How Las Vegas Became the World’s Casino Capital

Everyone knows that if you want world-class gambling, there’s no place like Las Vegas. In its relatively short modern history, Vegas has gone from a railroad stop to a mob-controlled city to the casino capital of the world we know today. So, how did it get there?

Before the Casinos

Trail to Winnemucca Lake
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People inhabited Las Vegas and the region around it long before the arrival of flashing neon signs and high-rises. Rock carvings, called petroglyphs, can be found throughout the valley. Some of the oldest carvings in the state, discovered near Nevada's Winnemucca Lake a few hundred miles away from Las Vegas proper, date back more than 14,000 years. The people who made them were ancestors of the Native Americans who have lived on the land since 700 CE.

The first non-Native American to reach the Las Vegas Valley was Rafael Rivera. He was part of a scouting party led by Antonio Armijo in 1829. They were seeking to establish a trade route from Santa Fe to Los Angeles and noted in their maps that the area was full of wetlands and meadows, which would prove to be helpful in the future.

The First Settlement

Desert with rocky mountains in Nevada
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The first people to actually try to establish a foothold in the area were Mormons. In the 1850s, Mormon missionaries were tasked with settling different portions of the West. While most settlers ended up in areas around Utah, a small group was sent to Las Vegas to attempt to convert local Native American tribes and establish a way station between Salt Lake City and Southern California.

The settlers found springs in the area and used them to cultivate crops. They befriended the local Native Americans, who helped them work the fields, tend the herds, and build a fort. The Mission Fort was the first building constructed in the Las Vegas area.

After lead was found in the mountains above the fort, miners were sent from Salt Lake City in hopes of building a mine and using the resources to make ammunition. Friction arose between the miners and the missionaries, and in 1857, less than two years after they arrived, Mormon leadership pulled the plug on the entire mission.

Building the City

Entrance to a ranch in the west
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After the Mormons left, a man named Octavius Gass adopted their fort as his own and started a ranch he called Los Vegas Rancho — “Los” rather than “Las” to avoid confusion with Las Vegas, New Mexico. He snatched up as much land as he could and became the primary landowner in the area. Ownership of this acreage changed hands a couple of times, but it continued to be popular for ranching.

Then, in 1902, noting its abundance of water from natural springs, the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City Railroad — which later became known as Union Pacific — decided that the area would be a perfect place to stop and refuel their steam engines. They bought the land, and the town began to grow. Las (not Los) Vegas was officially incorporated in 1911.

Start of Gambling

Casino slot machine
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It may surprise some, but gambling wasn’t always legal in Las Vegas. In 1910, Nevada outlawed gambling statewide. As with most illegal activities, though, it continued despite the law, often in speakeasies and basement casinos. For 20 years, these illicit casinos were managed by organized crime, who continued to build funds and support. When gambling was legalized again in 1931, the crime organizations were ready to go mainstream.

Iconic welcome sign for Las Vegas, Nevada with trees and power lines
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Also in 1931, construction began on the Boulder Dam, which was later renamed the Hoover Dam. Thousands of workers poured into the area and needed something to do with all the government money they were making. Casinos and other entertainment venues started popping up on Fremont Street to keep them occupied.

Resort Town

By the 1940s, the town had grown so much that a man named Thomas Hull decided to build a luxury resort to accommodate the influx of tourists. His hotel, the El Rancho Vegas, opened in 1941 and was the first in the city to offer a gourmet buffet.

Other hotels soon followed. Seeing the success of these resorts, the mafia decided that it was time to get in on the action. Between 1946 and 1957, they built several of the most famous hotels and casinos in Las Vegas history:

  • The Flamingo
  • Sands
  • Sahara
  • New Frontier
  • Showboat
  • Fremont
  • Riviera
  • Royal Nevada
  • Binion’s Horseshoe
  • Tropicana

By the mid-1950s, 8 million people were visiting Las Vegas every year and spending $200 million on gambling and entertainment. That’s the equivalent of $1.8 billion by today’s standards.

Modern Las Vegas

Skyline of Las Vegas at sunrise
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The mafia continued to have a hand in many of the casinos around town until the FBI decided to start cracking down on racketeering. By the 1980s, organized crime had been mostly eradicated from the resorts.

In the years after, other investors started to see the opportunities that existed in the desert and began to build even more resorts, including:

  • Rio and Excalibur (1990)
  • MGM Grand, Luxor, and Treasure Island (1993)
  • Monte Carlo and Stratosphere Tower (1996)
  • Bellagio (1998)
  • Mandalay Bay, Paris, and Venetian (1999)
  • Planet Hollywood (2000)
  • Palms (2001)
  • Wynn (2005)
  • Palazzo (2007)
  • Encore (2008)
  • City Center (2009)
  • Cosmopolitan (2010)

Modern Las Vegas is a far cry from its simple ranch beginnings. Today, more than 2 million people live in Clark County, with nearly 700,000 in Las Vegas proper, and millions more travel there every year for entertainment and gambling .

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