The History of Las Vegas  

Las Vegas

Las Vegas city is famous for gambling, vice and other forms of mostly adult-style entertainment, despite, ironically, having been originally settled by members of the Latter-Day Saints church. But, due to the current attractions, Vegas, also known as Sin City, is able to attract millions of visitors and billions of dollars in revenue to the flashy city in the southern area of Nevada. The founders of the city of Las Vegas in the early 20th Century, were mainly ranchers and railroad workers who quickly realized that the city could thrive through the growth of the gambling industry.

The region that was later named Nevada and Las Vegas was home to the Native American people known as the Paiute tribe. Rafael Rivera was the very first known person of European ancestry to visit the Las Vegas valley. Rivera opened up a trade route between New Mexico and California in 1821. He named it the Meadows because Las Vegas valley was characterized by spring-watered grass.

The Las Vegas area segued from Spanish control to Mexican territory with the success of the Mexican War of Independence, but control by Mexico was to be short lived, as the Americans won control of huge tracts of northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.


The area did not affected much by the change in national ownership until 1855, when the American leader of the Latter-Day Saints, Brigham Young, sent a group of Mormon settlers to the area. They built a fort on the site of modern Las Vegas but later abandoned it in 1857. The deserted fort was later purchased by Octavius Gass, who named the area the “Los Vegas Rancho."

As with many towns in the West, the ability of a city or region to connect to the railroads (or not), significantly impacted the economic strength of that town or region. This is also true in the development of the Las Vegas region. In 1905 the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad first began running 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 as a city in 1911.

The 1920s and early 1930s (the era of Prohibition), brought with it illegal bars called Speakeasies, many of whom also featured illegal gambling. By 1931, gambling was legal in Vegas, and the growth of the gaming industry in the Vegas desert began.

In 1941, the El Rancho resort was opened on a section of the U.S 91. Shortly afterwards, other casino/hotels opened for business, and this part of the highway began to be called The Strip. Other casinos were built on Fremont Street. Five years later, a powerful and famous mobster named Bugsy Siegel teamed up with mob boss Meyer Lansky to open the Flamingo resort, a famous hotel-casino resort imitated the ambiance and aura of Hollywood and it soon became a destination, especially for the rich and glamorous from Southern California. Needless to say, with Siegel and Lansky as early founders of the casino industry, Las Vegas became a major economic center of organized crime.

Despite the unsavory reputation of the casino industry and the owners of the gaming centers in Vegas, the number of tourists flocking to play in Vegas grew to 8 million by 1954. As the numbers of gamblers increased, the casinos discovered new and inventive ways of bringing in even more money, for example, in wetting up of slot machines in record numbers to accommodate the growing demand for more gaming options.

In 1966, the quirky but brilliant multi-millionaire Howard Hughes saw the Penthouse in the Desert Inn with the intention of acquiring it. The cost to Hughes was a mere $300 million. This purchase by Howard Hughes meant that the organized crime interest in Vegas began to wane favor of more corporate interests.

In 1989, other major industry players and investors began to enter the Vegas casino resort scene. Steve Wynn developed the Mirage, which is now considered Las Vegas’ first mega- resort. Over time, the old casinos glamorized by the now defunct generation of celebrities ( think of the Rat Pack of Sinatra, Martin, and Davis) underwent massive renovations, turning them into massive complexes characterized by fast money and adult fantasy.

Today, online slots have literally overtaken the Las Vegas casinos of the time. Even so, the city has had a fair share of its glamor and fantasy throughout history. The number of resorts continued to grow, as did the numbers of the Great Recession, as data from 2008 indicates that Las Vegas still received an astounding 40 million visitors in the face of economic turmoil, recession, unemployment and housing price collapse.

Las Vegas today continues to grow and to attract visitors and gamblers now that the economic crisis has passed, and, now that the U.S. has actually elected a former casino owner (his casinos were on the East Coast, not in Vegas), in Donald Trump, the somewhat unsavory reputation of Las Vegas and other gambling centers in America may actually change to a more positive image.