|Despite popular rumor to the contrary, Las
Vegas did not spring miraculously onto the desert floor with the advent of
Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo (although the Flamingo was an important milestone
in dramatically changing the face of the typical Las Vegas casino forever
after). In fact, Las Vegas, as a city, will celebrate its centennial in
2005, and it's seen a remarkable series of changes in those one hundred
From its earliest beginnings, Las Vegas has catered to the traveler. A nomadic tribe of Indians called the Paiutes settled the area around the turn of the last millenium (circa 1000), and basically occupied the area from Mt. Charleston to the Colorado River. As in the case of so many other basically peaceful tribes, when the white man came, life as the Paiutes knew it was forever changed. Several traders and explorers, such as Jedediah Smith in 1826, and later John C. Fremont in 1844, traveled through the area and made contact with the Paiutes. By 1851, Mormon president Brigham Young, in his endeavor to create the 'State of Deseret', stretching from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, made Las Vegas one of the important stop-overs. To this end, he sent missionaries to colonize the region and convert the Paiute.
The location they selected to establish their fort was on a promontory overlooking the Las Vegas Valley, which is now the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington. (The Old Mormon Fort still has remnants of its original building, and is in the process of being restored.) Eventually the settlement disbanded and most of the Mormon settlers returned to Utah.
However, a mining boom at nearby Mt. Potosi fostered a new influx of travelers ' mainly miners, who used Las Vegas as a center for food and supplies. There was no permanent settlement there until 1865, when a group of prospectors, including Octavius Decatur Gass, acquired the rights to the Old Mormon Fort. For the rest of that decade, Gass ran a prosperous business at the Fort, rebuilding many of the structures and farming the land, offering food and shelter to the travelers on the 'Old Mormon Trail' (the Salt Lake-Los Angeles wagon road), as well as offering provisions to the nearby miners.
Gass was less of a businessman than a prospector at heart, however, and eventually bad business deals forced him to turn the property over to Archibald Stewart and his wife, Helen, who had only intended to stay there temporarily. However, after a feud at nearby Kiel Ranch, which ended in the murder of Stewart, his widow stayed on to run the ranch and see it prosper. This period was from 1882 to 1902, when she sold the ranch to Montana Senator William Clark. Clark was instrumental in overseeing the establishment of the railroad from Utah to California. Acquiring the rights to the Ranch and its abundant water supply ensured that Las Vegas was to become a major stop for railroad travelers.
In 1905 an ad was placed in prominent major newspapers concerning 'first class inside lots' going for as little as $200 apiece in Clark's Las Vegas Townsite. This encouraged squatters and investors alike, and the auction on May 15, 1905 produced a flurry of sales. Soon hotels and homes sprouted up all along the main downtown area of Fremont Street, as well as schools, a hospital, and essential businesses for the time, such as ice plants.
Las Vegas essentially thrived for the next 20 years because of the railroad. It also played host to travelers on their stop-overs, by providing entertainment and liquor. The liquor was restricted to a certain area, Blocks 16 and 17. This area naturally evolved into a red light district as well. During Prohibition, this section was especially popular. Meanwhile, nearby Fremont Street continued to thrive and add new hotels and casinos on a regular basis. One of the original hotels (that still exists) was Miller's Hotel (later called Hotel Nevada, then Sal Sagev (Las Vegas spelled backwards) on the corner of Main and Fremont. It's now known as the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino. The first true luxury hotel opened in 1932, the Apache (where the Horseshoe Casino now stands), offering an air-conditioned lobby and an elevator. Later on, in 1941 the El Cortez Hotel was built, on Sixth and Fremont. The original hotel/casino is still there (surrounded by new additions and an added hotel tower).
During this period, the city founders realized that as the roads were improved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, this would promote more tourism and they began to build ranches to appeal to the potential visitors. Kiel Ranch became a popular dude ranch and gained notoriety as a place where people came to wait out their quicky Nevada divorces. In 1927 work began on David Lorenzi's high class resort northwest of town (now called Lorenzi Park, and site of the Nevada State Museum), with its twin lakes used for boating and fishing, plus a popular dance pavillion.
In 1931, the combined advent of the building of Boulder (later renamed Hoover) Dam, the creation of Boulder City ' plus the legalization of gambling, ensured a new boom in the prosperity of southern Nevada. New casinos continued to sprout, including the Meadows Club, an elaborate casino and nightclub (on the site where Montgomery Ward stands currently, across the street from the Showboat Hotel & Casino).
World War II increased Las Vegas' economy even more. In 1940 an air base was established (now known as Nellis Air Force Base) in the northeast part of town. A huge plant, Basic Magnesium, was built (for the manufacture of bullets, bomb casings, etc.), which was instrumental in the establishment of Henderson, just southeast of Las Vegas (and now the fastest-growing community in Nevada).
In the early Fifties a new kind of entertainment was born--watching the atomic bomb testing, which took place at the nuclear test site, just 70 miles northwest of Las Vegas. A famous Life magazine photo captured one of the mushroom clouds rising above the waving cowboy, "Vegas Vic" of Fremont Street. In fact, the opening of the Desert Inn was timed to coincide with one of the blasts (reminiscent of the latter-day implosions of older hotels, to make way for the new.) For the next 10 years, blasts went off approximately once a month, and Las Vegas made the most of the publicity, with 'Miss Atomic Blast' contests, and menu items such as the atomburger.
Meanwhile, a new area of town was beginning to develop, as Fremont Street continued to expand beyond its boundaries. New land was needed for the sun-belt type of resorts, popular in Arizona and southern California, that the community wanted to build to appeal to more tourists. One of the first on this strip, called Highway 91 was the Pair-o-Dice Club, and the Club Bingo (where the Sahara Hotel stands today). This area really didn't consist of much more than a few scattered clubs until California hotel man Thomas Hull decided to build a replica of his El Rancho Hotels (in Fresno and Sacramento, California) here in Las Vegas. Marked by its distinctive windmill, and Spanish Rancho style, this resort was unique because it combined a casino with a resort atmosphere, with low bungalows surrounding a lush pool area. This remained a popular spot for locals and visitors until a fire of unknown origin destroyed it in 1960. To this day, it has remained a vacant lot (across from the Sahara), with a few bushes and pathways as the only reminders of this once great resort's glory days.
The next year the Last Frontier opened its doors, a mile south of the El Rancho, which followed El Rancho's lead, but everything was bigger and better; a large showroom, a chuckwagon buffet, parking for 400 cars, and offered stagecoach and horseback rides, and a wedding chapel. Later renamed the New Frontier, and now simply The Frontier, this property is one of the few original hotels still standing--and still going strong.
These two properties caught the eye of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who revolutionized the resort industry by creating a more elegant Miami Beach type atmosphere. He carried the formality to the waiters, who wore tuxedos on opening night of his Flamingo Hotel & Casino, in 1945. After a brief setback, and then Bugsy's well-publicized murder, the hotel went on to eventual unsurpassed success, establishing a more luxurious atmosphere for the Las Vegas visitor, tired of the Old West theme. Later purchased by the Hilton Hotel chain, this property remains the epitome of Las Vegas glamour and relaxation. Bugsy's original suite is now gone, replaced by time-share rentals, but you can still find a small plaque as tribute, along with roses from Bugsy's original rose garden.
The remaining decade of the Forties and the Fifties saw an amazing succession of new hotels opening on what is now known as 'the Strip' (Las Vegas Boulevard). The next hotel to be built ' in 1948 ' was the Thunderbird. It went through several incarnations after its original glory, later called the Silverbird, and then the El Rancho (as a tribute to the first hotel on 'The Strip'). Unfortunately, it now stands unoccupied and is an embarrassing eyesore amidst the glitter and glamour of the surrounding hotels.
The Desert Inn was the next to develop in 1950. Eccentric recluse Howard Hughes took over the top floor and lived in secrecy and isolation here for several years, conducting all his business through the telephone or third parties. This is also where the popular television series "Vegas" was filmed in the late Seventies, and boasts the first (and now the only) golf course on the Strip ' the beautiful and venerable Desert Inn Golf Course.
The Sahara Hotel & Casino came next, in 1952. It had one of the original towers in town, and was home to Elvis when he first performed in Las Vegas in 1956, and to the Beatles during their stay in town when they performed at the Convention Center in the mid-Sixties. The hotel's Casbar Lounge was the spot where the Las Vegas lounge show originated, presenting starts like Louis Prima and Keely Smith in the mid-Fifties. The desert theme at the Sahara remains today, as do their camel statues, still greeting guests at the entrance to this ever-evolving hotel-casino.
The Sands Hotel & Casino opened next, only two weeks after the Sahara, and hosted some of the greatest acts in show business ' most notably 'The Rat Pack' (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis, Jr.) They played to standing-room only crowds, including then-Senator Jack Kennedy. The Sands was the third hotel in Las Vegas to be spectacularly imploded to make way for the new mega-resort, the Venetian.
The Riviera opened in April, 1955, and was a departure from the established hotel style up to that point. It was the first 'skyscraper' on the Strip ' a whopping nine stories. It's managed to survive ' through different ownerships and trials and tribulations. Its original tower is masked by a huge neon façade that beckons the visitor to walk on in and play.
In May, 1955 the Dunes Hotel opened, on the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Blvd. The hotel boasted a 90-foot long swimming pool, a lagoon and a huge Sultan, 30-feet high, standing as a sentinel in front of the property. It too saw many ownership changes, renovations and additions throughout the years. What was once considered a location liability (being diagonally across the street from the much more successful 'Fabulous Flamingo') later became a prime piece of Las Vegas real estate. Steve Wynn purchased it, imploded it, in a highly-publicized production in conjunction with the opening of his Treasure Island in 1993, and now in the ashes of the Dunes stands the spectacular Bellagio Hotel & Casino.
A daring new concept was born in the form of the Moulin Rouge Hotel & Casino. This was a departure from the norm for two reasons: Its location was neither on The Strip nor Downtown, but on West Bonanza. Secondly, it was heralded as 'the first interracial property in Las Vegas.' Why was this even necessary? Because much to Las Vegas' shame, up until that point the black population in Las Vegas was segregated almost as much as it was in the South. The schools were interracial, but that was about all. If a black visitor wanted to stay in Las Vegas, in the mid-Fifties the only choices were smaller hotels and motels or boarding houses on the west side of town. Ironically, some of the biggest entertainment draws at that time were performers of color--Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, and, of course, Sammy Davis, Jr. They performed in the most spectacular showrooms to enthralled audiences, but they couldn't stay in the rooms of the same properties.
When the Moulin Rouge opened, it enjoyed great success. It was featured on the cover of Life magazine and it quickly became the place to hang out after hours, as well as the showplace for luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Count Basie, etc. Boxing great Joe Louis was the official greeter. Pressure from too much competition from the overbuilding of hotels on the Strip, perhaps exacerbated by poor business management, the Moulin Rouge closed after only eight months. In recent years there has been renewed interest in the property, including the prospect of re-opening it, and giving it the long-overdue credit it deserves as an official historic landmark.
The Hacienda was the next to open--in 1956--at what was then a desolate area at the south end of the Strip. It started a trend in the late Fifties by offering junket trips to gamblers (flying in known high rollers, all expenses paid). They also offered bargains for the lower-budget player, such as inexpensive rooms, two-for-one specials, etc., which still can be found in Vegas today. The Hacienda was imploded dramatically on New Year's Eve, 1997 to make way for the new Mandalay Bay. But the original neon horse and rider that stood at the front of the Hacienda can still be seen in its original glory at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street, at the entrance to the Fremont Street Experience, as part of the Neon Museum.
The Tropicana (known as The Tiffany of the Strip) opened in 1957, on the corner of what is now called Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Blvd. Located near the Hacienda, this was also in a rather desolate, remote area of The Strip. (It's now on what is called The Four Corners, across from the Excalibur, the MGM Grand, and the New York-New York Hotel & Casino. It was the original home to the first French revue, The Folies Bergere. It also had one of the best golf courses and country clubs (now replaced by the MGM Grand). Sometimes called the Island of Las Vegas, it's still thriving, and perhaps currently most distinguished by its swim-up gaming tables in their pool area.
The last hotel to open in the Fifties was the Stardust. After a slow start, it officially opened in July, 1958, as what was then the largest hotel in the world, with 1,032 rooms. Behind the towers, you can still find some of the original small, motel-like rooms where you can drive up to your door (not too easy to do in Las Vegas anymore, except in the case of motels). Following the lead of the Tropicana, the Stardust brought in another French review, the Lido de Paris, which ran for 33 well-attended years.
Tally Ho opened in 1963, billing itself as a non-gaming property. It quickly flopped--Las Vegas wasn't ready for this yet. It became the Aladdin in 1966 after a complete makeover, including the addition of the famous magic lamp neon three-dimensional sign in front. Owner Milton Prell scored a major coup by offering his property to Elvis Presley and his bride Priscilla for their 1967 marriage. The Aladdin endured until 1998 when it was imploded to make way for (surprise!) the New Aladdin, which promises to outdo the other newest additions to Las Vegas. You can see the new, improved Aladdin when in opens in late 2000.
Caesars Palace opened in 1966 as the first true theme hotel, drippping Roman decadence and pleasure throughout the property. Its famous fountains have been the backdrop for many movies (including Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in 'Rainman') and adventures like Evil Knievel's famous daredevil motorcycle jumps. This hotel always stays a jump ahead of itself and succeeds in appealing to the international visitor and anyone who wants to live his wildest fantasies. The Forum Shops, with its ever-changing sky, talking statues and some of the most exclusive shops in the world, continue to entice visitors. Its newest addition of an all-suite tower only adds to its perennial aura.
Circus Circus opened in 1968 as a casino and circus combination. It could be really mind-boggling to look up from your slot machine to find aerialists flying dangerously close to your head. Later, a ceiling was added and the circus performances now take place safely on the second level, away from the gambling. A succession of hotel towers was also added over the years, along with the Grand Slam Canyon amusement park under its big pink dome. It continues to be a popular spot to stay for the 'lower-roller' gambler as well as families.
The Landmark was for years literally 'the landmark' of Las Vegas. Designed with the space needle look, it was for a time the tallest building in Nevada, at 31 stories. It was built in 1963, but didn't open until 1969. However, it was visible in scenes from movies such as 1964's 'Viva Las Vegas' with Elvis and Ann Margret, even though it wasn't opened yet. When it did open, in July, 1969, within days of its rival property across the street, the International, it still wasn't completely finished. But for years, its top floor restaurant, with its spectacular panoramic views, drew visitors and locals alike. For a time there were even slot machines on the highest floor, but players were spending too much time looking out the windows, so they moved them back to the casino level. The property went through a series of owners before finally falling into disrepair. In 1995 it became the second major property in Las Vegas to be imploded. (You can see the actual implosion in one of the scenes from 'Mars Attacks'). It also had its last hurrah a month or two before the implosion by being the outside version of the fictional casino, the 'Tangiers' in Martin Scorcese's film, 'Casino'.
The International (now known as the Las Vegas Hilton) opened in 1969 as well, across the street from the Landmark, next to the Convention Center on Paradise Road. Kirk Kerkorian, fabled Las Vegas entrepreneur, opened what was then the largest hotel in the world, with a showroom featuring Barbra Streisand. Elvis Presley followed, in his phenomenal Las Vegas comeback (where he continued to perform exclusively to sell-out crowds until his death in 1977). Not only was this hotel the biggest, it offered themed restaurants (Benihana, among others), an Olympic sized pool on an upper level and many other inducements. As the Las Vegas Hilton, this property continues to draw visitors, especially with its new Star Trek attraction.
The original MGM Grand Hotel & Casino (now known as Bally's Hotel & Casino) became Kerkorian's next successful venture. Its groundbreaking alone brought out more stars than most hotel openings, including Cary Grant. Its official opening in December of 1973 welcomed visitors to the world's largest casino, a jai-alai stadium and a huge shopping mall. It carried the Hollywood theme throughout the hotel, with large black and white glossies of the cream of MGM's star stable, and featured such fantasy rooms as the Hollywood Suite, with elevated round beds, satin sheets and mirrors on the ceiling. Unfortunately, this was also the scene of the one of the greatest hotel fire disasters in history (and the worst for Las Vegas) in November, 1980. Ironically, this disaster resulted in making Las Vegas one of the most strictly fired-coded cities in the world.
Over the last two decades the hotel industry has re-invented itself again and again. Just when everyone was predicting a severe depression--especially when Atlantic City emerged as a gambling destination in the early Eighties--Las Vegas managed to come up with a new twist. Even today, with the proliferation of gambling in many of the 50 states, Las Vegas only seems to become more popular. Its latest ventures have been in themed hotels, starting with the Mirage in the late 80s, followed by the Excalibur, Treasure Island, the Luxor, the MGM Grand, and more recently the Stratosphere, the Monte Carlo, Bellagio, Paris Las Vegas, the Venetian and Mandalay Bay. When will the boom end? Not in the foreseeable future.
Despite the competition, Las Vegas continues to draw a phenomenal number of tourists each year. The convention business is responsible for a lot of that influx, of course. But people continue to visit on their own, because Las Vegas is unique. It's a 24-hour, 7-day a week town where the fun never stops. There's something for everyone--entertainment, attractions, gambling, golf, swimming, both inexpensive and gourmet dining choices, beautiful hotel rooms (and unbelievable palatial suites). Yet, it still has that pioneer town feel--the idea that anything is possible. The forefathers could have never dreamed what Las Vegas has become--and it's bound to outdo itself in the future. This is a city where the past, present and future all become one--and once you experience it, you'll never forget it.