Although we think of Las Vegas as a desert city, its name reveals something interesting about its history. Spanish for “the fertile plains,” Las Vegas received its modern name from a Spanish explorer merchant named Antonio Armijo in 1829.
The area was claimed by Spain, then Mexico, but it had been part of the Paiute homeland for over a thousand years.
The Early Years of US History in Las Vegas
American soldier and explorer John Charles Frémont led an expedition for President John Tyler to Las Vegas in 1844 to help prepare for the impending war with Mexico. The Nevada area was ceded to the United States in the aftermath of the war.
Frémont’s clandestine pre-war fort at Las Vegas Springs became a small but important trading post after the US Army abandoned the fort. Even after an attempt to establish a community in the valley in 1855 by a group of Mormon settlers, the area remained without permanent white settlers until 1865.
Octavius Gass reoccupied the fort and negotiated a peaceful transfer of ownership of the land from the Paiutes. The population had been declining and the region became less habitable over the years. The Paiutes left the area to be resettled elsewhere by the United States government.
Gass reclaimed the old Mormon fields, where a functional irrigation system made it possible to grow crops. He renamed the area “Las Vegas Rancho” and grew wine grapes. Gass’ ranch flourished and increased in size, but he eventually took a loan against the property from Archibald Stewart.
Stewart’s wife Helen became the first Las Vegas postmaster. Stewart himself took ownership of the land after Gass defaulted, allegedly with help from a Mormon syndicate. The Stewart family retained ownership until they sold the land to the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad in 1902.
Large-Scale Settlement and the Early 20th Century
Thanks to the completion of the railroad, line settlers were able to move to the Las Vegas valley starting in the late 1800s. Mormons returned to the area and established many farms. They used wells and irrigation systems to supply water to their crops.
With help from Utah Senator Thomas Kearns, Montana Senator William Andrews Clark had championed the legislation that ensured the rail line was built from Utah to Nevada, eventually providing Mormon settlers with easy access to the area. They named the region Clark County in honor of the Montana senator.
The Mormons’ wells allowed the community to grow, and Las Vegas became an important stop for settlers on the way to California. Early settlers arrived by wagon, but the railroad was finished in 1905.
Clark also built a railroad from Las Vegas to Bullfrog, thus, making Las Vegas an important regional hub. The city was established in 1905 with the auction of 110 acres of land to new settlers. Clark County was established in 1909 and the city was incorporated in 1911.
Through all these years, Nevada and Las Vegas had allowed gambling. Although it wasn’t a major part of the area’s agricultural economy, gambling made Nevada distinguishable when it became the last state to make gambling illegal in 1910.
Nevada’s anti-gambling law was so strict it even forbade flipping a coin for a cheap wager.
Things turned bad for Las Vegas starting in 1917, when the US entered the First World War. The government diverted resources away from Nevada, and both the city and Clark’s railroad company declared bankruptcy. Clark sold his company to the Union Pacific Railroad.
Las Vegas Turns Around in the 1930s
The roaring ‘20s passed by and Las Vegas struggled to survive. By the time it was the Great Depression in 1929, there wasn’t much of an economy left in the region to even collapse with the rest of the country.
President Herbert Hoover signed the appropriation bill for what would become Boulder Dam in July 1930, ensuring new economic activity would flow into the region despite the country’s impoverished state. After work began on the dam in 1931, Las Vegas experienced a population boom, growing 500% almost immediately.
The mob influence convinced the federal government to establish Boulder City for dam workers.
Seeing the appeal of gambling and its potential for generating new tax revenues, the state of Nevada legalized local gambling again in 1931. Clark County licensed the Northern Club casino in 1931 and other casinos followed very quickly. Fremont Street became the heart of Las Vegas’ nascent gambling economy.
But the federal government forbade its employees from gambling. By 1934, city leaders—who were desperate for the money the workers in Boulder City could spend in Las Vegas—tried to shut down the casinos. Things improved when the dam was completed in 1935 and Las Vegas became the first customer for all the fresh water and electricity that the dam produced.
It was at this time that Fremont Street began to light up with electronic signs. At the same time as the construction crews began leaving the area, Lake Mead—the reservoir created by the dam—became an instant tourist attraction, breathing new life into the local economy.
By 1940, two major highways had been built all the way into Las Vegas, and the city’s first licensed radio station (KENO) began operation.
World War II and the Post-War Boom Years
While the United States was still officially neutral in 1941, the U.S. Army established a gunnery school in Las Vegas that eventually became Nellis Air Force Base. After the US, entered the war, the Army forced Las Vegas to make prostitution illegal.
The first modern casino, El Rancho Vegas, opened on the stretch of road that would eventually become known as the Las Vegas Strip in 1941. Hotel Last Frontier followed in 1942. More casinos were built along Fremont Street during the war.
Bugsy Siegel arrived in Las Vegas in 1946. He and Meyer Lansky began channeling money through Mormon banks to finance the construction of the Flamingo that year.
Despite the Flamingo’s lack of success and the murder of Bugsy Siegel, mob money flowed into Las Vegas throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. The Bank of Las Vegas became involved in their finance schemes and helped to build historic casinos like Binions Horseshoe, the Fremont, the Riviera, the Sahara, the Sands, and the Tropicana among others.
The casinos offered gourmet buffet food as well as gambling, and they began hiring major entertainers from Hollywood to come in and do shows. Despite attempts to end Nevada’s legal gambling by the federal government, the city’s casinos and tourism drew gamblers away from illegal gambling in Galveston, TX, and Hot Springs, AK, as well as other illegal gambling venues across the country.
Nuclear testing began in Nevada in 1951. Throughout the 1950s, the city capitalized on public interest in the Atomic Age. As more government employees moved into the area, the city continued to expand, opening a university, a public auditorium, and other facilities as well as McCarran Field.
Desegregation began in the local casinos because the Mafia saw opportunity in serving the gambling interests of both black and white Americans. Their first attempt, the Moulin Rouge, failed. But eventually, Frank Sinatra and his fellow Rat Packers pressured local hotels into allowing Sammy Davis Jr. to stay in their rooms.
The 1960s and the Decline of Mob Influence
Howard Hughes moved to Las Vegas in 1966, and he began buying local hotels and other properties. As ownership of various businesses transferred to his legitimate hands, the mob became less influential in local politics.
Local newspaper editor Hank Greenspun began exposing corrupt politicians’ connections to the crime world, ending various powerful men’s careers and helping to clean up the city.
In one last desperate move, mobsters prevented Las Vegas from annexing the Strip by forming an unincorporated town they called Paradise. Under Nevada law, an incorporated city could not annex an unincorporated city.
As the ‘60s roared on and the Civil Rights movement swept across the nation, the NAACP persuaded Las Vegas to end segregation in the casinos.
By the 1980s, the city was fully desegregated and the mafia had been gradually reduced to a minority interest in the city’s economy. Major corporations bought the casinos and other previously mob-dominated businesses, easing them out of the picture.
Modern Casino Resorts Change Las Vegas Forever
Steve Wynn turned the casino world upside down by building The Mirage in 1989. This was the first mega-resort and it proved that gambling could be integrated into a family-friendly vacation experience. Wynn popularized trips to Las Vegas by giving away free room nights.
The Mirage was financed by junk bonds (cheap, high interest-bearing bonds) from Wall Street, thus, ushering in another era of risky financial investments.
Starting in the 1990s, other mega-resorts were built in Las Vegas, gradually replacing many of the older casinos. The influx of family-friendly gambling resorts helped boost the city’s economy and grow its population. Things slowed down with the Great Recession of 2008, and significant environmental damage had been identified in the area. Too many people were taking up too much water from Lake Mead.
Las Vegas’ growth was fueled by easy access over roads, rail, and air transport, and what seemed like unlimited quantities of water. But as global temperatures continue to rise, Nevada’s deserts are becoming drier and drier. And it probably doesn’t help that the megaresorts favor water-demanding palm trees over local trees that are more drought-resistant.
In a little over 100 years, Las Vegas has grown from a small farming community to a major city in the United States. And today, it’s one of the most famous cities in the world. It has been featured in numerous movies and television shows and is a firmly established icon in pop culture.
Ironically, the city owes about as much gratitude to the mob for its explosive growth as it does to the US government. Las Vegas would not be the city is today if the government and the mafia decided not to make huge investments in the region’s resources and economy.