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From The Meadows to the Money: The Story of Las Vegas (Part #1)

Vegas History - Part 1

Las Vegas: the name is synonymous with fun. Known as Sin City, sometimes as ‘The Lady’, and occasionally as ‘Disneyland for Adults’, Las Vegas is a black hole of earthly delights, abandon, and pleasure; a gravitational singularity of sin. After all: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Today, Las Vegas is a mega resort; a glittering showcase where the world’s mightiest hotel and entertainment brands consciously strut their stuff, with gaudy, insanely-over-the-top, monuments to recreation and excess.

There are those who would condemn her – but why? Las Vegas is a shrine to fun, imagination, and joie de vivre. Gambling may be the oil that greases the wheels but the spectacle is truly spectacular. In a world of worry, Las Vegas is escapism writ extra extra extra large.

Las Vegas makes no sense. It’s built in the middle of a desert, in a country where gambling is still largely illegal, hundreds of miles away from any significant populations. Despite this, it exists. It prospers, booms, grows, and expands; a pervasive neon metropolis reaching ever further into the darkness of the Mojave.

How did it begin? Why did it start? What are the roots of Las Vegas? Read on…

Welcome to The Meadows

The first tourists who turned up in Las Vegas looking for the $5 all-you-can-eat buffet and good times were the Native Americans, believed to have inhabited the area more than 10,000 years ago. Tools, carvings, pictographs, and evidence of early life has been found in the area. The Paiute tribe spent its winters in the valley, migrating from the nearby mountains.

Las Vegas got its name from the Santa Fe trader Antonio Armijo. He was trying, with the help of renowned Mexican scout Raphael Rivera, to find a new route from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. In 1829, the 60-man party explored the area and discovered the Las Vegas Springs – an abundant artesian fresh water supply. The discovery of this perfect re-supply spot shortened the trail and the traders named the valley “the meadows” – in Spanish: Las Vegas.

Remember the Alamo

Until 1844, Las Vegas was Mexican territory. A fort was built in the valley but never permanently inhabited. In 1855, Mormons briefly settled the area but stayed for only three years. The first permanent settler was prospector Octavius Gass who renovated the abandoned fort He turned it into a ranch and way station for weary travellers.

The Roots of Las Vegas

The final piece of the jigsaw was the introduction of a railroad in 1902. Now, with a reliable source of fresh water, a railroad, and accommodation for travellers and prospectors, heading west in search of their fortune, the seeds of modern Las Vegas were sown. The Mormons would make it their home and one of the world’s most ambitious civil engineering projects would complete the first chapter of the story.

Images from another era:

Those Dam Builders

In 1911, the city of Las Vegas was fully incorporated: a small settlement of about 1,000 people. The population would double again by 1920. Work began on the Hoover Dam in 1931 and thousands of workers headed to Fremont Street, in search of showgirls, casinos, and somewhere to kick back after a hard day at the rock face.

In 1941, the western-style El Rancho Vegas hotel and casino opened. Costing a cool $500,000, the hotel had a mock Spanish style frontage, a cowboy-themed interior, a swimming pool, and the largest dining room in town. In the casino, punters could enjoy action at two blackjack tables, one roulette table, one craps table, and 70 slot machines.

To keep the gamblers playing, the hotel also launched the first late night all-you-can-eat buffet. Celebrities were also courted. Paul Newman married Joanne Woodward at the hotel, Shirley Bassey made her American stage debut here, and the El Rancho was visited by a wealth of Hollywood stars, including: Jimmy Durante, Buddy Hackett, Jane Russell, Eartha Kitt, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The El Rancho eventually went up in flames in 1960. By then, there were already new kids on the block. Tempted by the success of the El Rancho, and the relaxed gaming laws of Nevada, the East Coast mobsters had set up shop. Siegel and Lansky were in town and the Sin City era had begun.

More follows in Part #2.

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