Las Vegas was given its name by Spanish traders in the Antonio Armijo party in 1829. On route to Los Angeles along the Spanish Trail from Texas, the 60-man group veered from the normal route, camping about 100 miles northeast of present-day Las Vegas. At the time, the Spaniards referred to the route as “jornada de muerte” or journey of death until a young scout named Rafael Rivera discovered the valley with its abundant wild grasses and plentiful water supply. At that time, some low areas of the Las Vegas Valley contained artesian springs that created extensive green areas in contrast to the surrounding desert, hence the name “Las Vegas”, Spanish for “The Meadows”.
It was not until famed explorer Captain John Fremont traveled into the Las Vegas Valley in 1844, that anyone other than Spanish explorers, missionaries, and the Native Americans knew of the valley. In 1855, Brigham Young assigned 30 Mormon missionaries to the area to convert the Paiute Indian population. They soon built a fort that constituted the first non-Indian settlement in the region. The Paiute rejected their teachings, occasionally raiding the fort until it was abandoned in 1857. Several years later, in 1864, the U.S. Army built Fort Baker there.
In 1885, the State Land Act offered land at $1.25 per acre and farming became the primary industry for the next 20 years, using the local springs to irrigate their crops. Further growth occurred when precious metals were discovered in the area, starting the mining industry in the late 19th century.
At the turn of the century, the springs were piped into the town providing a reliable source of fresh water. The valley soon became a resting stop, first for wagon trains and later for railroads. The railroad was completed in January 1905, connecting Las Vegas to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. The railroad would become the principal industry in Las Vegas for the next 25 years.
The railroad yards were located along what was then dusty Fremont Street. Today, Jackie Gaughan’s Plaza Hotel, located at Main and Fremont streets in Downtown Las Vegas, stands on the site of the original Union Pacific Railroad depot. Freight and passenger trains still use the depot site at the hotel as a terminal — the only railroad station in the world located inside a hotel-casino.
Las Vegas was officially founded on May 15, 1905, when 100 acres, in what would later become downtown, were auctioned off to ready buyers. In the beginning, Las Vegas was a part of Lincoln County until 1909 when it became the county seat of the newly established Clark County.
Nevada was the last western state to outlaw gambling in the first decade of the 20th Century on October 1, 1910. In the beginning, the law was so strict that it even forbade the western custom of flipping a coin for the price of a drink. Legal or not, area residents wasted no time in setting up underground games. Las Vegas became an incorporated city in 1911.
With a population of a little more than 5,000, Las Vegas legalized gambling again on March 19, 1931, a decision that would forever change the face of Nevada and the city of Las Vegas. One month later, the city issued six gambling licenses.
In the same year, the construction of Hoover Dam brought an influx of construction workers which started a population boom and gave the Valley’s economy, which was in the grips of the Great Depression, a needed boost.
By 1940 Las Vegas’ population had grown to almost 8,500 and at the end of World War II, the defense industry came to the valley. The isolated location, along with plentiful water and inexpensive energy, made Las Vegas an ideal site for military and defense-related businesses. The site for Nellis Air Force Base was located in the northeast, and the Basic Management Complex, providers of raw materials, was located in the southeastern suburb of Henderson. These industries continue to employ a significant number of valley residents.
Las Vegas started its rise to world fame in 1941 when hotelman Tommy Hull built the El Rancho Vegas Hotel-Casino across from the current Sahara Hotel on what would become known as the Las Vegas Strip. Hull also began the “entertainment” type of casino that would develop Las Vegas’ reputation as a desert playland, when he booked singers, comedians, strippers, and dancers to entertain the hotel guests in the resort’s small, intimate showroom.
Before long, other developers began building lavishly decorated resort hotels and incorporating gambling casinos. Some of the earliest hotels were the Last Frontier, the Thunderbird and Club Bingo, copying the successful star entertainment format for a number of years.
Several such early enterprises are widely reputed to have been backed by money from crime syndicates based in the eastern United States. Gangsters Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky are widely credited as the organizers and prime movers behind early development of Las Vegas. Tourism and entertainment took over as the largest employer in the valley.
By far the most celebrated of the early resorts was the Flamingo Hotel, built by mobster “Bugsy” Siegel, which opened on New Year’s Eve in 1946. Modeled after resort hotels in Miami, the Flamingo stood out among the western ranch-styled theme casinos and hotels. Siegel called it a “carpet joint.” Just six months after its opening, Siegel was murdered by an unknown gunman in his girlfriend’s home in Beverly Hills, California.
Today, the Flamingo Hotel is the only survivor of the 1940s era, as other resorts have long lost their identities through absorption by new owners, demolition, extensive renovations, and name changes. Though the Flamingo retains its original name after all these years, it has been entirely renovated in order to compete with the newer modern hotels on the Las Vegas Strip.