The city of Las Vegas was officially founded 115 years ago, and since that historic day, the Silver State has never been the same. Over the span of more than a century, Las Vegas has been transformed many times over.
The original dusty outpost scratched out of the Mojave Desert sands eventually gave way to a boom town fueled by construction on the nearby Hoover Dam. Workers with a gambling itch to scratch soon gave enterprising entrepreneurs every reason to open barebones casinos. And the rest, as they say, is history. Keep reading to learn about seven of the most important days in the illustrious history of Las Vegas.
May 3rd, 1844 – Explorer John C. Fremont “Discovers” Las Vegas
More than 60 years before the city was founded, an intrepid outdoorsman by the name of John C. Fremont led a band of 40 fellow explorers westward from Missouri to the shores of the Pacific.
Fremont and his party – which included fellow Nevada landmark namesake to be Kit Carson –eventually, reached their objective before circling southbound to see what they might find. That return journey led Fremont and Co. through what is known today as the Las Vegas Valley.
In his diary – titled “Map of an Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon & North California in the Years 1843-44” – Fremont described the relatively moist meadows he laid eyes on for the first time:
“After a day’s journey of 18 miles in a direction we encamped in the midst of another very basin at a camping ground called Las Vegas, a term the Spaniards use to signify fertile or marshy plains in contradistinction to llanos which they apply to dry plains.”
Antiquated language aside, Fremont’s documentation of “The Meadows” (which translates to “Las Vegas” in Spanish) formed the foundation for the area’s eventual settlement by American pioneers.
And that they did, as a flood of Americans seeking their fortune arrived to establish the camps which would eventually become incorporated in 1911.
Fremont’s legacy is a proud one among the locals today, and his name adorns the Downtown district hotspot Fremont Street where Sin City’s gambling history truly began.
January 13, 1906 – Hotel Nevada Opens as Las Vegas’ First Casino
The rough and tumble settlers who scratched out a living in Las Vegas’ early days certainly gambled in their spare time, playing stud poker and shooting dice in an informal manner.
But until John F. Miller constructed the Hotel Nevada at 1 Fremont Street on this momentous date, Las Vegas lacked a proper brick and mortar casino as we know them today. Unfortunately for Miller, just three years would pass before the the Nevada Legislature voted 27-20 to ban gambling as an illegal activity throughout the state.
At that time, Secretary Hooper of the Reno Anti-Gambling League told the Reno Evening Gazette that only house-banked games of chance were in the group’s crosshairs:
“We do not intend to try and prohibit horse racing in Nevada or the selling of pools, neither do we intend to try and prohibit friendly bridge games, whist games, poker games and games of hearts played in the homes.
But we do intend to try and have the Nevada legislature pass a law that will prohibit all percentage games in this state.”
Miller took the bad beat in stride, focusing on his thriving hotel operation while the gaming tables collected dust in storage.
Thankfully for him, and the rest of us for that matter, the state Legislature had a change of heart 22 years down the road.
March 19, 1931 – Legal Gambling Returns to Las Vegas
By this time, gambling was far from gone along Fremont Street and the rest of Las Vegas.
No, the card sharps and craps enthusiasts simply did what most Americans did during periods of prohibition – they kept enjoying their vices while ducking the long arm of the law. Gambling halls and saloon-style “bank clubs” still drew plenty of patronage while the industry was still illegal in the state.
The only thing is, Nevada didn’t collect a dime in taxes on this illicit, yet utterly ongoing, exchange of cash and coins.
To remedy the lack of enforcement and taxation, a band of legislative leaders came up with a bold plan to bring Nevada back into the fold – legalize “wide open” gambling once more. The votes came down 24 to 11 in favor and the deal was sealed, an accomplishment commemorated by J.G. Scrugham in his Nevada State Journal:
“By vote of the legislature and with the support of the state administration, Nevada is embarking upon an era of what may be termed ‘legalized liberality.’”
Spotting a golden opportunity to get back in the gambling game, Miller changed the Hotel Nevada’s name to “Sal Sagev,” or Las Vegas spelled backward.
By 1941, the oddly named Sal Sagev casino was joined by El Cortez, which holds the honor of being Las Vegas’ longest continuously operated casino. The Golden Nugget joined the Fremont Street family five years later, and the name was certainly appropriate given the casino gold rush to come.
Speaking of gold, the Sal Sagev was later renamed Golden Gate Hotel & Casino. This iconic link to Las Vegas history is still open for business today, making it the oldest casino building in the entire state.
In an honorable mention of sorts, President Herbert Hoover ordered construction to begin on a massive hydroelectric dam on the Nevada / Arizona border this very same month. You may have heard of it too, as the Hoover Dam wound up providing the electrical power needed to fuel Las Vegas’ explosive growth in the coming years.
December 26, 1946 – The First Major Casino on The Strip “The Fabulous Flamingo”
Technically speaking, the first gambling hall erected on Las Vegas Boulevard a few miles south of Downtown was the El Rancho Vegas.
But that tiny venue, which opened on April 3rd, 1941, was nothing more than a one-story cabin with a few dozen hotel rooms. Sure, the El Rancho Vegas did have a few modern amenities such as a swimming pool and a showroom, but the casino only held four table games in total.
For that reason, the casino first dubbed The Fabulous Flamingo takes this spot in the list.
Benefiting from a multimillion-dollar investment made by a syndicate of New York mob bosses, the 105-room Flamingo was billed as “The West’s Greatest Resort Hotel.” Under the stewardship of Big Apple born gangster turned casino operator Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the Flamingo spared no expense.
That is to say, Siegel’s financial backers behind the Italian-Jewish National Crime Syndicate spared no expense…
Having strongarmed the ownership rights to the Flamingo away from its helpless operator, Siegel – a notorious mob hitman who spearheaded “Murder Inc.” alongside Meyer Lansky – wanted his casino to be the best in town. But after going wildly over budget, and making a fatal blunder by opening the casino before his hotel was complete, Siegel drew the mob’s ire.
When his promises of steady profits and a tremendous return on their investment failed to materialize, Siegel was rubbed out by a machine gun wielding assassin just one year later.
The Flamingo survived though, establishing the template for luxurious full-scale casino resorts that now defines The Strip the world over.
That does it for the first 100 years or so of Las Vegas’ history as the world’s casino gambling capital. And as you can see, the trail blazed by Sin City’s original settlers had as many twists and turns as the Colorado River which turns the Hoover Dam’s enormous turbines.
Casino gambling went from a grey market to explicitly banned, and back to a thriving legal industry, in the span of just 22 years. To find out when the rest of Las Vegas’ most important historical milestones took place, check out part two here.