by Sarah Masih

Today Las Vegas, Nevada is internationally known for its casinos and nightlife. A town that was once just a barren desert has now become a stylish city that generates nine billion dollars annually.

Given the transformation, what exactly makes a city like Vegas go from empty desert to million-dollar streets?

Early History

Around 12,000 years ago Paleo-Indian people were the first inhabitants in the area. Their tools have been discovered at several sites in the Las Vegas Valley. The Anasazi and Paiute tribes came later and lived in the mountains and the valley.

The first known Europeans to enter this area were members of a Spanish exploration party led by a trader named Antonio Armijo and a scout named Rafael Rivera.

Their goal was to find a new route from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. When they arrived in 1829, Armijo described it on his map as Las Vegas.

In 1855 a group of Mormon apostles settled in Las Vegas. This expedition was led by a church elder named William Bringhurst. The Mormons built a fort surrounded by a garden and fields of grain.

In 1856 the team discovered lead in the Spring Mountains. The leader of the church- Brigham Young sent a team of metallurgists from Salt Lake City, Utah to develop a mine.

Their findings were not profitable at the time, but during World War I, it served as the Potosi mini, a rich source of silver and other metals.

Las Vegas never had fertile land. The crops failed the second year after the Mormons arrived which led to internal disagreement and Bringhurst’s dismissal. The next leader was Samuel Thompson. In 1857, the crops were eaten up by insects and the Mormons abandoned their fort at the end of the next year.

In the next few years, other Mormons like Daniel and Ann Bonelli came to Las Vegas. The two operated a ferry on the Colorado River. The Las Vegas Valley was part of the Arizona Territory until 1866 when it joined the state of Nevada.

Nevada remained little explored and scarcely populated for several decades. A census in 1900 counted only 30 people in the state, all of whom were employees of a cattle ranch near the old Mormon fort.

20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century, Las Vegas was much smaller than Searchlight. Searchlight was a mining town about 60 miles south of Vegas.

However, Vegas had started doing better than it did in the early years because of the arrival of William A. Clark.

Clark was a mining magnate and a politician from Montana. He was a leading investor in building a railroad from Los Angeles, California to Salt Lake City, Utah. He recognized that the springs of Las Vegas would be able to act as a stable water source along the route.

He purchased a large chunk of land in the Las Vegas Valley. He claimed water rights to the springs and ordered for a railroad depot to be built. He used his political and economic position to openly bribe legislators to obtain favors for the railroad.

In 1905, Clark held an auction of his property near the newly built railroad depot and station café, which included the town’s first casino. The auction was advertised in the railroads of two Terminal cities.

The auction resulted in the sale of nearly every available lot, exceeding Clark’s expectations. Clark used a part of the money to build a pipeline from the springs to the depot and dug a well to provide the new town with a steady water supply.

Las Vegas grew quite slowly at first, except for one area which quickly evolved as a legally authorized zone of prostitution and gambling. The zone was closed down in 1919 when Nevada declared gambling illegal.

However, the casino’s did not close, and instead, went underground and continued to thrive secretly until gambling was legalized again.

On June 1st, 1911 Las Vegas was officially incorporated. On that day, voters went to the polls and voted on the issue of incorporation. The results were 168 in favor and 57 opposed.

A Tourist Destination

William A. Clark sold his part of the lands to the Union Pacific Company. A lot of ranches were built around the area, of which, some of them were brothels disguised as ranches. Soon, Las Vegas became a tourist destination for the residents of Los Angeles.

By 1930, 5,000 people were living in Vegas. Californians did not only visit to gamble but were also attracted to the simple divorce laws. In Nevada, you only had to be a six-week resident to get a divorce in the state.

One of the most ambitious moves of the federal government was building the Boulder Dam (present-day Hoover Dam) at the height of the Great Depression. The endeavor was a success and brought a steady source of water and electricity to Vegas.

Plus, the city benefited from all of the workers that came to the town, who were enticed into gambling at the casinos.


During World War II, more and more people came to Las Vegas. Following the dam workers, military personnel arrived alongside defense workers.

The senator of Nevada- Pat McCarran successfully persuaded the federal government to install two major establishments near Las Vegas in 1941- A magnesium-processing plant southeast to the city and a military airfield near the northeast.

The airfield, which is now known as the Nellis Air Force Base, eventually grew to span over 1,350 square miles, including the U.S Air Force’s testing range. These and other defense-related additions set up in the area brought in a lot more people.

Hotel owners, inspired by the large numbers of newcomers, began to hire top-name entertainment such as Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, and the Andrews Sisters.

After World War II ended, many of the soldiers chose to settle in Las Vegas because air-conditioning systems that were installed in the buildings made Nevada a much more comfortable place to stay during the summer.

Between 1940 and 1950, the city’s population nearly tripled and almost doubled again in the following decade.

The City We Know Today

The amount of money that Vegas raked in from gambling turned out to be a huge attraction for organized criminals.

In 1945, Bugsy Siegel, one of the most notable of these criminals, began constructing the Flamingo, Vegas’s first major casino and hotel. He ended up with a large debt with Meyer Lansky, an American gangster, and other mobs.

The Flamingo opened in March 1947, but Siegel was murdered shortly after.

According to one theory, it was Lanksy and other dissatisfied investors who were responsible for the murder. Lansky immediately took over the business.

The Flamingo soon became an enormous success and eventually encouraged more casinos to emerge along what had become known as the Strip -- the Thunderbird in 1948, the Desert Inn in 1950, the Sands and the Sahara in 1952 and the Riviera, Royal Nevada and the Dunes in 1955.

Although organized crime largely influenced modern-day Las Vegas, its dominance didn’t last long.

By the late 1950s, the newly established Nevada Gaming Commission, which was responsible for licensing gambling enterprises began to close down the gangster operations in the city.

In the early 1960s, the commission formed its so-called “Black Book”. This plan was hatched to remove corruption from the gambling industry. The plan contained a list of people with criminal records and subsequently banned those people from the casinos.

Through active enforcement of the law, the commission succeeded in eradicating criminal organizations from the casinos.

Others who were significant to the development of the city were Wilbur Clark, owner of the Desert Inn, who proposed that the government eliminate its World War II debts by holding a national lottery, and Howard Hughes who stayed in the Desert Inn from the 1950s to 1970s.

Some of the investments that Hughes made turned out to be failures including the Landmark Casino which went bankrupt, but others were successful. The Howard Hughes Parkway, a major highway that stretches across the University of Nevada and McCarran International Airport honors his many contributions.

The area also became well known for the nuclear weapons tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site about 65 miles from Las Vegas. At first, the locals were in favor of these events, because of the view they got.

The atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud was even incorporated into the official seal of Clark county.

Soon, however, people turned against overground testing, forcing the government to conduct testing underground. Howard Hughes argued that open-air testing would drive away visitors. It also became known that the chemicals in the air would cause radiation-related cancers.

Las Vegas continued to grow in the 1960s due to publicity brought by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Wayne Newton, and Elvis Presley, all of whom resided in the area.

Its growth wavered for a few years when a nationwide economic recession hit in the late 1970s, along with a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel that killed 80 people in November 1980.

Steve Wynn who managed the Golden Nugget Casinos since the early 1970s used the downturn to purchase and renovate old casinos. He also built the extravagant Mirage in 1989.

In the 1980s, the city’s overall growth accelerated to match the gaming and tourist economy. The population increased by nearly 100,000 between 1980 and 1990 and exceeded a quarter-million and half-million mark in the early 21st century.

The urban area reached the one million resident mark in the mid-1990s and almost doubled in the next decade.

The ancient Dunes casino was demolished in 1993. A huge crowd of people gathered to watch the building fall apart. It was the last of the 1950s-era hotels. It’s destruction symbolized the beginning of a new era of elite hotels like the Venetian and the Bellagio.

Today, Las Vegas is known as the City of Lights, because of the enormous amounts of bright lights all over the city. There are over 9,900,000 light bulbs on the Las Vegas Strip alone.

Las Vegas is also home to some of the richest business owners in the world, who make $630,000 a day per casino.

As such, Vegas has indeed come a long way since the 1800s.


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