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History of Las Vegas & Gambling

Over the past century Las Vegas has rose to become one of the great bastions of American popular culture. The city that grew from humble beginnings in the Nevada desert has long been a gambling mecca that brings in millions each day from some of the world’s most renowned casinos. It hasn’t always been this way, the history of Las Vegas is embedded in frontier land conquests, civil war, organised crime and government plans to increase revenue, and this is its story.

The origins of Las Vegas: 1829 – 1905

Las Vegas was discovered when a group of 60 Mexican merchants led by Antonio Armijo were foraging new trade routes through to Los Angeles. By following routes to the river they discovered the Las Vegas valley and developed a stop-off point for people travelling west throughout the 19th century.

In the meantime, a war was reaching boiling point between the United States and Mexico, with the land that existed under Las Vegas then owned by the Mexicans, the US swiftly stole the land and built a substantial fort. Once the war had subsided the Americans had their minds on western development and invested heavily in bringing wells, irrigation and agriculture to the arid area. Following these developments the Las Vegas Rancho was founded and the Mormon syndication routes were formed.

Farmers and Miners flocked to the area with land being priced at $1.25 per acre which meant land could be acquired for cheap and the area could be developed and expanded at a rapid pace. 1885 seen the first large scale migration of Mormons to the area. Over the next 25 years agriculture became the primary industry for the valley and cemented the town as the best stop on the Old Spanish trail. The foundations had been made for Las Vegas’ expansion.

Crisis in Las Vegas: 1905-1929

By the turn of the century Las Vegas had become an established water point for wagon trains and the railroads who were travelling west into Los Angeles. Prior to this the Nevada and Arizona deserts had been a natural hurdle for easy passage to the West.

US Senator William Andrews Clark was responsible for many of the great railways that linked the United States. Railway completion in Salt Lake City through to Vegas linked Utah, Nevada, and California causing boomtowns to spring up on the access that the railroads brought. In 1905, Las Vegas was finally incorporated as a city, and it was all down to Clark’s innovation.

Disaster would soon strike in 1910 when the State of Nevada would outlaw Gambling. Even the mid-western custom of flipping a coin on the price of a drink was outlawed. The government were ruling with an iron fist. WW1 would create tension in Las Vegas, federal resources were no longer being shipped West in the magnitude they once were. The Federal government were focussed on the war in Europe and the resulting drop in business would force the Clark owned Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad to declare bankruptcy. The austerity that was forced upon the United States following the war would lead to national strikes in 1922 that would leave Las Vegas teetering on the verge of existence.

The First Casinos and Government support: 1930-1941

Amid the great depression Herbert Hoover’s plans to build the Boulder Dam began, the dam was said to be a way of curbing potential flooding hazards in the area and bring a huge source of hydroelectric energy to an area renowned for its arid lands and sparse resources. There was only one problem; funding. While the value of the dollar was capitulating on a global scale and New Yorkers were sleeping in make shift shanties in Central Park the building of a mega dam was thought of as unnecessary. The dam’s construction created the opportunity for long-term work that would span two decades, eventually ceasing in 1947. Over 25,000 workers flocked to the area which resulted in substantial growth the formation of a federally ran habitation called Boulder Town. The influx of workers was not free from controversy with a whole new illegal market of bootlegging, gambling and entertainment arising from the boredom that the workers enjoyed.

Many deaths occurred during the construction and it’s said that two generations died on the same day 14 years apart. Revenue was vitally needed for the dam’s completion and the federal government seized an opportunity. In 1931, as the bootlegging and illegal gambling industries continued to escalate the government decided to pass law that would legalise gambling in the state of Nevada. A law that would cement the city as the global hub of gambling and bring mass revenue to the state that would fund not only the dam but many more projects to come.

There was only one problem. The mafia bosses and the outlaws already had the monopoly on the industry, the government would have to accept their losses and reap the rewards of their new revenue streams that Nevada would generate for the dam. Meanwhile, the federal government were reeling about the state laws that had been passed. In retaliation they decided to impose bans on the dam workers making the trips to Las Vegas to drink and gamble. Their pursuit only increased the workers desire for rebellion and a mass exodus to Vegas ensued on the regular. This harvested illegal industry and the federal government was on the ropes.

The War Years and the Post-war boom: 1941-1955

In 1941, the war in Europe had been crescendoing to a climax with the allied powers on the ropes. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour caused the US to join the war in the Pacific. Thus, attentions were turned away from the dam and American development and pumped into the war effort on foregone island settlements in the pacific. It was 1917 all over again.

During the war, the US Army Air corps and gunnery school bought land in Vegas that would later become Nellis Air Force Base. The US army were displeased with the legal prostitution in Las Vegas that was distracting their troops from important missions.

It was during this period however that the mafia associations and gangland structures of the casino began to overwhelm the city. In previous years organised crime syndicates faced tough competition from owners who were resilient in not ceding land to known crime bosses. Following WW2 this would also change when Jewish gangster, Bugsy Siegel worked with Mormon banks to build the Flamingo in 1946.

The Hoover Dam finally reached completion in 1947 and attention was turned to new prospects in Las Vegas. Vast financial injection into the area provided by Teamsters Union and Mormon bankers allowed the Riviera, the Tropicana, Sahara, and Sans to be built spawning a golden era in Las Vegas. By 1954, Vegas was bringing 200 million dollars into its casinos each year and things began to developer even further. Some of music and cinema’s biggest stars began stints in the area with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Liberace being some of the early residencies on show.

The 1950s also seen the first of many nuclear tests that would occur deep into the Nevada desert. These tests were advertised as just another tourist attraction and a further revenue source for the government and crime overlords.

Crime free Las Vegas: 1956 – 1969

The Wealthy eccentric Howard Hughes was responsible for the mid-century transformation of the city, pumping money into the many rising hotels and eventually eradicating the mafia monopoly that existed in the county.

As was the case across most establishments at the time, Jim Crow laws and segregation were still a major social issue that ran deep through the heart of Las Vegas. Many of the casinos and entertainment establishments in Vegas were owned by rich, white men. This eradicated African Americans and Hispanic minority populations in the area significantly. Frank Sinatra is often credited with bringing segregation changes to Vegas once giving the ultimatum that he would not sing unless they gave Sammy Davis Jnr was given a room.

Explosive Growth: 1970 - 1988

The growth that the city experienced in the 1930s was enough to see the city double in size in just a couple of years. Although the growth rate had slowed across the middle part of the century Vegas had become the largest city that was founded in the 20th century. This sort of growth bought huge investment to the area and became a mainstay in American popular culture. The influx of investment that Vegas enjoyed only expanded the city limits and the urban sprawl and thus spanned the beginning of the mega resort.

1989 – Present Day

The crime wave that engulfed the city since its advent eventually subsided as the commercial 80s was underway. Commercial and family-orientated mega resorts were on the rise and this was symbolised by the construction of the Mirage hotel and was the first casino to be built using funds that had been generated in Wall Street. Some of the hotels that arose during this era are as follows:

  • MGM Grand, Treasure Island, and Luxor.
  • New York, New York.
  • Bellagio
  • Mandalay Bay
  • Wynn
  • The Cosmopolitan
  • And many more.

The 2008 financial crisis postponed many construction projects that were underway in the area. Like the rest of the world, Vegas eventually recovered and recorded the biggest turnaround economy in the United States in 2012.

What does the future hold?

Who knows for sure what the future of Las Vegas holds. With talk of a depleting water supply to the area arguments have arose about the sustainability of the city. Many investors are calling on the dawn of a new era in Vegas, where new technology like Virtual Reality could revolutionise the casino floor and the entertainment opportunities that are available across the strip. Only time will tell.

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