American Icons: Las Vegas, Nevada

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Welcome to Las Vegas Metal SignWhen you hear the words “Las Vegas,” what most likely comes to mind are bright lights, stage shows and gambling casinos. Today’s vibrant, exciting Las Vegas has evolved remarkably far from the fertile valley it was less than 200 years ago.

In more ancient times the area of Las Vegas, Nevada had been the home to the Anasazi Indians, dating back 2,000 years. Other native people settled in the area, including the Paiute Indians. The first non-native person to explore the area was Rafael Rivera in 1829. He was a scout for a group of Spanish explorers who had been sent ahead of the party in search of water. While crossing the desert Rivera came upon a fresh water spring. The Spanish named the area “Las Vegas,” meaning “the meadows”.

In 1844 John C. Fremont was sent by the US Government to explore and survey the western part of the United States. While on this expedition, he camped at the Las Vegas Springs and observed the oasis, recording his observations in a journal. His writings about the area became very popular reading, and resulted in many travelers stopping at the springs on their journeys west.

In 1848, gold was discovered in California, which spurred incredible growth in the West. Railroads were built and the people followed, resulting in towns literally popping up overnight. Within one year’s time, 90,000 people had traveled west to California. A group of 30 Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City, Utah settled in the Las Vegas area in 1855. They constructed a small adobe fort to serve as a midway point between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Due to disputes between the Church members, they abandoned the fort in 1857. In 1864 Nevada became the 36th state.

The Rat Pack Sands 24 x 36 PosterIn 1865 a miner named Octavius D. Gass acquired the abandoned Mormon missionary fort and turned the building into a ranch house. He bought the surrounding land, making a large ranch with a store and blacksmith shop to equip passing travelers. Due to some bad investments, Gass required a loan and borrowed money from Archibald Stewart. Unable to repay his loans, Gass’ land and ranch were taken over by Archibald and his wife Helen Stewart in 1882. In 1884 Archibald died in a gunfight in a dispute with a hired hand from a neighboring ranch, leaving his pregnant wife and four children to run the ranch. Helen ran the ranch successfully until 1902 when, with the urging of Senator William Clark of Montana, she sold it to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroads for $55,000. (The railroad was later known as the Union Pacific.)

The railroad’s acquisition of the Stewart land led to the establishment of the Las Vegas Town Site. At first it was nothing more than a railroad station for travelers passing through the area. In 1905 Sen. Clark held an auction of the railroad land in which 600 lots were sold (or 110 acres), totaling sales of $265,000.

In 1907 Las Vegas had their first phone installed in the office of Las Vegas’ first hotel, the Hotel Nevada on Fremont Street (named after the explorer). In 1909 Nevada banned gambling, although illegal gambling continued and was tolerated. On March 16, 1911 Las Vegas, with a population of 800, officially became a city.

During WWI the Las Vegas railroad depot became even busier, as the war caused a greater demand for the metals that were available in Nevada. But when the war ended in 1918, the demand slowed and Las Vegas became a mere maintenance stop for the railroad. Many local businesses went bankrupt. To add to their misery, in 1919 Prohibition was passed, and there was no longer a reason to pass through Las Vegas.

In 1931, during the Depression, Nevada lawmakers made changes to two major laws, in the hope of attracting more visitors. They legalized gambling once again, and divorces were simplified by altering Nevada state residency law. Residency could be obtained after living in Nevada for only 6 weeks. It may surprise you, as it did me, that the precursor to the major hotels that sprang up on the Vegas Strip were hotels that were provided for men making a brief stay in Nevada to get a “quickie” divorce. These became known as “dude ranches”. (Not what we think of as dude ranches today.) This change in the law led to the state of Nevada becoming synonymous with divorce.

Las Vegas Fly TWA PosterPrior to Nevada’s change in laws was President Hoover’s signing of a bill for the construction of the Boulder Dam. Construction began in 1931, bringing construction workers and others interested in relieving them of their earnings. Nevada lawmakers knew this massive project was heading their way and must have known what a boon the casinos and dance halls would be to the local economy once the dam workers moved in. The Las Vegas population of about 5,000 increased to 25,000. The dam was finished in 1935 and the name was changed to the Hoover Dam. In 1937 Southern Nevada Power supplied power from the dam to Las Vegas, their first customer. Fremont Street, because of its lights, became known as “Glitter Gulch”. Tourists flocked to Las Vegas for the casinos and to see Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam. There became a need for bigger and classier hotels to accommodate all of the tourists.

During WWII the US Army had a very strong presence in the Las Vegas area. The ready supply of water and inexpensive energy made it a great place for military industries, testing and bases. One thing the US Army objected to was the prevalence of prostitution in Las Vegas and they used their significant influence to have it made illegal.

The El Rancho Vegas resort was opened in 1941. It was the first in a very long line of big resorts on the Las Vegas Strip. After the end of WWII, luxurious resort hotels and casinos continued to be constructed. They offered first-class entertainment and featured big-name stars. Unfortunately, gambling and the huge profits attracted gangsters to Las Vegas. The infamous Bugsy Siegel built The Flamingo resort in 1946, with the help of other gangsters and mob boss Meyer Lansky. Siegel was murdered in a mob hit in 1947, but there were many others to take his place. Other resorts built by people in organized crime were the Sahara, Sands and The Tropicana. Mob connections were not enough to slow the flow of visitors to Las Vegas. Over 8,000,000 people were visiting annually by 1954 and were spending 200 million dollars at the casinos. Another draw for the tourists were the famous performers appearing in shows at the casinos, like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Liberace.

What most people are referring to today when they say “Las Vegas” is actually the Las Vegas Strip: a 4-mile long stretch of road that has been designated a National Scenic Byway by the USDOT (Unites States Department of Transportation). The Strip is the location with the greatest concentration of hotels, casinos, restaurants and resort properties. There everything is big and bold, each new resort trying to outdo those that came before it. Of the 20 largest hotels in the world (by room count), 15 of them are in Vegas. Some of the grandest and most famous of these resorts are the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, The Venetian, Caesar’s Palace, Mirage and the MGM Grand.

As visitors approach The Strip they are greeted with the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign. It was built in 1959 by Western Neon and designed by Betty Willis and Ted Rogich who were paid $4000 for their work. The sign has been moved more than once as the strip has grown. As people leave Las Vegas, the reverse of the sign reads “Drive Carefully” and “Come Back Soon”.

Las Vegas is a true American icon. It grew from a small frontier town in the American Wild West to the vibrant metropolis it is today. People travel from all over the world to enjoy the shows, food, museums, lodgings and gambling offered throughout the city and at the spectacular resorts.  Many casinos have closed over the years. Many of them changed names or were demolished to make way for new casinos or resorts. But Las Vegas has proven itself to be very adaptable to the times and will surely continue to be a favorite vacation destination far into the future.

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Last updated: Mar 30, 2009
Filed under: American Icons Tagged with: American icons, travel