The appeal of Las Vegas, where what happens stays, is obvious to us today. But have you ever wondered how one of the world’s most glamorous travel destinations managed to blossom in the middle of the Mojave Desert?
The City of Lights was always an unlikely Mecca. Its course was charted by frontier gamblers, women of ill repute, gangsters, and tycoons. And, of course, by the hundreds of millions of visitors whose losings have done as much to keep the lights on as the Hoover Dam.
This is the story of how Sin City became the adult playground we know and love today.
Want to read more about Vegas? Check out 11 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do In Las Vegas or 10 Things To Do On And Off The Las Vegas Strip.
The modern history of the city begins in 1905, when a railway was built through the area to connect Salt Lake to the Pacific Ocean. Las Vegas was planned (by the railroad company itself) to be a sober, responsible, working-class town. Fortunately, that didn’t pan out.
Nevada has long maintained its own ethos of freedom. It was, and is, famous for ask-no-questions marriage licences, making it an ideal destination for elopers. Nevada outlawed gambling in 1910, but that did nothing to dissuade dice-throwers and card-sharks in the smokey backrooms of Las Vegas speakeasies.
When the state officially legalized gambling in 1931, casinos began cropping up on a dusty stretch of road that was, at the time, just south of town. ‘The strip’ was born.
Coincidentally, 1931 also marked the year construction began on the Hoover Dam to the southeast of the city. The influx of thousands of depression-era laborers, suddenly flush with cash, helped to fuel Vegas’ burgeoning entertainment district.
The future looked bleak, however, when the dam was completed in 1936. World War II brought a second wave of newcomers via a nearby air base, but the modern Vegas didn’t really start to take shape until the post-war era.
Its architect was a notorious New York gangster, the most feared of his generation: Bugsy Siegel.
In place of saloon-door cowboy casinos, Siegel envisioned neon lights, high stakes, and spectacle.
Siegel had made his name as a prize horse of ‘Murder Incorporated’, the mafia’s dreaded stable of enforcers. He had also made enemies. In the late ’30s, his bosses sent him to the west coast to establish a gambling racket out of LA.
But Bugsy had also done business in Nevada during the construction of the Hoover Dam, selling female companions to the workmen there. By the mid-4os, Siegel and his associates were hard at work trying to corner the gambling scene too.
In 1945, the Californian developer Billy Wilkerson was building the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Vegas. Running out of money, Wilkerson turned to Siegel, who was looking to go (somewhat) legit. Siegel saved the Flamingo, but he cut Wilkerson out of the deal altogether under pain of death.
He then went on a spending spree, pouring $4,000,000 into the project – an outrageous sum at the time.
Siegel saw something in Las Vegas that no one else did. In LA, he palled around with movie stars and showgirls; he wanted to export the glamour of Hollywood to this sleepy desert town and turn it into a libertine’s oasis. In place of saloon-door cowboy casinos, Siegel envisioned neon lights, high stakes, and spectacle.
But the grand opening of the Flamingo in December 1946 was disastrous. The hotel was incomplete. No rooms were ready, so guests couldn’t stay the night, and the festivities were punctuated by the sounds of ongoing construction. Few of Siegel’s celebrity friends had made the jaunt into the desert.
After a month, the Flamingo, Vegas’ first modern hotel/casino, had to close its doors. It subsequently re-opened and became profitable – as it remains today! But Siegel never lived to see its triumph.
He was shot and killed at his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home in June 1947, almost certainly at the behest of mob backers who had lost confidence in him. Nevertheless, for better and worse, Siegel was the founder of the Las Vegas we know today.
The Golden Age
In the decades following Bugsy Siegel, a new generation of mobsters and moguls brought his vision of the city to life. Dirty money mingled with clean to fund the construction of some of the world’s most iconic casinos: the Sands, the Sahara, the Riviera, the New Frontier.
This desert mirage was built on the dime of drug dealers and bankers, pensioners and loansharks, hitmen and Mormons. Its boulevards were peopled by the A-list celebrities Siegel had so hoped to lure: Elvis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Liberace. $7.50 would get you the best room money could buy.
In 1957, the Dunes became the first Vegas establishment to show women in… well, as much clothing as they were born wearing. Other hotels began importing more exotic, breath-taking acts. The Stardust became the home of the Lido de Paris burlesque cabaret. The Tropicana brought in the Folies Bergère; they played there for 50 years, the longest running show in Vegas history.
Another watershed was the completion of Caesars Palace in 1966. Caesars wasn’t just a hotel/casino; it was an immersive experience, designed to make guests feel like Roman emperors. This sparked a new era of themed opulence on the strip.
All Are Welcome
1966 was also the year Howard Hughes came to Las Vegas. The eccentric filmmaker and aviator installed himself on the ninth floor of the Desert Inn and refused to leave. When he tired of conflict with the owners, he simply bought them out. And he didn’t stop there; by the time of his death a decade later, Hughes had collected $300 million worth of property in town.
In a way, Hughes’ arrival presaged a more fundamental change. The influence of the mafia began to wane as large-scale legitimate developers like Steve Wynn blew into town. They transformed Vegas yet again, from a gambler’s paradise into a resort destination with a degree of family appeal.
Gradually, the iconic, old-school casinos that had glittered over the strip began to disappear. The Dunes, the Sands, the Hacienda, and the Desert Inn became the Bellagio, the Venetian, the Mandalay Bay, and the Wynn Las Vegas. The Folies gave way to Cirque du Soleil; Liberace passed his mic on to Donny and Marie Osmond.
The form the it takes may change, but the function remains the same. The same tantalizing promise – of freedom, of escape – will bring them back to Las Vegas time and again, in their chattering millions.