Vision quests aside, the Anasazi Indians who populated the southern regions of Nevada 2,000 years ago could hardly have foreseen the glitz and glitter that would eventually define this particular valley. Today, few destinations match the sheer intensity of Las Vegas, where the bright lights, stunning shows and dreams of instant riches attract a year-round mix of leisure and business travelers from every corner of the world.
The name Las Vegas is Spanish for the meadows, and reflects the natural springs and plentiful native grasses that flourished across the landscape at the time scouts arrived in the early 1800s. Mid-century, Mormon missionaries established a supply fort here, marking Las Vegas as a halfway point between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. A number of artifacts and the ruins of the original adobe fort can be viewed downtown at Old Vegas Mormon State Historic Park, at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue. As recently as 1929, and spanning the years the Hoover Dam was undergoing construction, the United States Bureau of Reclamation used part of the remaining structure as a testing laboratory.
By 1885, the State Land Act was offering parcels of land in this part of Nevada for a staggering $1.25 an acre, enticing farming families westward and establishing the area as an agricultural center. By the latter part of that century, the discovery of precious metals and minerals led to a mining boom, and a railroad dash to match. In 1905, the city of Las Vegas was officially founded. The completion of a main railway line linking the southern portion of California with Salt Lake City led to further development.
In 1931, the state legislature legalized gambling in Nevada, but it was the Hoover Dam project that was really responsible for boosting the population of Las Vegas. Construction workers from other areas of the country relocated for work and stayed on once the dam was complete. The addition of military and defense installations in the surrounding desert following the start of World War II led to an additional spurt in growth. It was after the war ended, however, that tourism took hold, with a burgeoning resort hotel and entertainment industry joining forces with casinos and firmly establishing Las Vegas as a premier business, vacation and gaming destination.
Along with the acceleration of the gaming industry came a growing mob presence. By 1941, the nefarious gangster Bugsy Siegel had found his way to town. His close personal association with organized crime figures on the East Coast - including Meyer Lansky, Vito Genovese, Frank Costello and Charles Lucky Luciano - had led to an assignment in the desert to set up a wire service connected to horse racing. Four years later, Siegel and Lansky became co-investors in the El Cortez Hotel. Aware of the potential for hotel casino profits, Siegel invested in a bigger property, more centrally located on the Strip, called the Flamingo. After taking over the development company behind the building project, and putting plans seriously over budget and behind schedule, he was forced to borrow additional funds from mob sources in order to open. His inability to recoup funds in a timely enough manner supposedly led to his nowlegendary execution in Los Angeles in June of 1947 - just one of dozens of stories of dastardly deeds in the desert that have made Las Vegas so legendary.
Barely eclipsing the mob's presence was the arrival of Hollywood. With the controversial opening of the racially integrated Moulin Rouge in 1955 and the unveiling of topless show girls in 1957 in Minsky's Follies at The Dunes, Las Vegas gained a risqué reputation as a setting for all manner of debauchery and corruption. Adding to the allure - and the reputation - was the arrival on the scene of the infamous Rat Pack. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Dean, Frank, Sammy and their rotating crowd of famous pals brought a level of Hollywood excitement to town that grew exponen tially year by year, with additional thrills regularly provided by celebrity events including Elvis Presley's 1969 opening at the former International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton).
These days, the Las Vegas torch has passed from Dean, Sammy and Frank to George Clooney, Brad Pitt and company - but the glow of high-stakes glamour hasn't faded in the least. Regardless of which direction you turn in Vegas, you'll find plenty of flash.