Las Vegas History

The only natural feature to account for the location of Las Vegas is a spring north of downtown. Once used by Paiute Indians on their seasonal visits to the area, it was re-discovered by Mexican scout Rafael Rivera in 1829. The area became known to overland travelers as las vegas - 'the meadows' - a place with reliable water and feed for horses. Las Vegas became a regular stop on the southern emigrant route to California, the Spanish Trail. In the 1850s, Mormons built the town's first structures, a small mission and fort; the fort became a ranch house, but there was little development until 1902, when much of the land was sold to a railroad company. The area that is now downtown was subdivided when the tracks came through, with 1200 lots sold on 15 May 1905 alone - a date now celebrated as the city's birthday.

As a railroad town, Las Vegas had machine shops, an ice works and a good number of hotels, saloons and gambling houses. The railroad laid off hundreds in the mid 1920s, but one Depression-era development gave the city a new life. The huge Hoover Dam (then known as Boulder Dam) project commenced in 1931, providing jobs and growth in the short term and water and power for the city's long-term growth.

Also in 1931, Nevada legalized gambling and simplified its divorce laws, paving the way for first big casino on the Strip, El Rancho, which was built by Los Angeles developers and opened in 1941. The next wave of investors, also from out of town, were mobsters like Bugsy Siegel, who built the Flamingo in 1946 and set the tone for the new casinos - big and flashy, with lavish entertainment laid on to attract high rollers.

The glitter that brought in the high rollers also attracted smaller spenders, but in larger numbers. Southern California provided a growing market for Las Vegas entertainment, and improvements in transport made it accessible to the rest of the country. Thanks to air conditioning and reliable water supplies, Vegas became one of the country's most popular tourist destinations. In recent years, Vegas has bent over backwards to remake itself into a family resort destination, building theme parks inside its hotels. Hotels have outdone each other with working volcanoes, million-gallon fishtanks and miniature Manhattans. All of which - along with dozens of artificial lakes in the suburbs - has put a huge strain on the city's water supply, but it hasn't slowed the development juggernaut.

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