Nevada: Las Vegas

Legalized gambling, neon lights, and outrageous architecture come together to make this city one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States.

Site Office

Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce

3720 Howard Hughes Parkway

Las Vegas, NV 89109-0937

ph.: (702) 735-1616

fax: (702) 735-2011

Web site:

According to a survey by the United States Travel Industry Association at the end of the twentieth century, 38 percent of all U.S. residents had visited Las Vegas, most drawn by the allure of easy money. There is, however, more to the city than slot machines, roulette wheels, and flashy showgirls. The fertile valley surrounding the Las Vegas Strip has historically been used as a safe oasis for westbound settlers, a missionary outpost, and an important stop on the railroad line. Even today, Las Vegas continues to undergo a metamorphosis, shifting from it historical role as “Sin City” to a family-friendly playground that just happens to have a few casinos.

The Founding of the Town

According to archaeologists, Native American tribes of Anasazi and Patayan occupied what would become the Las Vegas Valley at different times before the arrival of European settlers. Spanish traders arrived in the early 1700’s, seeking a safe route for transporting their goods between Mexico and California. This trek, know as jornado de muerta(journey of death), crossed hundreds of miles of inhospitable desert and unforgiving mountain passes.

It was not until the winter of 1829-1830 that Rafael Rivera became the first person of European ancestry to reach the valley while scouting a route for New Mexico merchant Antonio Armijo. The area became known as Las Vegas, Spanish for “the meadows,” and was later used as a resting point for Spanish and Mexican settlers traveling between Santa Fe and Southern California.

While Rivera may have been the first European to reach the valley, credit for its “discovery” is commonly ascribed to John C. Frémont of the U.S. Topographical Corps. Frémont included the valley on his maps of the area, making it an important and lifesaving stop for many westbound settlers. Frémont, who once traveled with legendary explorer Kit Carson, wrote:

After a day’s journey of 18 miles, in a northeasterly direction, we encamped in the midst of another very large basin, at a camping ground called Las Vegas–a term which the Spaniards use to signify fertile or marshy plains. . . . Two narrow streams of clear water, four or five feet deep, gush suddenly with a quick current, from two singularly large springs; these, and other waters of the basin, pass out in a gap to the eastward. The taste of the water is good, but rather too warm to be agreeable; the temperature being 71 in the one and 73 in the other. They, however, afford a delightful bathing place.

The U.S. Congress printed twenty thousand copies of Fremont’s 1845 map, and the new route between Mexico and California became known as the Old Spanish Trail.

The valley’s first settlement was established by a group of Mormon missionaries in 1855. Led by William A. Bringhurst, the missionaries spent two years trying to convert the Las Vegas Paiutes and provide a safe haven for religious pilgrims traveling between California and Utah. Mormons believed that American Indians, or Lamanites, were descendants of the people of ancient Israel, and it was the responsibility of Mormons to convert Lamanites to their own religion. So many used this route that the Old Spanish Trail was known by many to as the Mormon Road, and a portion of their original fort still stands at Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue.

Relations between settlers and Native Americans, which had begun in a peaceable manner, became strained when food grew scarce. The Mormons’ attempts at teaching farming to the Paiutes were hampered by drought and soil that proved to be too alkaline for most crops.

The discovery of lead at what would later be called Mount Potosi further strained the mission’s resources, when Mormon leader Brigham Young ordered laborers away from their farms and into the mines. The mine was ultimately abandoned as unworkable in early 1857, and many of the Las Vegas missionaries were allowed to leave a few months later. The mission was officially disbanded in the fall of 1858.

The State Land Act of 1885 offered settlers the chance to purchase sections of land at $1.25 per acre, and, despite the poor soil, agriculture became the main industry of the valley for the next twenty years. In addition, minerals and precious metals were discovered in the surrounding hills in the late nineteenth century.

In 1905, the Las Vegas Valley became one of the primary stops on the newly finished rail line linking Southern California and Salt Lake City, Utah, and the railroad auctioned over one thousand lots to land speculators and eager settlers. Las Vegas became an incorporated city and adopted its first charter on March 16, 1911. The new city had approximately eight hundred inhabitants and covered 19.18 square miles. For the next twenty years, the railroad would surpass farming as the city’s most valuable industry.

Sin City

The year 1931 was a pivotal one for the city. First, gambling was legalized in the state of Nevada on March 19. Las Vegas issued six gambling licenses the following month, the first going to the Northern Club on historic Fremont Street. Second, liberalized divorce laws led to the establishment of long-term resorts or “dude ranches,” which gave those hoping to end their marriages a place to stay while establishing their six-week residency as required by law. These ranches would later evolve into the massive hotel and casino resorts seen today. Finally, construction began on the Boulder Dam in 1931, bringing the population of the area to more than ten thousand. Those construction workers needed entertainment, and the first gambling establishments opened in downtown Las Vegas on Fremont Street.

El Rancho Vegas was the first resort on what is traditionally known as “The Strip,” but it was not until notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo casino in 1946 that Las Vegas began to attract national attention. No ordinary gambling joint, the Flamingo featured an outdoor pool and a casino lined with palm trees. Though the enterprise was a success, Siegel defaulted on his loan from the infamous New York gang Murder, Incorporated, and was gunned down in his mistress’s Beverly Hills home the following year. El Rancho Vegas burned to the ground in 1960. Nevertheless, gambling and entertainment quickly became the town’s main industry in the years following World War II. Siegel’s death only increased the town’s notoriety, and the Flamingo served as a prototype for the glitzy gaming palaces that followed.

Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes purchased several casinos in the late 1960’s, giving the gambling business an air of respectability. In 1967, the state legislature passed a law allowing public corporations to obtain gambling licenses, and gradually major corporations replaced private owners. By 1975, annual gaming revenues had reached one billion dollars.

Ironically, the city that owes a portion of its heritage to liberal divorce laws developed a thriving secondary industry–marriage. A license is all that is required; there is no counseling or waiting period. Clark County issued more than one hundred thousand wedding licenses in 1996.

Lady Luck Gets a Facelift

Nevada enjoyed a monopoly on casino gaming until 1978, when casinos were legalized in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Although Las Vegas remains a major convention center, competition from legalized gambling in other states and on Mississippi River steamboats and Indian reservations has forced the casinos and the surrounding city to broaden their appeal. The focus shifted from seedy to squeaky-clean in the late 1980’s as family-friendly theme resorts rapidly replaced the old-style traditional casinos. The facelift worked; according to the Las Vegas Convention Center and Visitors Authority, the hotels are filled to 95 percent capacity on an average weekend.

Las Vegas resorts became “brighter” and “bigger,” the two most important words in the race to attract the tourist dollar. By mid-1999, Las Vegas boasted the top ten largest hotels, and eighteen out of the top twenty, in the United States. Examples of the new “attraction” casinos include the Excaliber, which mixes slot machines with live jousting amid a medieval theme. When it opened in 1990, Excaliber was the world’s largest resort hotel. The Luxor followed in 1993, featuring a giant pyramid with an atrium large enough to hold nine Boeing 747’s and topped by a spotlight made up of forty-five Xenon lights. Also in 1993, the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino opened, taking over the top slot as the world’s largest resort with more than five thousand rooms. Soon, other nongambling spectacles included a sea battle (Treasure Island), roller coasters (New York, New York and Stratosphere), and a show based on the television and film franchise Star Trek (Las Vegas Hilton).

The race was not without casualties, as many of the “classic” casinos had to be razed to make room for the new, multiblock megaresorts. The Dunes was imploded in 1993, followed by the Landmark (1995), the Sands (1996), the Hacienda (1996), and the Aladdin (1998).

Places to Visit

For an updated taste of old-fashioned glitter, tourists can visit the Fremont Street Experience, four blocks of historic downtown Las Vegas closed to automobile traffic in favor of a pedestrian promenade. There, visitors can shop, gamble, and enjoy roving entertainers, topped by a light and sound show with more than two million lights and half a million watts of sound. There are shows every hour on the hour at dusk through 11:00 p.m. and at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

In a similar vein, the Neon Museum is dedicated to preserving Las Vegas signs, putting them on display for all to enjoy. Historic signs currently on display on Fremont Street include the lamp from the Aladdin and the Hacienda Horse and Ride.

Considered one of America’s “Seven Civil Engineering Wonders,” Hoover Dam is located thirty miles southeast of Las Vegas and contains enough concrete for a two-lane paved road stretching from San Francisco to New York City. Lake Mead, created by the dam, provides water to cities as far away as Los Angeles and San Diego. The visitors’ center is located in Boulder City and open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

For Further Information

  • Land, Barbara, Myrick Land, and Guy Louis Rocha. A Short History of Las Vegas. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999. A comprehensive overview of the city’s history from its frontier origins to 1999.
  • Littlejohn, David, ed. The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A series of essays that offer a glimpse of the Las Vegas that lies beyond the glitter of the casinos.
  • McCracken, Robert D. Las Vegas: The Great American Playground. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1997. Provides a detailed look at the evolution of the city of Las Vegas.
  • Odessky, Dick. Fly on the Wall: Recollections of Las Vegas’ Good Old, Bad Old Days. Las Vegas: Huntington Press, 1999. Details life in Las Vegas from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.
  • Sheehan, Jack, ed. The Players: The Men Who Made Las Vegas. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1997. Covers some of the city’s most influential citizens.
  • Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977. Describes the architectural development of the Las Vegas Strip and its effects on American culture.