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History of Las Vegas

1. City’s development

Las Vegas is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It is also the city with the world’s shortest history . During just half a century, Las Vegas has managed to multiply its population from that of a former village to a large city. This is impressive for an area that is located out in the Nevada desert, where the only creatures to survive should be reptiles, cactuses and other hardy species and plants.

  • 1950: population of 48,000
  • 1970: population of 273,000
  • 1990: population of 770,000
  • Today: Population of over 2,000,000

It is the only city built in the twentieth century that currently has a population of over 2,000,000. It may also one of the largest cities in the world that consistently attracts new visitors at the expense of its own inhabitants. Las Vegas has right from the start been known for its prioritisation of the casino industry. It is in fact only recently that Las Vegas has managed to attract other industries.

2. Nevada

East of the Sierra Nevada mountain range lies Nevada in the mountainous eastern part of America. Nevada is mainly covered by desert and is very sparsely populated. The people who live in Nevada tend to live in bigger cities or suburbs, as the desert sand is almost uninhabitable. Despite these otherwise harsh living conditions, Nevada has become one of the richest states in America today. This is partly due to the very liberal gambling laws, which were introduced at the start of the 1930s. In addition to the liberalisation and legalisation of gambling was the permission of prostitution. Finally, the required formalities surrounding marriages and divorce were reduced to a minimum, so that a divorce in Las Vegas could be achieved after just 6 weeks of marriage.

3. The start of the 1900s.

Las Vegas was in many ways a railway town during its first years of existence. The first growth period began in the 20th century, and was particularly driven by train repair workshops. Nevada was, strangely enough, the first state in America to prohibit gambling. This was in Clark County.

Investments then started to flood into the desert state and the towns of Reno and Las Vegas benefited in particularly. Luxury hotels opened, as did holiday centres, restaurants, theme parks, and of course casinos. Tourists had their eyes opened to the many things on offer, and already in the 1930s, the tourist industry began to flourish. Gambling, sex and entertainment were the slogans for the towns, and especially for Las Vegas, which grew significantly in these infant years.

4. The Hoover dam

The Hoover dam over the Colorado River close to Las Vegas, was also a cheap supply of electricity. This together with the finding of minerals in the ground and the fact that the industry could also benefit from the cheap power, all contributed to Nevada then and now being one of the most affluent states in America.

5. Holiday and excursion destination

Already at the start of the 1940s, it became clear that Las Vegas was becoming a holiday destination, and for many a place to visit. Yet the town continued to remain a mere village of just a few thousand inhabitants. During the Second World War, the town grew significantly as it was ideally positioned far away from attacks, and the desert surrounding the Southwest also became a perfect location for placing and producing defence installations for the war.

6. Gambling boom

Las Vegas quickly gained its own air militarily base. The Henderson area was established in 1941 and was built for the over 10,000 employees who worked at the magnesium factory. The gambling industry continued to boom even during the war. Until then, the gambling, casino and poker industry had been concentrated around the areas between First Street and Third Street along Fremont Street in Downtown, far removed from residential areas. Meanwhile, the development of more and larger casinos in Las Vegas had slowly begun, as the illegal casinos in California were being closed down.

7. The main street “The Strip” is built (Las Vegas Boulevard)

The first El Rancho hotel only had 50 rooms, but had many other things to offer than its well manicured lawns, clean swimming pools and tropical palm trees. El Rancho was a tiny paradise at the heart of the Nevada desert. One of the guests, William Moore, was so impressed and taken with El Rancho, that he followed suite and built his own hotel Last Frontier, one mile south in 1942. This marked the start of the beautiful and vibrating The Strip, which we now know as Las Vegas.

8. Weak local government

Boeing, which moved to the city from Seattle in 1946, was one of many companies that decided not to leave despite the town’s links with gambling. Equally, the desire and ability from the casino hotel owners’ to keep the local government in Las Vegas was so weak and led to the city’s development becoming almost accidental, with an infrastructure that can best be described as coincidental, at worst insufficient.

9. The mafia’s glory days

In the 1950s downtown Las Vegas became more and more distanced from the rest of the town, and during the same period, the local authorities tried to get Las Vegas incorporated in The Strip.

In the 1950s Las Vegas became a boom town. The casino hotels and games each did their utmost to gain and profit from the growth while it was there, because no one knew how long it would last. The lavish Desert Inn casino hotel set a new standard in 1950 with an opening party that had more glitz and glamour than any other parties of their size ever seen on the streets of the Nevada desert.

Desert Inn was run by Wilbur Clark, who was a small-time gambler and a man who loved being in the media spotlight. The owner of Desert Inn was Moe Dalitz, a man who built his fortune via his criminal syndicate based in Cleveland. The Las Vegas casino hotels were in the 1950s large, infiltrated and in several cases run by criminal syndicates and bands with strong mafia connections.

The mafia loved Las Vegas as the area gave them rights and legitimacy with an air of glamour, which was not possible anywhere else in America. By cheating at the gambling tables, bribing the local police, and winning money at the tables from casino guests, both above and below the table, the mafia earned massive amounts of money in a very short space of time. The inhabitants of Las Vegas were just as happy with the money as the men behind the Mafia were. People virtually flocked to the town, which had a magnetic pull with its casino hotels, shows, parties, poker tables and the promise of riches etc.

Following the enormous success of the Flamingo and Desert Inn hotels, all new casino hotels tried to do one better with bigger hotels, better service, brightly coloured and modern design, wild entertainment, top restaurants and specialist shops.

The following casino hotels opened in the first half of the 50's.

  • Horseshoe (1951)
  • Sahara (1952)
  • The Sands (1952)
  • The Showboat (1954)
  • The Riviera (1955)
  • Dunes (1955)
  • New Frontier (1955)

Large surpluses from the gambling tables enabled many of the casino hotels to book some of the biggest names in the entertainment business. This had the knock on effect that the casino hotel industry in Las Vegas would attract both audiences who were already interested in gambling and also audiences that came for the entertainment. The latter would probably also, once in Las Vegas, have a gamble at the casino tables at one point or another. Entertainment was therefore, right from the start, one of the most important magnets to attract audiences to the town. The Sands would present stars from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and later the Rat Pack.

10. Las Vegas in the 21st century

Nevada is very sparsely populated and the bulk of the state's inhabitants live either in Reno or Las Vegas. Las Vegas in particular sees new arrivals every year, and is currently one of the world’s fastest growing cities. The population of Las Vegas is in fact expected to double during the next ten years. Despite its brief history and fast growth, Las Vegas has during a period of just 70 years become an amazing, and in many ways irresistible, city. The many and different development jumps that Las Vegas has taken throughout its short life are due to the town at times being in complete harmony with its own era, while at other times it seems to have been quite accidental and down to luck. What the future holds for Las Vegas in the 21st century nobody knows, but it will no doubt be fun, colourful and full of that special energy that can only be found in this incredible city.

Edited by Henrik Jørgensen
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