The name “Las Vegas” is the Spanish word for the meadows. It was first used by the members of an expedition exploring the American West. A number of springs in the Las Vegas Valley in existence back then created wide-spread green areas in the desert. A few years later, in 1844, this oasis was visited by a group of scientists and army representatives led by John C. Frémont and mentioned as a “green valley” in their reports. Mormon leader Brigham Young sent a delegation to this place in 1855 with the objective to convert the Natives living here to Mormons. They constructed a fort near today’s downtown area to that purpose, the first permanent structure in Las Vegas. The missionary attempt failed however, the fort remained vacant for a while. A farmer named Octavius Gass moved here in 1865, coming back from the gold rush claims of California and started cultivating the land in this area. Many supporters of Brigham Young, following their leader, came here over the years via the so-called Mormon Trail - legend has it that Gass´ small station was the most popular on the trail, because the farmer had meanwhile learned how to make wine. Following financial difficulties Gass had to sell his land, which by then had been separated from Arizona and added to the Nevada territory. The buyer was Archibald Stewart, who in turn sold it to the railway in 1902, which intended to conduct the route to California through this area.
Like in so many other towns in the country, it was the arrival of the railway in the Las Vegas Valley, which set the starting signal for the development of the city. The region became an important stop along the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. Soon settlers became interested in the valley that was well supplied with water and started to purchase properties alongside the tracks. In 1905, Las Vegas was incorporated and the first of many boom periods that would follow later, was maintained until 1917, when the local railway company went bankrupt. The city that had just been born threatened to die out again and even the highway connection to California completed in 1926 did not put it back on its feet.
Hoover Dam, constructed in 1931 under the original name of Boulder Dam, inspired the next push for development of the city. Young men from many places around the country came here in the hope of becoming employed in the vast construction project. The federal government, which was in charge of building the dam wasn’t so keen on the small city of Las Vegas and rather built quarters for its workers outside of town. Nevertheless, Las Vegas’ population rapidly grew from 5,000 to 25,000. In 1937, current generated at Hoover Dam flew to Las Vegas for the first time. In the city, the first license to operate a casino was granted six years earlier. Along Fremont Street there were already several gambling establishments at that time and the now-available current initiated the development of the world casino and neon capital. The newly constructed dam and Lake Mead which it created proved to be visitor attractions so that there soon was a demand for hotels.
In 1941, the army found its way into town, commencing its long-existing and still current presence in the city by building Nellis Air Force Base, which today is home to some 9,000 people. Also in 1941, casino El Rancho Vegas opened, then the first house at today’s world famous Las Vegas Strip. However, further growth in gambling concentrated on the Fremont Street first, before the casino The Flamingo opened at the Strip in 1946. The Flamingo marked the next turning point in city development, because that casino, built by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, the mafia set up foot in Las Vegas, in a clearly visible manner. The Flamingo wasn’t the first mob casino project, as they had invested in that field previously in Cuba and Florida. For Siegel, the Flamingo was the terminal point as well - when the casino did not produce any notable profits and he was suspected of skimming money for himself, the mob bosses ordered his assassination.
The opening of the Flamingo marked the beginning of a new time in Las Vegas, which was about to be increasingly governed by organized crime in the following years. The mob bosses had discovered the opportunities for profit for good and until 1957, they had built eight more casino hotels, among them being the Tropicana and the Sahara. Although the mafia backgrounds of the Las Vegas casino environment continued to be an open secret, more and more tourists came, more than eight million in 1954 alone. Adding to this development was the fact that casino operators had discovered the mechanism that attractions in addition to gambling worked to lure travelers and thus increased profits further. Celebrities like Elvis Presley and most importantly the famous Rat Pack around Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. transformed Las Vegas from a pure gambling paradise into an entertainment metropolis. At the same time, the Rat Pack shaped politics and changed policies in Vegas: Because they refused to play in hotels that engaged in segregation, many of these found themselves forced to end this discrimination so as not to lose customers.
Looking back, something else than the mob influence seemed to be much more threatening - the fact that from 1951 through 1992, more than 900 atomic bomb tests took place on the testing grounds only 65 miles from Las Vegas, more than 100 were above ground. When testing activities started there, the effects of the exposure to radioactive material were not known to too many people and many travelers enjoyed the spectacle of viewing an atomic mushroom from the windows of their hotel room at the Strip without wasting too many thoughts on it. At that time, the casino offerings in the city kept on expanding. Further important developments for Las Vegas were the opening of the Convention Center in 1959 and of McCarran Airport in 1948.
In the 1960s however, the pace of progress slowed down and the city received some unfavorable headlines nationwide. Las Vegas, considered to be a place of elegant entertainment before - although having a somewhat shady, yet in a way attractive background -, was suddenly cast in a different light. The daily paper Las Vegas Sun had in a series of articles revealed the mob backgrounds of the casino business beyond any doubt. Where there were rumors and open secrets before now were facts on the table: Dangerous criminals ran the city and extortions, dirty deals, money laundering and even a few uncleared death cases now were open for everyone to see. The mafia members were successful in evading local law enforcement as most of the Strip technically was not within city limits - and it still isn’t, by the way - but on the grounds of the city of Paradise, but the publications had raised the attention of federal law enforcement agencies. For a while, there were serious plans to anchor complete control over gambling issues with the federal government instead of in the responsibility of the individual states to avoid developments similar to Las Vegas. It is in large parts to the credit of Senator Pat McCarran, namesake of the city’s airport, that this plan was subsequently nixed.
In the meantime, Las Vegas had changed once again anyway. Kirk Kerkorian had purchased the Flamingo in 1968 and in 1969 had opened the then-largest hotel in the world with the International Hotel - only to trump himself in 1973 with the first MGM Grand. Additionally, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes had discovered the city for himself. He lived in the Desert Inn from 1966 on and had purchased the hotel on the spot when hotel management had attempted to evict him from the penthouse after several weeks. The Desert Inn should remain only the first stop on Hughes´ shopping spree. One after another, he purchased a total of five hotel-casinos from the hands of the mob. By doing so, Hughes pursued the plan to get rid of the superficial nobility of the mafia years and to replace it by real glamour and high-class entertainment. Thus, Las Vegas changed its face once again. But in the 70s and 80s, the image should change again. Vegas got to be associated with strip shows and shady establishments and an image that slowly began to show its years. When in 1980 a large fire destroyed the former MGM Grand hotel casino, claimed 87 lives and left almost 800 injured, the city was dealt another hard blow.
Las Vegas returned to the top of the list of international tourism destinations by means of the renewed realization that people could be attracted by other attractions than gambling alone. The time of themed hotels began, of spectacular arrangements right next to the pedestrian walkway, the time of large swimming pools and buffets. Former Sin City transformed to a family vacation destination and soon counted more and more visitors that didn’t even want to gamble who preferred to be treated by restaurants, spas and shows. The Mirage, opened in 1989 set the mark for the resort hotels that soon grew out of the earth everywhere, places where guests found everything under one roof. Las Vegas Boulevard became a fantasy mile, a Disneyland for adults. Meanwhile, Fremont Street kept on becoming more and more remote. In contrast to the Strip, which kept reinventing itself, Fremont Street had not changed for many years and it took quite a while until travelers learned to value these nostalgic charms as well. Many million dollars have flowed into the renovation of the long-neglected Downtown casinos, which can now once again be counted among the attractions of the city with project Fremont Street Experience and Neonopolis, an entertainment complex.
By now, the era of family-friendly Las Vegas appears to have come to an end, too. The theme park at MGM Grand was closed in 2000 and Treasure Island said farewell to its classic pirate theme and started to market itself as TI, emphasizing chic and style. The new projects by Wynn, MGM Mirage Group and others, for which many traditional casino hotels like the Stardust were closed and demolished, are rather reminiscent of the glass and concrete architecture of Chicago or New York City. A certain urban elegance, a state-of-the-art design, lounges and luxury as well as more and more hotel rooms can be found in the new developments like City Center, SLS or Resorts World. These new giants also close the gap between the Strip and the Downtown area, inching the main tourism streams closer with each new building. The shift away from colorful family entertainment is now visible in the tourism office’s marketing campaign - their slogan What happens here, stays here at least temporarily brings a little bit of Sin City back to Las Vegas.