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From its humble beginnings to its place among the world’s most famous cities.
Photo: Liberace and Elvis Presley in Las Vegas
Las Vegas. The words—like the city—stand alone. What started as a dusty railroad stop in the early 1900s is a household name today, a metropolis whose global recognition ranks with the likes of New York, London, and Paris. But America’s City of Lights has not always been so highly esteemed.
One of the founders of what would become the Las Vegas Review-Journal, John F. Cahlan, said of the dusty town in 1929, “I thought this was the least likely to succeed of any [city in] the United States. I made up my mind that I was going to stay here about a year, then try my luck back in New York or Chicago.”
Today, more than 40 million visitors a year are a strong indication that such sentiment could not have been further from the truth. Consider this: When the City of Las Vegas was founded on May 15, 1905, it had a population of about 800. Estimates of the city’s 2010 population range as high as about 620,000—that’s more than 16 new residents every day for more than 100 years.
Each of those people came for a unique reason and each had a unique experience in the ever-changing city. Some came with nothing and made it big; some came with everything and busted. Some built empires, some built dams. Some gained fame in the spotlight, and some gained notoriety in the back alleys.
The following sections are tidbits of what Nevada Magazine thinks Las Vegas might have looked like through the eyes of the very people whose experiences shaped the city. We considered many perspectives, from the early Mormon settlers to the mega-resort tycoons of the late 20th century. The perspectives chosen focus on some of the most pivotal times in the city’s history. The narrators are fictional, but the events and times they represent are not.
Sure, it is a major deviation from the tried-and-true chronological recap of history paradigm we are all so familiar with (the accompanying timeline satisfies that standard), but what better way to share the story of a city that became so successful despite being “the least likely to succeed of any [city in] the United States?”
Prime target for nearly everyone headed for Las Vegas is the Strip, that brilliant, neon-bathed avenue where the big shows and the big-name entertainers hold forth. The Strip at night is Broadway, Coney Island, and the World’s Fair all rolled into one, a carnival which swings in quick tempo in each of the luxurious resort hotels until the wee hours of the morning.
Nevada Highways and Parks, No. 2 1962
When the rain stopped I knew it was only a matter of time before the crops went, too. Making ends meet after the stock-market crash was hard enough; with no farm, it would be impossible. Word had been going around for a while that a huge dam—the biggest in the world—was being built out West. I hadn’t known nothing but farming my whole life, but knew I had to do something. My family was starving.
Hopeless and hungry, we sold the farm and everything on it for practically nothing and spent damn near every penny we had to get to Las Vegas, Nevada.
The city seemed overrun with out-of-work men and their families, thousands of people vying for a handful of jobs. Construction on Hoover Dam started in the spring of 1931, and by the time I got there late in the winter of ’32, jobs were slim.
It was a while before I finally got work. I started as a mechanic’s assistant for 50 cents an hour. Years of fixing machinery on the farm paid off, and in a few months I was promoted to mechanic at 75 cents an hour. I was making almost four times as much as I had during even the best years on the farm. We moved into a nice little house in Boulder City, a government town built for dam workers and their families. A lot of the men went into Las Vegas on the weekends to blow all their earnings in the saloons and brothels on Fremont Street. I knew the dam would be completed soon and decided to save whatever I could. Times had been hard not long before, and I knew they could be again.
There was a lot of competition for jobs on the dam, so everyone worked very hard. So hard, in fact, that it was finished more than two years ahead of schedule. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself came to dedicate the dam on September 30, 1935. Some work continued until March of ’36, lucky for me, because as long as machines were running, mechanics were still needed.
Years of farming had taught my family and me a hard lesson in being frugal, and so when the dam was completed I had enough money saved to open a small auto repair shop and filling station on Highway 91 on the way to Los Angeles. With gambling legal since 1931 and more and more tourists driving to Las Vegas to try their luck, business was great. I never grew a taste for cards or slot machines myself, but still felt a connection to the motorists who stopped in for tires, gasoline, or repairs—coming here was a pretty big gamble for me, too.
The town Siegel helped define in 1946 with his trend-setting Flamingo now has nine of the 10 largest hotels in the world. Most Las Vegas casinos operate under a corporate umbrella, and gaming stocks are respected on Wall Street. Siegel, a New York bootlegger, bookmaker, and hit man associated with the most infamous names in organized crime, wouldn’t stand a chance in a Gaming Control Board license hearing today.
“In Search of Bugsy Siegel”
Nevada Magazine, June 1994
I remember the first time I met Bugsy. I was a rookie reporter at the Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal, anxious for any ink about anyone, especially the owner of Las Vegas’ latest and greatest resort. I was ecstatic to land a story about Benjamin Seigel’s new Flamingo Hotel. It was a grand, gaudy place with landscaped gardens, a pool, health club, tennis, golf, horse stables, and even a waterfall near the front entrance. It doesn’t sound like much by modern Las Vegas standards for garishness, but in 1946, it was quite the site to behold. And I guess that’s part of what made such an impression. This unknown guy from New York had come up with this! I had no idea at the time that I was front row to one of the events that would shape the entire future of Sin City.
At first, no one seemed to know where Bugsy got the more than $6 million it took to build the Flamingo. But by the time he was killed in June 1947, rumors about Mob ties were going around, and in the following years it became common knowledge that the Mafia controlled most of the casinos in Vegas.
In New York, Chicago, and other Eastern cities, guys like Bugsy, Meyer Lansky, Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, and the rest of “The Boys” were criminals and thugs. In Las Vegas, they ran entire casinos and often gave the appearance of upstanding citizens. The Review-Journal and The Las Vegas Sun, once word broke, weren’t shy about running stories about mob ties, but for a long time, no one seemed to care all that much.
In fact, a lot of people credited the Mafia with keeping the city relatively safe and crime free—aside from the millions and millions of dollars being skimmed in the resorts. Casino man Bob Stupak mused that, “It was like we had two police forces. We had the regular police, you know, and we had the boys.”
By the mid-1960s, state officials had grown weary of the dirty money and mobsters, and Federal officials were cracking down hard with wiretaps, raids, and indictments. The Corporate Gaming Act of 1969, backed by Governor Paul Laxalt and casino moguls such as Bill Harrah, was aimed at combating Mafia ownership of casinos and attracting legitimate investors. The gangsters invariably found ways around the Gaming Control Act, but the tide was clearly turning in favor of the law. In 1983, the gaming licenses of the Stardust and Fremont—the last bastions of mob-control in Vegas—were revoked and the hotel-casinos were handed over to Boyd Gaming.
Las Vegas’ years under mob rule are often looked at nostalgically, like a perverse tourism draw. I can’t speak to any of that, but it sure was fun to chase a lead for a story deep into the webs of Sin City’s adopted mobsters.
...Las Vegas became a Mecca for outcasts from the laws of other constituencies, mobsters and minions of the big boys who became the giants of this new entrepreneurial paradise.
And these giants, with renewed faith in their religion—gambling—and houses of worship—casinos—gave the desert town of 30,000 a cachet that has rarely been equaled since.
“The Entertainment Capital”
Nevada Magazine, December 1988
My folks were never big fans of Elvis Presley. I couldn’t tell you how often I was scolded to “turn that racket down!” as a rock ’n’ roll-obsessed teenager, or how many exasperated sighs and eye-rolls my slicked-back hair got at the breakfast table before school. That’s why I was so surprised when, during a vacation to Las Vegas in April 1956, mom and dad presented my brother and me with tickets to a special Elvis matinee show. Years later I would learn that the King’s first engagement in Vegas—two weeks at the New Frontier in an act headlined by Shecky Greene—was met with little more than lukewarm amusement. As far as my brother and I were concerned, his performance was the best thing we’d ever seen.
Over the years I grew more and more fixated on Elvis, his music, his persona, and that first show I watched in Las Vegas. I became a musician in my own right and in the late ’60s moved to Las Vegas with dreams of making it big. The city was nothing like I remembered it being in the late ’50s. The handful of casinos and hotels on the Los Angeles Highway had exploded into the Strip. Glittering resorts like The Aladdin, Caesars Palace, Desert Inn, Tropicana, and Stardust lined the once-calm street. Even the New Frontier—renamed The Frontier by its new owner, the enigmatic billionaire Howard Hughes—was nothing like I remembered it. The excitement and energy in the city was palpable.
I played lounges and even opened for some middle-of-the-road acts and was having a lot of fun, but I never lost my passion for Elvis. I was ecstatic when The International signed the King in July 1969 for four weeks of performances, two times a year. I bought my ticket to the first show immediately. When Elvis was in town, I went to his show at least once a week. By 1977, when he died, I had seen Elvis perform more than 100 times.
Elvis songs had always been a big part of my act—every show included a handful of his greatest hits. His death left a lot of people with a strange emptiness, myself included. Impersonators had been popping up since the mid-’70s, so I knew there was a market for it when one night, in homage to the King, I dressed the part and performed his hits. Apparently my two-decade obsession paid off; everyone loved it, and I have performed as Elvis ever since. Sure, it’s a fantasy, but that is what this city is all about. Las Vegas was and is the only place on earth where such a thing could happen—where a sweet-voiced Southern boy could become a king and where countless devoted fans like myself could themselves reign over his kingdom in his stead, if only momentarily.
It was about a week before Christmas when we realized Mr. Hughes had no intentions of vacating his two floors at the Desert Inn. It never crossed our minds that anyone would defy a simple request to leave before the holiday rush. Frankly, we were dumbfounded. Then, he bought the place. In March 1967, after zero face-to-face negotiations, and for the sum of $13.25 million, Howard Hughes became my boss and the owner of the Desert Inn.
It was reasonable enough that a man with such an unblemished record could so easily sidestep regulations to obtain a gaming license—his investments in the state would drastically improve its image, and state officials were desperate for good PR. But so much of his behavior was just plain bizarre. He never so much as toured the resort he just purchased—or anything else he bought during his four years in Las Vegas. He just stayed on the ninth floor of the Desert Inn, watching over his growing empire like a giant game of chess.
I never met or spoke to the man, though I did—like a handful of other managers and executives—receive an occasional letter. All of our dealings went through Robert Maheu, Hughes’ Nevada business overseer and alter ego. Even Maheu, with his half-million dollar salary, never officially met Hughes. After the Desert Inn, Hughes went on a buying spree. In June, he bought a ranch near Red Rock Canyon. In July, he bought the Sands and a small airline. By the fall of 1967, Hughes had added to his growing collection Castaways and Frontier, the North Las Vegas Air Terminal, and the television station KLAS Channel 8. All told, in his first year in Las Vegas, Hughes spent about $100 million.
One of the strangest things Hughes ever did was buy the tiny Silver Slipper in 1968. He complained that the revolving sign, which he apparently could see from his perch, disturbed his rest. It cost Hughes more than $5 million to shut off that pesky light. Over the next couple years, Hughes bought more than 500 mining claims throughout the state, several lots on the Strip, the struggling Landmark, and another airline. He also leased Harolds Club in Reno.
Hughes had even greater aspirations for Las Vegas. He wanted to build the largest hotel-casino in the world and a new international airport. But then, on the eve of Thanksgiving, four years almost to the hour after his arrival, Hughes disappeared, never to set foot in Las Vegas again. State officials were terrified, as were the more than 8,000 people employed by Hughes. The management of his Nevada holdings was eventually settled. Even in departing, as it had during his entire stay, Hughes’ secrecy ironically only added to the buzz. And after only four years, the top two floors of the Desert Inn were finally vacated in time for the holiday rush.
LAS VEGAS TIMELINE
1829 – Rafael Rivera becomes the first non-Indian to view the valley. It is later named Las Vegas, Spanish for “the meadows.”
1844 – John C. Fremont arrives in Las Vegas and keeps a journal describing two natural springs.
1855 – Mormon settlers build an adobe fort in Las Vegas Valley, roughly halfway between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.
Early 1900s – Las Vegas is established as a stop on the new railroad linking Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.
May 15, 1905 – The City of Las Vegas is established following the auction of 110 acres of land.
1906 – The Hotel Nevada (now the Golden Gate) opens in downtown Las Vegas
July 1, 1909 – Clark County is created with Las Vegas as the county seat.
March 16, 1911 – Las Vegas is incorporated.
1914 – The Arrowhead Trail (later U.S. 91 and I-15) facilitates travel to Las Vegas from Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.
1931 – Construction begins on Hoover Dam, bringing an influx of workers and corresponding population boom.
March 19, 1931 – Gaming is officially legalized in Nevada.
September 30, 1935 – President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates Hoover Dam.
1941 – The El Rancho and El Cortez hotel-casinos open, making Las Vegas a resort destination.
1941 – The Las Vegas Army Air Field (now Nellis Air Force Base) is commissioned to train World War II pilots.
November 1944 – Liberace makes his Las Vegas debut.
December 26, 1946 – Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel opens.
1948 – Clark County buys Alamo Airport, which later becomes McCarran International Airport.
January 27, 1951 – The first atomic bomb is detonated at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles north of Las Vegas.
1953 – Fremont Street is featured on the cover of the June-December issue of Nevada Highways and Parks (now Nevada Magazine).
1955 – Las Vegas claims nearly 8 million annual visitors.
April 23, 1956 – Elvis Presley makes his Las Vegas debut.
September 10, 1957 – First classes are held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
1959 – The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign is designed by Betty Willis.
April 29, 1959 – The Las Vegas Convention Center opens.
1960 – The Rat Pack makes its Las Vegas debut.
1963 – Wayne Newton makes his Las Vegas debut.
1967 – Siegfried and Roy make their Las Vegas debut.
November 27, 1967 – Howard Hughes arrives in Las Vegas.
1987 – McCarran International Airport expands to accommodate the city’s immense load of visitors.
November 22, 1989 – Steve Wynn’s Mirage opens.
December 14, 1995 – The Fremont Street Experience opens.
April 30, 1996 – The 1,149-foot-tall Stratosphere Tower opens on the Strip. It is the tallest structure west of Chicago.
October 15, 1998 – The $1.7-billion Bellagio opens on the Strip.
1999 – With 37 million annual tourists, Las Vegas becomes the most visited place in the world.
2005 – Las Vegas celebrates its centennial.
2007 – Clark County’s population surpasses 2 million.
June 2007 – Springs Preserve opens at the site of the springs that gave Las Vegas its name.
December 16, 2009 – The nearly $9-billion CityCenter opens on the Strip.
October 16, 2010 – The Hoover Dam Bypass opens to alleviate traffic over the dam.
March 16, 2011 – Centennial of the incorporation of the City of Las Vegas.
WORTH A READ
A Short History of Las Vegas
By Barbara and Myrick Land
University of Nevada Press
Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia, & Palace Intrigue
By Geoff Schumacher
Sun, Sin, & Suburbia
By Geoff Schumacher