The Spanish Trail skirted northward around the edge of the rugged canyon country of the Colorado River basin and then bee-lined straight south from Utah through the Las Vegas Valley on into California. Caravans would stop at these springs to rest and water their horses before the next big push in either direction, which would lead them across extremely inhospitable deserts.
The first American occupation occurred in 1855 when Brigham Young sent a party of Mormon settlers to protect the springs and set up a way station for travelers going between California and the Great Salt Lake Valley (today’s Interstate 15). In 1905 a major railroad connected the town to the outside world and Las Vegas began to grow steadily as a supply point for a vast ranching and mining hinterland.
In 1930 the U.S. Government completed construction of the Hoover Dam just south of Las Vegas on the Colorado River. The cheap and plentiful supply of water and power that it produced enabled the fledgling town to grow into a fairly large metropolis in a relatively short span of time.
The most important event in the history of Las Vegas was the arrival of pioneering gangster entrepreneur Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegal in the 1940’s who built the "fabulous" Flamingo Hotel. Siegel was an eastern mobster who had made his way up through the criminal ranks running a murder for hire operation in New York. His bosses dispatched him to Hollywood in the 1930’s to flesh out new business opportunities by shaking down various professional organizations and trade unions in the burgeoning film industry.
At about the same time west coast crime bosses were losing their lucrative offshore gambling ships due to the zealous efforts of California Attorney General Earl Warren, whose aggressive grandstanding in front of the cameras helped launch a political career that catapulted him all the way to the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. For the criminals it simply meant that they had to search for a new place from which to continue this very remunerative activity.
Florida based mobster Meyer Lansky sent Siegel to Las Vegas in the mid-1940's to muscle in on the sports betting wire services that operated legally out of Nevada, as they bought heavily into a company called Trans America Wire. Nevada law also allowed other forms of gambling and Siegel pitched the idea to Lansky of setting up a permanent and lavish casino in Las Vegas that would give the crooks an entry into a legitimate business that was, to them, almost a license to print money. At first they all thought Bugsy was crazy.
Siegel envisioned a glittering gaudy gambling Mecca arising from the desert sands, a mere four and a half hour drive from Los Angeles, where every corrupt fantasy and indulgence could be conveniently supplied to the public day and night with all of the money generated from this activity going straight into the mob’s coffers. It was a dream come true for organized crime.
Starting out with financial backing from a consortium of crime bosses Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in 1946 and Las Vegas was on its way to becoming exactly what he had envisioned, a world destination for sin, sun and fun. A 24-hour world's fair designed by the Devil. Or as someone else has quipped “Heaven designed by a gangster.”
By the 1950’s & 60’s the famous Las Vegas “Strip” grew to be a world-renowned icon of American decadence and sodden excess with its over the top entertainments and round the clock party atmosphere. That era is now fondly celebrated and nostalgically embraced for its martini chic and jazz inflected smoky lounge sophistication. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack have come to symbolize for many the elegant charm and boozy demeanor of a particularly evocative period in the city’s history. Other colorful characters from that era that made Las Vegas their home and helped to influence its style include Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, Liberace, Louis Prima, Wayne Newton and Don Rickles. This period also marked the twilight of mob control as more respectable enterprises took a keen interest in the big profits to be made from all forms of gambling in Sin City.
The Rat Pack
By the mid-seventies Las Vegas casinos slowly transitioned away from individual ownership towards control by corporate gambling consortiums owning multiple properties throughout the world. The new multi-billion dollar edifices like the Venetian, Paris and Bellagio dwarf the older properties, which are now little more than quaint relics of a seemingly more genteel era in the city’s history. One by one these older properties are being razed to the ground to make way for newer and larger hotels that will hopefully keep the public interested and coming back for the next latest and greatest attraction. Like a mature forest these giants eventually overshadow and push out the pioneer growth that nurtured the ground and turned up the soil in the beginning. Las Vegas seems to go through a major transformation about every 10 to 15 years.
Today Las Vegas is the largest city in Nevada and one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the U.S., and with over 30 million visitors annually it is one of the most visited places in the world. Increasingly non-gambling factors like the warm climate, low taxes and recreational amenities have attracted newer immigrants and industries to the area.
Clark County of which Las Vegas is the principal city is the 17th most populous county in the United States with 1.3 million inhabitants. The greater metropolitan area attracts about 5000 newcomers a month making it the fastest growing metropolis in the nation.
The 1940 WPA Guide to Nevada entry on Las Vegas reveals:
"Relatively little emphasis is placed on the gambling clubs and divorce facilities----though they are attractions to many visitors----and much effort is being made to build up cultural attractions. No cheap and easily parodied slogans have been adopted to publicize the city; no attempt has been made to introduce pseudo-romantic architectural themes, or to give artificial glamour and gaiety. Las Vegas is itself----natural and therefore very appealing to people with a very wide variety of interests."
My how times have changed!