How Did Las Vegas Become America's Adult Playground?
When you think of Las Vegas, you may think of casino games and scandalous fun — its nickname is Sin City, after all. But before it was the booming success of a city that it is today, it was just desert land. Now, Vegas is a wildly prosperous city that millions of tourists flock to every year, lured by the temptation to cut loose and have fun. The success of Las Vegas didn't happen overnight, though. It came little by little as it grew into a popular and notable city.
Las Vegas' Ancient History
You might not think of Las Vegas as a place with a ton of history, but the area is actually pretty old. The first signs of human life in the Las Vegas area date all the way back to A.D. 700.
The Paleo-Indian peoples were believed to be the first residents of the area. Archaeologists have found their ancient tools in the surrounding areas. The Paiute tribe was next to live in the area, and they left their marks in the carved and painted petroglyphs in the canyons. This art is still there today.
New Trade Route Wanted
The first person of European descent to arrive in Vegas was Rafael Rivera (he was of Spanish lineage). He was there to explore the area as a part of Santa Fe trader Antonio Armijo’s 1829 mission to find and open a trade route between New Mexico and California, called the Old Spanish Trail.
At the time, the valley had spring-watered grasses. So Rivera named the location "the meadows." In the same year, the first Americans arrived in Las Vegas. The group included Kit Carson, who would later become a guide for pioneers.
The Foundation of the City
Sometime near the beginning of the 1900s, a man named William A. Clark arrived in the Las Vegas area. He was a politician and an influential mining businessman. He was heavily invested in the railroad company that was building new tracks between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.
Being a great businessman, he recognized that the area’s artesian springs would be a great water source along the new railroad. He then bought the rights to the water source and purchased the surrounding lands. This was the beginning of the Las Vegas we know today.
An Auction Brings in Investors
Clark organized an auction for the land in 1905 that was advertised heavily in both Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The auction was unexpectedly a huge success, as almost every single parcel of land was sold.
Clark used some of the money that was raised to build a pipeline from the springs to the train depot and also built a well to ensure the area would have fresh water into the future. He also helped to provide the funds for the construction of two more railroad lines that led to the nearby mining towns of Tonopah and Goldfield.
The railroad that connected San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City was connected to Las Vegas in 1905. Now the Pacific Railroad was connected to the rest of the country. The city was officially founded on May 15 of that year. Soon after, plans were made to build the future downtown Las Vegas.
Vegas became an official city on June 1, 1911. The citizens voted in favor of incorporation (168 in favor to 57 not in favor). The city was officially incorporated.
Gambling Was Illegal in Vegas?
Gambling became illegal when James Nye (appointed by President Lincoln) became the Nevada Territory’s governor. The governor was very much against gambling, so it was little surprise when it was criminalized in the territory. Not only was gambling illegal, but there were harsh penalties for anyone involved in gaming.
But as soon as Nevada became an official state just a few years later in 1864, motions were made to make gambling legal again. The motion failed to pass. However, the penalties for those caught involved with gambling were reduced.
An Ongoing Battle Over the Legalization of Gambling
A few years later in 1869, several types of gambling had become legal. But after that time, no progress was made until 1909, when almost all types of gambling were banned again. Over the following years, the law slowly began to relax yet again on certain types of social gambling games and small coin slots.
In 1919, there were licensed card rooms throughout the state. By the 1920s, Reno had become the capital of gaming in the state. But the fate of gambling as the main form of entertainment in Vegas was still up for debate.
A Rise in Visitors From LA
After Clark sold his share of the railroad to the Union Pacific Railroad in 1921, small ranches — sometimes doubling as badly disguised brothels — began to appear in the area. Soon after, the spot became a popular weekend vacation destination for people who lived in Los Angeles. Those who worked in Hollywood’s movie industry influenced the rise in population.
By 1930, the population of Las Vegas was more than 5,000. This was in part due to everything that Las Vegas had to offer; gambling fun, quick divorces and other adult pleasures led to the steady rise in population and number of tourists.
Easy Divorces (and Easy Marriages)
Modern-day Vegas is famous for its weddings. People who are eloping can go to Las Vegas and get married almost instantly; there’s no waiting period required to get a marriage license. The first-ever wedding chapel in Vegas opened in 1942 and was called the Little Church of the West.
But before becoming well-known for marriage, Las Vegas was famous for easy divorces. In the early 1900s, these divorces only required six weeks of residency in Las Vegas for eligibility.
Hoover Dam Construction
The massive Hoover Dam (originally called the Boulder Dam) was a huge construction project that began in 1931 during the Great Depression. This new construction project gave the area an economic boost.
Showgirl venues and casinos opened on Fremont Street (the only road in the area that was paved at the time) which was on the east side of the city close to the construction site. The dam was completed in 1936, and the cheap hydroelectricity it generated was then used to illuminate the "Glitter Gulch" signs on Fremont.
Gambling Gains Legality
Phil Tobin, a freshman Nevada State Assemblyman, proposed Assembly Bill 98, which allowed gambling to become completely legal throughout the entire state. Signed by Governor Fred Balzar, the bill became law on March 19, 1931.
This allowed for back-alley side-room games to emerge into the public — they no longer had to hide. This step led to the increasing popularity of gambling in Vegas that we know today. It was the beginning of the gambling industry that soon would take over as one of the main entertainment activities for visitors in Vegas.
New Military Installations for the War
As World War II began, Las Vegas started growing even more. In 1941, two military government installations were created to support the war efforts. One of them was the Las Vegas Army Air Field which still exists as Nellis Air Force Base. It’s located northwest of the city.
The other structure was a magnesium-processing plant that was located southeast of Vegas in the city of Henderson. As a result of these defense-related government installations, thousands of people came to the city.
Air Conditioning Boom
After the war, many returning soldiers decided to settle down in Las Vegas. One thing that may have influenced their decision to stay in the area was the rapid installation of air conditioners in the city’s buildings. That may sound strange, but in the crazy heat of Las Vegas, an air conditioner just makes life better. Suddenly, life in the desert wasn’t looking too shabby.
Between 1940 and 1950, the population nearly tripled and then continued to grow. In the following decade, the population doubled.
Gaming Taxes and State-level Taxes
Prior to 1945, the licensing of gaming organizations was done locally or by individual counties. The taxes were all based on the number of casino games and/or machines that were operational. This "per-game fee" still applied, but other taxes were applied as the licensing of gambling games became the state’s responsibility.
The first of these state taxes was applied in 1946. This tax collected 1% of gross earnings, initially resulting in $670,000 of statewide revenue. A short time later, the statewide gambling tax was increased to 2%.
The First Las Vegas Resort on the Strip
On a section of land just outside of Vegas, the El Rancho Vegas resort was constructed. It officially opened in 1941 and was the first business on what became known as "the Strip." Soon after the El Rancho Vegas resort opened, many more casinos and resorts followed.
Some of these new casinos and resorts were modeled after the Wild West themes that were already popular on Fremont Street. This was the beginning of the casino and resort takeover of the city of Las Vegas.
The Flamingo Hotel
One of the first new additions to the Strip was the Flamingo. It was created by mobster Bugsy Siegel, who got his funding from the drug money of East Coast gangster Meyer Lansky. The resort was decorated in a swanky Hollywood theme. The official opening of the resort took place on Christmas Day. Only the most talented and exclusive acts performed in the resort’s lounges.
Siegel was murdered in 1947, but his contribution had plenty of implications for the future of Las Vegas. He had helped start the casino construction boom on the Strip.
More Money, More Casinos, More Mobsters
Following the lead of the El Rancho and Flamingo resorts, during the 1950s and ‘60s, mobsters continued to open resorts. These resorts included the Sands and the Sahara in 1952, the Thunderbird in 1948, the Desert Inn in 1950, the Riviera in 1955 and many others.
Both respectable investors and organized crime alike were responsible for providing the funds for these new locations. Some investors included Wall Street banks, the Mormon Church and the Princeton University endowment. The rest of the money came from organized crime and sketchy dealings.
Investigating the Vegas Mob
As for governmental involvement in organized crime going on in the city, hearings about mob activities were held at the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse building located in downtown Vegas. Tennessee Congressman Carey Estes Kefauver presided over the hearings.
The building is still in use as the location of The Mob Museum. There, visitors can learn about the federal agents who worked at trying to control and eliminate organized crime, along with the histories of people involved in organized crime in and around Las Vegas.
Stopping Corrupt Gambling With a Black Book
In the late 1950s, the Nevada Gaming Commission changed the game for gangsters who used to run gambling operations in the city. The new commission was responsible for all of the gambling facilities and the corresponding licenses for the casinos.
The commission increased its efforts in 1960 when it formulated what was known as the "Black Book." It was a list of people with criminal records who were banned from the casinos. Commissioners also worked to remove officials in the business who had become corrupt. Because of all of this, the commission was quite successful in legitimizing the gambling fun.
Tourists Visit Sin City
By 1954, 8 million tourists were coming to visit the casinos and resorts every year. This was mostly due to the endless sea of casino games and top-notch professional performers, such as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, hosting shows.
Vegas was the ultimate destination for adults who wanted to cut loose and be entertained beyond their wildest dreams. They could have fun gambling and see exclusive performers, two experiences that a person couldn’t get in most places. Las Vegas was a truly unique and special city..
Leaving a Mark on Hotel Construction
One day in 1966, Howard Hughes decided to buy the Desert Inn after checking into the penthouse suite and deciding that he didn’t want to leave. He then bought $300 million worth of other hotels. This was the beginning of an era when corporate groups replaced the mob interests of the past.
Another individual who made his mark in the development of Las Vegas was Wilbur Clark. He was the former owner of the Desert Inn. Clark proposed the idea of a national lottery as a solution for the government to pay off its debts from the war.
Rising Numbers and Headliners
Las Vegas boomed in the 1960s. During that time, gambling in Vegas provided $200 million in revenue annually and the population of Nevada almost reached 300,000. In addition, several casinos and hotels opened up, including Circus Circus, Caesars Palace, Harveys, Four Queens and Aladdin.
Near the end of the decade, Kirk Kerkorian opened the International, the world’s largest hotel and casino in the 1980s. When the International first opened, the resort had Elvis Presley as the headliner, which made him forever an icon in Las Vegas.
$1 Billion Revenue
In the 1970s, tourism became the largest industry in Nevada. Taxation on gaming resulted in over $1 billion in revenue in 1975. Almost half of the state’s budget was made possible by the tax revenue on gambling — but 30% came from related items like cigarettes and liquor.
In 1972, the first gaming company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange was a company called Harrah’s Entertainment. After this, sports betting taxes were lowered, and as a result, many sports books and betting practices were created.
A Dip in Population
In the late 1970s, the growth of the city came to a brief halt as a result of the nationwide economic recession. But the population growth only slowed for a few years.
At that time, there was also a slowdown in the number of tourists visiting Las Vegas because of a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel in November of 1980. That fire took the lives of more than 80 people. But, as time went on, more casinos were built. Slowly but surely, things returned to business as usual.
The First of the Mega-Resorts
The giant Mirage hotel resort was opened in 1989 when Steve Wynn, who was a longtime casino developer, took on the project to create the city’s first mega-resort. Over the next two decades, the old, small casinos of the past were torn down to make room for more of these mega-resorts. More casinos meant space for more people as the city continued to grow.
Aesthetically, many of these new buildings were modeled after iconic locations around the world, including Paris, New York, Rome, Egypt and Venice. These are hotels that people can still stay in today.
More Population Growth
In the late 1980s, the city had to keep up with the growing number of tourists. In the span of a decade between 1980 and 1990 the population of Vegas increased by almost 100,000 people.
At the beginning of the 2000s, the population doubled and was then over 500,000. The greater area of Vegas had surpassed a population of a million people in the mid-1990s. Ten years later, that number would double yet again.
One Single Slogan
In the early 2000s, there were 7,000 people moving to Las Vegas every month. The number of tourists visiting Vegas annually was in the millions — until 9/11. The travel industry took a massive hit. This meant there were lots of empty hotel rooms which subsequently resulted in many layoffs of resort staff.
In order to fix the economic damage, the "Only Vegas" campaign used the famous slogan "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" to inspire young travelers to visit the city again. It worked, and tourist numbers rose once more.
A Slowdown in Population Growth
Las Vegas is the ultimate tourist hotspot for both entertainment and gambling. The varied attractions have continued to grow and develop. You might think that the city lost some visitors in 2008 with the high unemployment rate and housing market collapse, but the city still managed to get 40 million visitors that year.
In 2019, the total population of Vegas just exceeded 2.6 million — an increase since the economic troubles of 2008. The allure of Las Vegas and its many activities and distractions allow visitors to escape what’s troubling them.
New Technology and Major Changes
Online gaming became even more prevalent in the 2010s. On February 21, 2013, Assembly Bill No. 114 was approved by the Nevada State Legislature. This allowed Nevada to make deals with other states in order for them to collaborate on online poker and other gambling games.
In the late 2010s, expansions and renovations took place in many of the resorts and casinos, including locations not on the Strip. Hotel rooms, gaming rooms, parking lots and just about everything was updated to accommodate a variety of new technologies meant to improve the Vegas experience.
Las Vegas Today
Thanks to its rich history, Las Vegas has grown into a 24/7 adult playground, and the numbers tell the tale. In 2019, Las Vegas had more than 42.5 million visitors. Even more impressively, the city is now also earning over $10 billion in gaming revenue every year.
Judging from the history of Las Vegas, it seems likely that the city will continue to grow even more in the coming years. Only time will tell what’s in store for this glittering desert oasis.