boom. The Las Vegas metropolitan area went from 700,000 inhabitants in the early '90s to over 3 million in 2022.
Once known as "Disneyland for adults," Las Vegas now aims to be more family-friendly. Activities, dining, and shows increasingly cater to this clientele, with more affordable prices. However, casinos remain at the heart of the city. Las Vegas now boasts over 120 establishments open day and night, offering everything from frantic slot machines to the excitement of roulette, blackjack, poker, and baccarat. These thrills and the atmosphere can also be found in online casinos!