History of Las Vegas: A Brief Timeline of Sin City

Before Las Vegas became the sprawling metropolis of glitzy casinos and mega-resort hotels, a place of bachelor parties, and overindulgence, the lands in which the city now sits were inhabited by Southern Nevada Native American tribes. The transformation and history of Las Vegas from the mid-nineteenth century to the modern day is full of fascinating stories of young entrepreneurs, adventurers, and risk-takers. So how did a city built in the middle of the Nevada desert transform into the global hotspot that it is today?
The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign.
Published on: 14 April 2020

Las Vegas History: First Arrivals

In prehistoric Las Vegas, there was a vast expanse of wetland, rich and fertile with life and vegetation. This vast marshland was a vibrant ecosystem for life in the region, and scientists have found archaeological remains of large herd animals that occupied the area of modern-day South Nevada.

But as time wore on, and we’re fast-forwarding thousands of years now, the wetlands receded, the water dried up, rivers failed to flow and the landscape transformed into the desert that it is today. Miraculously, one patch of the desert had water trapped underground, which slowly rose to the service to water the plants and form an oasis.

It is fascinating to look back and imagine what the world was like, the vast empty western seaboard was incredibly harsh living conditions, hot and dry for most of the year and very little opportunity for life to thrive. But sporadically scattered across the hot sands was the oasis, and modern-day Las Vegas springs were preparing in the late 18th century for its first human inhabitants.

Spanish Explorers

As soon as Christopher Columbus discovered the “New World” in the west, European empires quickly set about making claims to this vast expansive landscape. Spanish explorers quickly commandeered vast swathes of unexplored territory, and whilst forging a new route between New Mexico and California in the 19th century, the leader of a trekking party by the name of Rafael Rivera stumbled across the Las Vegas Springs oasis, the newly discovered land was named Las Vegas, meaning “the meadows”, in recognition of the rich vegetation growing across the valley.

Mormons and the Construction of the Railroad

The next century saw a vast influx of settlers traveling from Mexico in the south, as well as Mormons arriving from the east. Many of these men were prospectors following the buzz of the California Gold Rush. It was during this time that infrastructure became properly constructed, with skilled artisans, engineers and laborer’s arriving en masse to help quickly establish livable abode structures, establishing agriculture, mailing routes and mining for resources, the small town was beginning to come alive. But as time went on, and interest in the area dried out, the small town in Las Vegas by 1858 had been effectively abandoned.

The arrival of the railroad in 1905 was a game-changer for Las Vegas, the stagnant city had hardly changed since the Mormons had arrived and now it was connected to the largest cities across the Pacific coast. The economic resurgence that followed was rapid and decisive. Saloons, boarding houses, and general stores sprung up all over the town, and property in the area was being snapped up by wealthy business folk from the east. Now a prime stop along the San Pedro to Las Angeles railroad route, Las Vegas was booming. In the decades that followed this combination of economic prosperity, connectedness and liberal ideals would spawn one of the greatest gambling empires the world has ever seen.

The Wild West and Gambling Culture

Las Vegas at the beginning of the 20th century was filled with railroad workers, ranchers, and other laboring folks, and with this kind of demographic becoming increasingly concentrated in the valley, a Wild West atmosphere began to develop. With this came a high demand for the provocative – alcohol drinking, prostitution, and gambling – many venues were set up to fulfill this growing appetite, defying Nevada’s state law of 1910 banning gambling activity in all its forms. This brazen disregard for the law began to run rife, and organized crime quickly moved in, with East Coast mobsters establishing footholds in the burgeoning metropolis.

Gambling in Las Vegas was finally legalized in 1931 following a state legislature decision to overturn the previous ruling making the activity illegal. With this came a major shift in the economic focus of the city, Hoover Dam began construction, and throughout the 1930’s large construction projects of casinos, speakeasies and showgirl venues opened up along Fremont Street.

The Influx of Investment and Growth of the Strip

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the leisure industry in Las Vegas was gaining serious momentum. The success of the early hotels and casinos had inspired a new wave of entrepreneurs to try their luck and cash in on the growing Las Vegas footfall. Along Highway 91, following the tremendous growth and popularity of El Rancho Vegas, many other venues were constructed, transforming gradually into what today is the main strip. Throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s hundreds of hotels and casinos opened up in the highly concentrated downtown district of the city, most of which was funded by famous Las Vegas mobsters, drug traffickers and racketeering. But eventually, the huge operators such as New Frontier, Sands and Sahara began attracting more legitimate investment from Wall Street and the Mormon Church.

The scene was booming in Las Vegas, and in little over 40 years the entire landscape and global reputation of the city had been transformed. When studying the history Las Vegas strip, it is fascinating to see how rapidly this transformation was undertaken. Tourists, gamblers, and artists descended on the valley, and its fame was blasted to stratospheric levels when famous artists such as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley began to perform regular shows in Las Vegas.

Mega Resorts and Las Vegas History Milestone

Following interest from billionaire and businessman Howard Hughes, the tight grip that the mobsters had previously held over the prime real-estate of inner-city Las Vegas was slowly being loosened. The allure of the city was too much for anybody with a bit of spare cash, and whether you were a punter looking to hit the casinos, or an investor looking to make a big bet on a new resort construction project, bets were being taken across the city.

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, hotels and casinos that had been previously financed and managed by organized crime groups were being replaced by corporate-backed and legitimately funded organizations. This transition period initiated a new trend of casino design, focused on large scale buildings inspired by architecture from Paris, New York, Rome and Egypt – it was the dawn of the mega hotel. By the mid-90’s, Las Vegas had truly become the center of the world for gambling, it had over 86,000 hotel and motel rooms, and out of the 20 largest hotels on the planet, 13 were in the city of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas in the Modern Era

Since the first arrivals of the Spanish explorers and those early settlements that were established, it’s fair to say that a great deal has changed throughout the Las Vegas Springs valley. What slowly transformed into a city of debauchery, no laws and something inherent of the “Wild West” has slowly been transformed into a cosmopolitan metropolis that attracts over 42 million international visitors each year.

Entertainment, leisure, and gambling remain the largest source of income for the city of Las Vegas, and it hasn’t shaken off those early founding principles. With billions of dollars of investment flowing in each year, huge renovations of roads, bridges, golf courses, world-class venues and much more, the Vegas history is one of chancers and risk-takers, and offers a humbling insight into one of the world’s most notorious cities.

If you fancy kicking things old school while you think about the history of Las Vegas, check out our best baccarat sites and play a popular gambling game with an even longer history behind it.

Latest Guides

View All Guides