The History Of Las Vegas

  • Updated
  • By Sara Walker
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Dust off your rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses, pull on those leopard skin print hotpants (yes, even the blokes) and get ready because – we’re off to Vegas, baby!

How it all started

Although it’s now famous for being one of the driest cities in the world, the name ‘Las Vegas’ actually means ‘The Meadows’ in Spanish. When Spanish explorers came across the area in the Nevada valley in the 1820s, it was lush and green thanks to several artesian wells, thus the name was suitable. The wells may have dried up, but the name remains.

The first people to establish a settlement were Mormon, who came on an expedition to expand their church in 1855. They set up a fortified mission there, but it lasted only two years before being abandoned. 

The fort they established, which is still there today and is the oldest building in Nevada, attracted other settlers to the area. The building became known as the ‘Las Vegas Ranch’, and in 1882 came into the possession of the Stewart family because of an unpaid debt.

Helen Stewart, who was known as the ‘first lady of Las Vegas’, had a vital role in shaping the city we know today. After her husband was killed in 1884, she bought up neighbouring properties and sold them all to the railroad. In 1905, the county auctioned off 600 plots of land and Las Vegas became a bustling small town.

Casinos come to Las Vegas

Although the name is now synonymous with casinos, Las Vegas wasn’t the birthplace of organised gambling. In fact, the Casinò di Venezia in Venice is over 400 years old, and casinos were already fairly commonplace throughout the US when the modern day Vegas was founded. 

There’s some discrepancy over which is the oldest casino in Vegas. Candidates include the Hotel Nevada which opened in 1906 and later became the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, and the Pair-O-Dice Club was opened in 1931 specifically as a casino. 

Also worthy of mention is the Pink Flamingo, which opened in 1946 and is still going today as the Flamingo Las Vegas. 

It was the brainchild of notorious mobster Bugsy Siegel who wanted to re-create Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in Nevada. The specially-designed pink neon sign would have been lost among today’s bright lights, but at the time it was a cutting-edge advertisement.

Trials and tribulations

Looking at Las Vegas today, you might find it surprising that almost all forms of gambling were made illegal in Nevada in 1909! 

During the next few years, the rules were relaxed slightly, allowing games where the payout was less than two dollars. During the Prohibition period, illegal gambling clubs flourished.

As the US entered the Great Depression in 1931, the laws on gambling were finally relaxed to help kickstart a flagging economy. A number of games were legalised but regulated, which forms the basis of the industry we know and enjoy today. 

Clubs began to open along what was then plain Highway 91 – now the famous Las Vegas Strip – and the first resort, El Rancho Vegas, opened in 1941.

Las Vegas, baby!

In the 1950s, Las Vegas was celebrating its 50th birthday and was undoubtedly the place to see and be seen. Frank Sinatra first performed there in 1951, and in 1954 a young actor named Ronald Regan (you may have heard of him) performed a two-week show at the Last Frontier Hotel. 

Liberace was the city’s highest-paid entertainer, earning a record-breaking $50,000 a week – equivalent to roughly $4.5 million today! By the time Elvis Presley started to perform in Vegas in 1956, the city was welcoming almost eight million people a year. 

The 1960s were a truly stellar period in Vegas’ history, with the Rat Pack playing together, joined by the UK’s own Beatles in 1964. Possibly Vegas’ most famous casino, Caesar’s Palace, opened in 1966. 

By the time Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon in 1969, Elvis Presley was starring in his own shows at the International hotel, earning $125,000 (around $900,000 today) a week.

Peaks and troughs

Up to the mid-1970s, Vegas was on a roll. Then, gambling was legalised in Atlantic City and for the first time, Las Vegas had serious competition on the East Coast. 

Vegas legend and star attraction Elvis Presley died in 1977, and two major hotel fires in the early 1980s left a dent in Vegas’ popularity. By the time the Mirage opened in 1989, it was the first new casino to open in 16 years.

Fortunately for Vegas fans, the opening of the Mirage sparked a boom period and the 1990s and 2000s brought Vegas to life as we know it today. Modern Vegas landmarks such as The Luxor, Hard Rock Hotel and Treasure Island opened, and ‘the entertainment capital of the world’ was firmly back in the game.

Now, around 40 million of us travel to Las Vegas every year from all over the world, not only to try our luck in the casinos but also to soak up the atmosphere of this unique desert town. 

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and it’s not for nothing that the city’s slogan, ‘What happens here, stays here’, is one of the best known in the world.