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How Las Vegas Began

Updated on August 17, 2013
Caesar's Palace by night
Caesar's Palace by night | Source

Competing for one of the more than 62,000 hotel rooms with any of the 40 million other visitors to Las Vegas each year, one might be hard pressed to think of the town as once being nothing more than a small verdant smudge on a broad desert valley floor. But that’s exactly what it seemed to Antonio Armijo in 1829.

Las Vegas, circa 1908, just after establishment of the railroads
Las Vegas, circa 1908, just after establishment of the railroads | Source

The Spanish Mexican explorer was trying to establish a trade route between Los Angeles and distant New Mexico — both still possessions of the Mexican nation — when he encountered an area ringed by clusters of fledgling mountains, and having a few artesian wells that occasioned spring greening. His party therefore named the area ‘The Meadows’ (Las Vegas in Spanish).

Within the following fifteen years, Major General John Charles Fremont (he for whom Las Vegas’ Fremont Street is now named) brought a scouting party of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the area. Fremont, known in his time as The Pathfinder due to his expeditionary skills, continued onward to become one of the first United States Senators of the newly-minted State of California.

The city in 1952, a few years after The Flamingo was established along The Strip (lower left)
The city in 1952, a few years after The Flamingo was established along The Strip (lower left) | Source

After America’s annexation of a vast southwestern swath of territories from Mexico in the late 1840s, Brigham Young sent 30 missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church) southwesterly to convert the local populations of Paiute Native Americans. However, despite the construction of a fort in what is now the downtown area of Las Vegas, the Mormon presence in the city would end by 1857.

It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later, in 1905, when Las Vegas became a railroad town, anchored by the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. Within 6 years, much land throughout the region changed hands, a downtown church was erected, a new county government established, and Las Vegas became an incorporated city.

Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel
Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel | Source

Las Vegas thrived as a popular railroad stopover, serving as a key link to the various mines throughout the surrounding countryside, and clustered about the town of Bullfrog. But it was the construction of the gargantuan Hoover Dam (previously called Boulder Dam) from 1931 through 1936 that truly supported Las Vegas’ growth. The influx of workers, supplies, wages, goods, and all the attendant services and entertainment fostered the region’s development.

A travel postcard of Las Vegas of the 1950s/1960s
A travel postcard of Las Vegas of the 1950s/1960s | Source

So too did the establishment of Lake Mead atop the dam. The largest water reservoir in the United States, the Lake has up to 500 miles of shoreline, supporting recreational boating, fishing, swimming, sunbathing and water skiing.

An additional boost to Las Vegas arrived in the form of American gangster and murderer Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel in 1946. Initially quite reluctant to leave the glitz, glamour and gals of Hollywood for the dry desert dust of Las Vegas, Siegel was persuaded by Meyer Lansky to expand the mob’s influence into Nevada, and specifically into the planned Flamingo Hotel of William R. Wilkerson. Located along what is today’s world-famous Las Vegas Strip, the Flamingo — reportedly pet-named for Siegel’s gun-moll squeeze, a leggy dancer named Virginia Hill — became one of the first and finest of hotel-casinos. With the cooperative influences of legalized gambling, legalized prostitution, and laissez-faire local regulatory bodies, Las Vegas was bound for unprecedented growth and profitability.

Plan of The Strip showing major hotel-casinos
Plan of The Strip showing major hotel-casinos | Source

Today, Las Vegas handily supports more than three dozen major hotel-casinos, as well as untold thousands of dealers, pit bosses, bar-girls, waiters, security guards, maids, hospitality workers, janitors, cab drivers, performers and entertainers among the metropolitan area’s 2 million inhabitants.

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