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The Long and Fascinating History of Las Vegas



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Mention the words Las Vegas and it conjures up countless images in the minds of most people. A glittering neon city that’s visible from space. The undisputed casino capital of the world. The place where the world’s biggest stars perform in long residencies to thousands of adoring fans. Even as the backdrop to amazing movies covering every conceivable genre.

So it’s hardly surprising that it’s also a city with a long and interesting past, made all the more remarkable by its presence at all in the heart of the Nevada Desert.

Even now the city thrives despite competition coming in many forms ranging from the popularity of online poker to the emergence of other centres of gambling like Macau and Singapore. But then it has been built on very solid foundations.

Early days

The first Europeans discovered the area in the late 1830s in a quest to find a new route from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Surprised to find vegetation and water in the heart of an arid desert region, the Spanish explorers first coined the name Las Vegas or “The Meadows”.

But it was the arrival of the mining millionaire William Clark in the early 20th century that saw the beginnings of today’s city. Having bought land and established a rail depot he then sold off the land and the city itself was founded there in May 1905.

A year later, the first casino, called The Golden Gate opened.

Into the 30s

By the 1930s Las Vegas had started to establish itself as a popular holiday destination, especially for residents of Los Angeles who could easily reach there by rail.

This also meant that many people involved in Hollywood also headed out east for a little relaxation and fun. The fact that it also had far less stringent divorce and marriage laws than many other places in the US made it even more appealing.

To cater for holidaymakers more and more casinos started to be planned and the first official licence for one was granted in 1931.

Also fuelling the boom of the city was the construction of the nearby Hoover Dam. This was not only to provide much of the electricity for the growing city, the construction workers building it also did much to pump money into the local economy – vital for it to thrive while the rest of the country was suffering under the Great Depression.

The Hotel Casino is born

In 1941 the first of many hotel casinos was opened. El Rancho was located on the now-famous Strip and was soon followed by others including The Last Frontier and Thunderbird.

Unfortunately, the 40s also saw the arrival of Mob in the city. Made rich by the profits from the Prohibition years criminal gangs soon had a stranglehold on the city’s burgeoning casino sector, something that was to continue right up until the 1960s when big business started moving in, purging the criminality that had thrived for a couple of decades.

Despite the illegal goings on, the 1950s and 60s are often regarded as being the glamorous heydays of Las Vegas. This was when Frant Sinatra and the Rat Pack emerged. Their larger-than-life characters typified, for many, what was so remarkable about this city in the desert.

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The doldrums of the 80s

But all good things must come to an end and by the 1980s it seemed like Vegas was on a steady decline. It still had many of the big characters who had helped to build its reputation but fewer and fewer visitors were coming and many of the previously stylish casinos and hotels were starting to look a little shabby and down-at-heel.

The fact that the country as a whole was in the midst of another economic downturn also added to its woes.

And the resurgence of the 90s

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Luckily, the following decade told a very different story. It came in the form of The Mirage, a huge 3,044 room motel that was built to be big, brash and offer something for everyone.

Its success encouraged many others to invest in creating huge casino resorts, one of the grandest of which, The Bellagio, opened in 1998. Along with Caesars Place, the MGM Grand and the Hard Rock these are the modern face of Las Vegas.

Catering for everyone from families to gamblers and conference attendees to couples wanting to tie the knot in the iconic Elvis wedding chapel the new Las Vegas is on the up and up.

So, it may have come a long way from its sandy origins as a handy stop-off point in the desert but it retains a unique appeal for many – not to mention being a city that has a very bright future ahead of it too.

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