The history of Las Vegas must be fascinating no?
After all, it’s known for giving visitors the highest of highs and the lowest of lows!
Heck, they don’t call it Sin City for nothing!
It’s located in the desert of Nevada, and a place with such a notorious reputation surely has an equally fascinating backstory, right?
Las Vegas got its start in the early 1900s and has been the United States’ capital of gambling, weddings, and live performances ever since.
We’re going to walk down memory lane and check out the interesting highlights of the history of Las Vegas!
So, get ready to win the jackpot, and let’s go to Sin City!
1. Native Peoples First Occupied the Las Vegas Area For Thousands Of Years
Before the area that we now call Las Vegas became home to casinos, slot machines, and hotels, it was occupied by native peoples for thousands of years.
In fact, researchers have found petroglyphs (carvings) and tools that suggest humans have been in the area for more than 10,000 years–shocking, right?
We do know for certain that the Paiute tribe has had a long history in the Las Vegas area that dates back to the 12th century.
The tribe’s ancestors, known as the Tudinu (or Desert People), were able to thrive in the arid environment by relying on natural springs, hunting animals, and making use of just about every available plant.
In the late 1700s, the Spanish were the first to make contact with tribes in Nevada, and, sadly, it was the beginning of the end for the Native Americans’ way of life.
As more and more Europeans flooded through the Las Vegas area, the natural resources were stripped away, and the tribes’ numbers plummeted; however, the Paiute are today a federally recognized tribe whose government has worked hard to increase their presence and power in the region.
2. How Las Vegas Got Its Name in 1821
Although Spanish groups had already made their way to Nevada, Rafael Rivera is referred to as the first European to enter the Las Vegas valley.
He arrived in 1821 as a part of an expedition to open a trade route from New Mexico to California–the Old Spanish Trail.
As he explored the land and witnessed the wild grass that grew there (nurtured by spring water), he named the valley Las Vegas, which translates to The Meadows.
Las Vegas was a well-known stop along the Old Spanish Trail–not for its gambling, of course–and would be the starting point of what would soon grow into the world-famous destination it is today.
3. The Railroad Put the City on The Map
Before the 19th century, the only way to access Las Vegas was by multi-week wagon trips.
Well, that all changed when a group of railroad developers deemed the water-rich Las Vegas valley as the perfect location for a stop along the railroad that would connect Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.
It would be a place to do maintenance on the trains, refill supplies, and nothing more.
At the time, railroad prospectors had no idea the city of Las Vegas would skyrocket into a money-making machine.
In 1904, the first tracks were laid in the valley, and the town began to develop slowly.
There were a few instances when Las Vegas almost fell into despair, but the town was able to survive thanks to the businesses built around the railroad.
4. The First Casino in Las Vegas
Modern-day Las Vegas has about 30 casinos on the strip and dozens more nearby.
But which one was the first?
In 1905, when 110 acres of land in Las Vegas was auctioned off, and a man named Jim Miller purchased a plot, where he built a hotel with the first casino (officially established in 1906).
The building was originally called Hotel Nevada but later changed its name to the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino in the 70s.
But the hotel didn’t just have the first casino–no, no, no!
It is also known for having the first telephone installed in Las Vegas, for being the first to use a two-way mirror surveillance system to detect cheating, and for popularizing the shrimp cocktail dish in the city.
So, yeah, the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino has left its mark, to say the least.
But its time in Las Vegas is not over quite yet.
The Golden Gate Hotel & Casino still operates today, and it has become a historical attraction that draws in tourists.
Although it might be far smaller than the mega-casinos nearby, it’s the only one that can claim the reputation of being there first!
5. Gambling Used to be Outlawed
Can you imagine a world where gambling in Las Vegas was illegal?
Well, believe it or not, that was once a reality.
In 1909, the state of Nevada made gambling illegal (the law went into effect in 1910), even though games of chance were already becoming an integral part of Las Vegas.
Despite the new ruling, illegal casinos and speakeasies continued to operate, which started the beginning of illicit affairs and organized crime in the city.
Over the next years, the law slowly loosened, and a few low-stake gambling games were allowed to be played, but all the while, the illicit gambling scene was still growing.
During the Great Depression, the state of Nevada was desperate to stimulate the economy, and it decided to terminate the law against gambling in 1931.
Although it would take a few decades for the city to explode with neon lights, the decision to legalize gambling was the turning point in the history of Las Vegas.
6. How Las Vegas Became the Quickie Wedding Capital
The law on gambling wasn’t the only thing that changed in 1931.
Nevada also decided to ease its divorce and marriage laws by throwing out the blood test and waiting-period requirements that slowed the process down.
As a result, more and more tourists poured into Las Vegas to get hitched or call it quits.
The city then became known as the Quickie Wedding Capital of the World–that’s some kind of reputation!
Each year, the marriage industry grew and grew, and more chapels started popping up left and right.
Today, it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry thanks to about 70,000 annual marriages that take place there.
So, if you just can’t wait any longer to spend the rest of your life with your soulmate, Las Vegas can help.
Just keep in mind the divorce rate is also quite high!
7. The Hoover Dam Brought Business
We all know about the Hoover Dam, but it doesn’t get the credit it deserves for the impact it had on the history of Las Vegas.
If the year 1931 wasn’t already full of stimulating events, it was also when the construction of the dam began.
The bill for the project was first passed by President Hoover; however, it would later be dedicated to President Franklin D. Roosevelt–sorry, Hoover.
To achieve such a massive project, thousands and thousands of workers were needed.
In total, about 21,000 men–who made an average of 60 cents a day–worked on the dam from 1931 to 1936.
All those men with money in their pockets would flood into Las Vegas (about 40 miles away), where casinos and showgirls were waiting for them.
Once the dam was complete, the city had cheap electricity to power its dazzling neon lights and was known for being a good time.
The Hoover Dam is a true marvel of engineering that attracts visitors from all around the world.
But, of course, you can bet that most of the visitors are really in town to experience Las Vegas.
8. The Mob Reimagined Las Vegas
Without the mob, Las Vegas would never be what it is today.
What exactly does that mean?
In 1941, El Rancho Vegas Resort opened up shop just outside of the city limits on U.S Highway 91, which would soon be referred to as the Strip, and more businesses followed closely behind.
These early establishments were built with an Old West theme until Benjamin Bugsy Siegel came into town.
Siegel was a well-connected mobster who built the Flamingo–a hugely popular hotel and casino.
But Siegel had a vision of what Las Vegas could be, and he designed the Flamingo as a high-class, Hollywood-like resort that drew in celebrities and booked top talent performances.
He was soon killed in 1947, but his dreams for the city carried on.
Various mobsters came in and built similarly themed hotels and casinos, and more money began to flow into the Las Vegas Strip than ever.
Here’s a list of some of the casinos the mob built.
The Sands (no longer in operation)
Riviera (no longer in operation)
The Stardust (no longer in operation)
And many more
9. The Rat Pack Ruled 1950s Entertainment
As celebrities, tourists, and money gravitated towards the city in the 1950s, one of the most famous entertainment groups in the history of Las Vegas was born: The Rat Pack.
The Rat Pack was primarily made up of Frank Sinatra, Sammy David Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford.
These entertainers drew in massive crowds of spectators, especially at the Sands Casino, and sparked a new kind of performance.
Frank Sinatra was known for bringing a sense of glamor and luxury, as he never left the room after dark without a sports coat and always performed in a suit or tuxedo, further burying the Old West theme of the past in the ground.
10. Tourists Came to See Atomic Bomb Tests
In addition to gambling, entertainment, quick marriages, and celebrities, tourists were also drawn to Las Vegas for the chance to watch bombs be tested nearby–what a crazy time, right?
The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce even published a calendar to show the dates and times of each detonation.
People would sit as close to the testing site as they could, have a picnic, and enjoy the odd show.
The night before a bomb testing, Las Vegas hotels and casinos would host Dawn Bomb Parties, and people would drink until they saw the first flashes of bombs in the distance–yes, this really happened.
There was even a drink referred to as the Atomic Cocktail, which contained vodka, brandy/cognac, sherry, and champagne.
11. Corporate Mega-Casinos Drove Out the Mob
All good–or illegal–things must come to an end.
And for the mobsters that were running Las Vegas, that began to happen at the end of the 1960s.
In 1967, Howard Hughes, a business magnate, began buying casinos with the help of new legislation that no longer required every shareholder of a corporation to be licensed.
And just like that, corporate money and power began rolling into town and establishing massive mega-casinos that rule the city today.
By the 1980s, most of the mob-owned casinos were a thing of the past–some smaller casinos were even destroyed to make room for the new, massive resorts.
So, although the mobsters eventually got pushed out, they left quite a mark on the history of Las Vegas.
12. Las Vegas Got Its First Sports Team in 2017
Knowing that Las Vegas is a hub for all types of entrainments, you might be surprised to learn that the city didn’t get its first professional sports team until 2017.
And you might be even more surprised to learn that it was a hockey team!
The Vegas Golden Knights played their first game at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on October 10th, 2017, just about a week after the tragic Las Vegas shooting.
A few years later, in 2020, the city got its second professional sports team when the NFL’s Raiders came into town.
The team plays in its very own Allegiant Stadium.
The history of Las Vegas sure doesn’t disappoint!
Still, to this day, the city hosts some of the biggest performances in the world and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Whether or not you’re interested in gambling or getting married by a fake Elvis, exploring the city and seeing its historical sites is a trip worth taking.
So, if you do go to Sin City, just remember to always quit when you’re ahead!
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants, or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.