A Look Back at Las Vegas’ History

Las Vegas celebrates 116th Birthday Today

Las Vegas attracts millions of visitors each year, but this neon metropolis didn’t become “Sin City” overnight.

Vegas has a long and complicated history filled with a diverse cast of characters including its early Native American inhabitants, wild west explorers, and seedy criminal organizations. 

Here’s a brief history on how Vegas became the city it is today:

Vegas’ Early History

Nomadic Paleo-Americans originally inhabited the Las Vegas Valley around 10,000 years ago and were followed afterward by Anasazi and Pauite Native Tribes.

Rafael Rivera is credited as the first person of European descent to discover the area while traveling with Antonio Armijo’s expedition to open up a trade route—the Old Spanish Trail between New Mexico and California. He named the area Las Vegas—Spanish for “the meadows”— after its abundant desert spring-fed grasses.

The area  fell under U.S. rule following the 1848 Mexican-American war.

Other explorers eventually traveled to the valley including Mormon settlers who established a fort in 1855 as a halfway point between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Reconstructed remnants of the fort can still be seen and visited today from Las Vegas Blvd. and Washington Ave.

Nevada was admitted to the Union in 1864, but Las Vegas remained sparsely populated throughout the remainder of the 19th to early 20th century. 

	 Black and white image of a large group of people bidding for lots of land during Clark's Las Vegas Townsite auction.
Black and white image of a large group of people bidding for lots of land during Clark’s Las Vegas Townsite auction. Photo Credit: UNLV Digital Collection/ Courtesy

Vegas Becomes a City

In 1900, the census counted 30 people—most of whom were employees at a cattle ranch near the old Mormon fort—living in the area. However, things changed following the completion of the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad which linked Southern California with Salt Lake City.

William A. Clark, a mining magnate, and Montana politician was heavily invested in the rail line connecting LA with Salt Lake City and saw Las Vegas’ potential as a railroad town because of its artisanal springs. Clark bought a tract of land in the valley as well as water rights in the area and established a railroad depot.

On May 15, 1905, Las Vegas became a city when 110 acres of land situated between Stewart Avenue on the north, Garces Avenue to the south, Main Street to the west, and Fifth Street (Las Vegas Boulevard) to the east were auctioned off. The city was later incorporated on June 1, 1911.

Las Vegas gamblers circa 1930s. Photo Credit: UNLV Digital Collection/ Courtesy

Birth of “Sin City”

Although Vegas tolerated gambling at first, the Nevada legislature banned gambling in 1910. Still, underground gambling was prevalent.

Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. Las Vegas also became a popular destination in the 30s for its relaxed divorce laws which required only a six-week residency before one could file for divorce. 

Construction on the Hoover Dam began in 1931 which created an economic boom for Vegas, as workers flocked from nearby Boulder City to the city for its casinos and access to alcohol.

The dam’s completion in 1936 helped power Las Vegas with low-cost hydroelectricity, thus helping the city grow even more.

The Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada Circa 1940s. Automobiles can be seen parked outside. Photo Credit: UNLV Special Collections

The Las Vegas Strip and Mob Rule

During the 1940s, Vegas saw an increase in hotel casinos, including the El Rancho Vegas,  which opened on a section of U.S. 91 just outside the city’s jurisdiction.

More hotel casinos popped up along this roadway which eventually became known as The Strip.

Organized was also heavily invested in Vegas’ development during the 1940s, with infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel opening The Flamingo in 1946. Siegel didn’t get to see the success of the Flamingo, as he was murdered in 1947 possibly over money stolen from fellow mobsters.

However, mob figures would continue to invest money in Las Vegas throughout the 1950s-60s, and prove instrumental in opening many of Vegas’ most iconic casinos including the New Frontier, the Sands, the Riviera, and the Sahara. Many of these early casinos helped increase tourism with their rows of slot machines and headlining performers including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Sammy Davis Jr. 

The Mirage
The Mirage at nighttime circa 1989. Photo Credit: UNLV Digital Collection/ Courtesy

The Emergence of Modern Vegas

While instrumental in early Vegas’ growth, organized crime syndicates began to lose their influence over casino operations during the late 50s-60s with the creation of the Nevada Gaming Commission. 

In 1966, the commission began restricting people with criminal history from operating casinos. The same year, aviation pioneer and millionaire Howard Hughes purchased the Desert Inn hotel and heavily invested in opening other famous Las Vegas properties—signifying a shift in power from organized crime to corporate interests.

Casino developer Steve Wynn opened the Mirage, Vegas’ first mega-resort in 1989. Since then, many of Vegas’ former casinos have been demolished and replaced by massive, billion-dollar mega-resorts. However, a few of Vegas’ original casinos from its earlier history are still standing. 

Las Vegas saw its population increase by nearly 100,000 between 1980 and 1990 to exceed a quarter million, and it surpassed the half-million mark early in the 21st century. 

As of 2021, the population of Clark County sits at 2,307,320.

Las Vegas has since emerged as the “Entertainment Capital of the World” with unique amenities besides gambling drawing tourists here each year including world-renowned music festivals such as Life is Beautiful and Electric Daisy Carnival, and a blossoming art community in Downtown Las Vegas.

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