The history of Las Vegas

Everyone, of course, knows Las Vegas as the ultimate gambling paradise in the United States. But what do you know about the history of this city and why is gambling so strongly developed and present there? It is without doubt the largest place in the U.S. where you can gamble as much as you want but it is located in the middle of the desert of the state of Nevada.

Not immediately a destination that you as a tourist would choose, even if you look at the rather extreme climate there. The gambling paradise attracts billions of visitors annually from all over the world, but how did this actually come about? The town started out as a home for workers on the railroad and was originally only home to farms. So how did this change over time?

The birth of the city of Las Vegas

The city of Las Vegas itself came into existence in 1855 but the area around it has been home to people for many centuries. Evidence can be found of indigenous tribes living there as early as the 8th century. When the explorer Rafael Rivera arrived in the area in 1829, he was the first European to see the valley. There were plans to make a trade route between New Mexico and California and in doing so you pass through Las Vegas. The name was given to the town by Rivera. It means “the fields. Pretty obvious that this was because a lot of grasses grew there that were supplied with water by the springs in the valley.
The beginnings of Las Vegas
The beginnings of Las Vegas

Octavius Gass

In 1855 a fort was built by the Mormons but they abandoned it because the living conditions were very harsh (hot and very dry). This fort was taken over by Octavius Gass in 1865 and he did a lot for the city, along with his partners Nathaniel Lewis and Lewis Cole. The fort was repaired, and seven years later Gass bought out his partners so that he owned a ranch of his own with enormous land. All kinds of fruits and plants were grown and cattle kept until Gass left for California in 1881.

Archibald Stewart

The ranch was taken over by Archibald Stewart, who immediately made it three times larger. After his death, the Mormons returned to the area and the railroad was built in the early 20th century. To do this, not only was the railroad itself built but numerous wells were dug so that there was plenty of water and agriculture could flourish in the area.

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Las Vegas as it looks today

The railroad was completed in 1905 and this marked the beginning of Las Vegas as we know it today. At that time, the city actually consisted of two parts: an eastern part that we now know as The Strip and Downtown and a western part, north of present-day Bonanza Road. The most important factor in the growth of the city was the arrival of the railroad and train. The city and its population grew so rapidly that it soon became one.

Gambling became legal only late

A remarkable detail is that the state of Nevada was the last state around that time to ban gambling altogether. Quite special for a state that later included the city known around the world as a true gambling mecca. In the first decades of the 20th century, the city was completely free of all forms of gambling and had a booming economy. This lasted until 1917 when they had to cede much of the harvest and profits to the state itself to finance the war.


In the 1920s, things were not going well economically in Las Vegas. Many people were out of work and food and water were in short supply. Nature added to this by causing all heat records to be broken in the years between 1923 and 1929. This changed when President Hoover decided to have a dam built in the area in 1930. This was originally known as the Boulder Dam but is known today as the Hoover Dam. The dam ensured that the distant surroundings could be supplied with water and is a clever piece of engineering.

A lot of work to build a dam

Las Vegas is very close to the dam and that immediately caused an explosive increase in population (as much as five times as much). There was a lot of work involved in the construction of the dam itself but the prospects for the region were also good. The presence of the many workers meant that they also needed to relax in the evenings and for this the gambling industry was created.

More and more houses were built, but casinos and nightclubs in particular shot up like mushrooms. And all funded by the US government. The government built Boulder City to house the workers on the dam but by that time it had already reached the point where Las Vegas was a veritable paradise for (then illegal) gambling.

Also make the state itself more attractive

Las Vegas was thriving at the time but the state of Nevada turned out to be not so attractive for people to live there, partly because of its rather extreme climate. To attract more people to live there permanently, the U.S. government decided to legalize gambling and divorce there. And that did work. As gambling became legal, the city quickly gained the name of gambling capital of the country.

The first legal casino was Northern Club, after which more followed on the same street, later known as Freemont Street. This street was the first in the city to be paved, have lighting and have traffic lights.

Completion of the dam

After the then Boulder Dam was completed in 1935 and went into operation two years later, the city was supplied with power and water in an inexpensive manner. Many of the workers then left but were soon replaced by many tourists who visited both the dam and neighboring Lake Mead and also immediately visited the town.
Because so many tourists came to town, the necessary accommodations were built for them, such as hotels and other lodging. Two highways were built so that the city was easily accessible by car, which was not possible before. Around this time, The Strip also saw the light of day.

Vegas in the 1950s

In the 1950s, Las Vegas was doing so well that more and more casinos were built. This was also to accommodate the hordes of tourists who naturally spent a lot of money in the city. Think of billions of dollars. Unfortunately, the gambling scene also clearly brought the ties with criminals to the fore. The government saw this too but that’s why they tried to boost the image of the city by having famous artists perform there and immediately do the necessary controls there.

Vegas became a trendy town

The amounts of money spent on gambling in the 1950s were already large but nothing compared to what was spent on gambling in the following two decades. At that time many resorts were built in the city where tourists could stay and have fun. This gave Las Vegas the image of a modern, trendy city and immediately shook off the wild image many people had of it. The population grew rapidly along with it between 1970 and 2000, and the city became the largest to emerge in the 20th century.

Vegas in the 1980s

In the 1980s, the popularity of Las Vegas did decline somewhat. It was no longer very modern and attractive but this problem was quickly solved by building a mega resort there. The first resort that managed to attract many tourists was the Mirage but this was soon followed by nineteen others such as the MGM Grand, Bellagio, Palazzo and more famous resorts.

You can go there for gambling, food, drinks, entertainment and shows and there is a lot to see like the pyramid of the Luxor and the fountains of the Bellagio. In the 90’s the popularity declined again but this only really became much less with the new century.

Depression did the city little good

Due to a global depression, Las Vegas also suffered greatly. Many construction projects were canceled or not completed and fewer and fewer tourists came to the city. Partly because there was not that much money to spend on gambling during an economic depression. We are now through this recession and the number of tourists is increasing again. There is still high unemployment in the city but the worst seems to be over. Although the impact of the coronavirus remains to be seen.

More than just gambling

In order for the city to remain popular, people are working hard to find other ways of entertainment than just gambling. There really is much more to do and see in the city than meets the eye. The city rises up in a corky environment and reminds everyone, especially in the evening and at night, of a kind of paradise where glitz and glamour reign supreme. Until the lights go out but even then there is still much to do that is more than worth it. This in turn will attract tourists in the coming decades.