Las Vegas Has Come a Long Way As It Celebrates Its 119th Birthday

  • Las Vegas celebrated its 119th birthday on Wednesday
  • It became a city in 1905 after the railway sold 110 acres of land
  • Casino gambling first became legal in Nevada in 1931
  • The city really began exploding in growth during the 1980s
  • Las Vegas regularly sets new gaming revenue and visitor records
Classic car with Welcome to Las Vegas on the back
Las Vegas celebrated its 119th birthday on Wednesday and we looked back at some of the most noteworthy moments in the city’s history. [Image:]

Las Vegas managed to transform from a small railway town in the middle of the Mojave Desert into the country’s biggest gambling destination. From mobsters and prohibition to mega resorts and major league sports teams, a lot has changed over the years.

Sin City celebrated its 119th birthday on Wednesday, so we’re taking a look back at some of the most noteworthy moments over its long and storied history.

The early days

Native Americans traveled through the valley for thousands of years before anyone settled permanently in the region now called Las Vegas. It got its name in 1829 when a Spanish explorer who was traveling to Los Angeles stopped for water. The Spanish translation is “the meadows,” which was an appropriate moniker as the valley had numerous artesian wells and widespread green areas surrounding them.

It was in 1884 that murmurs about the area began doing the rounds after John C. Frémont visited the region as part of a scouting group ahead of a war with Mexico and wrote about it in his report that was distributed to 10,000 settlers. Following the conflict with Mexico, Las Vegas became US territory. The famous downtown street in Sin City is now named after him.

Gambling was originally illegal in Las Vegas, with people not even allowed to flip a coin to decide who paid for a drink at a bar.

Nothing of much substance happened for a number of decades, apart from being a good place for travelers to refuel and rest. It wasn’t until 1905 that Las Vegas became a city after the railway company auctioned off 110 acres of land beside the tracks which eventually became the downtown area. The train line was open for business, bringing travelers to the city.

Becoming an oasis in the desert

The fortunes of Las Vegas started taking off in 1931 when Nevada lawmakers decided to allow casino gambling. An illegal scene was already thriving at that point and construction on the nearby Hoover Dam began the same year, which brought huge numbers of workers to the area and helped ward off disaster during the Great Depression. The population went from 5,000 to 25,000 during this period.

opening casinos and showgirl theatres across the city to entertain the workers

Businesspeople gradually began opening casinos and showgirl theatres across the city to entertain the workers, with mobsters playing a key role. These notorious characters saw casinos as a good way to get rich and launder the proceeds of crime.

The first property on the Las Vegas Strip was the El Rancho Vegas hotel-casino, a western-style facility that opened in 1941. Over the following years, the Last Frontier, Flamingo, and the Thunderbird joined it.

Organized crime figures often had rackets involving the city’s casinos rather than actually having an ownership stake on paper. This changed when famous mobsters Bugsy Seigel and Meyer Lansky funneled money through local banks to build the Flamingo in 1946.

Explosive growth

Las Vegas casinos were eventually wrestled away from mobsters and came under the ownership of large corporations. Howard Hughes first began investing in Las Vegas in 1966 and was the main driver to getting rid of much of the criminal influence by acquiring many of their properties. The businessman succeeded in making the city more family-friendly in just a few years.

Las Vegas has long been a hub for some of the biggest stars in the entertainment world. Some of the legendary residencies include Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Celine Dion, Elton John, and U2.

The city really took off during the 1980s, with the average annual increase in population during the period hitting nearly 7%. The total number of residents doubled in just a decade from 186,380 in 1985 to 363,360 in 1995. The first mega-resort was The Mirage, which was built by Steve Wynn and opened in 1989. This started the arms race for others to build similar properties on the Strip.

Economic prosperity in Las Vegas eventually stalled when the Great Recession hit in 2007. Many construction projects fell by the wayside due to financing issues and plummeting visitor numbers.

By the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city had bounced back strongly and the population was at 653,963. While the pandemic struggles led to the closure of gaming properties for a time, most of them ultimately came out the other side stronger than ever.

Modern day

These days, just a handful of companies dominate the Las Vegas Strip, namely MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment, and Wynn Resorts. Between them, they operate 19 of the 32 resorts on the famous street.

never had any franchises for most of its history

The city also is now home to major league sports teams, having never had any franchises for most of its history. The NHL’s Golden Knights were the first to arrive, doing so in 2017 as an expansion team; they won a Stanley Cup just six years later. The NFL’s Raiders moved to Las Vegas in 2020, while MLB’s Oakland Athletics are planning to move to the city after this season and build a ballpark on the site of the Tropicana.  

As it celebrates its 119th birthday, Las Vegas has never been in a better position. The Strip’s gross gaming revenue last year smashed the previous record, generating $8.9bn for gambling operators. Visitor numbers to Harry Reid International Airport also hit an all-time high of 57.6 million passengers in 2023.

More people in the US plan to go to the city this summer on vacation than any other in the country and gaming revenue doesn’t look like slowing down anytime soon, so the future of Las Vegas looks very bright.

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