When we think of Las Vegas we automatically think of glitz and glamour, the merry tinkle of slot machines and the bright neon lights of the strip. After all, we’ve all seen Ocean’s Eleven and the Hangover, not to mention Scorsese’s masterpiece Casino, but is it really all bachelor parties gone wrong, organized crime and mob influence?
Billed as ‘The entertainment Capital of the World’ and famous for its mega casino-hotels, it’s not surprising that it is a top three destination for conferences in addition to being one of the worlds most visited tourist destinations, but where did it all begin?
It’s beginning, in the days before Bugsy Siegal, were pretty humble. The city was founded in 1905 and incorporated in 1911, not much more than a strip of land adjacent to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
It was 1931, which would prove to be a pivotal year for Las Vegas. Nevada had just legalized the quickie divorce and construction had begun on the Hoover dam. It was this engineering marvel that would bring in construction workers and their families, the influx of which helped Las Vegas avoid many of the pitfalls of the great depression.
It was these young construction workers for which the first hotels and casinos were built, largely by the mafia. 1941 saw hotel owner Thomas Hull open the El Rancho Vegas, the first resort built on what would become the Las Vegas Strip and many more hotels followed, a lot of them now sadly gone, demolished to make way for all the mega resorts of today’s Las Vegas cityscape.
1951 brought atomic testing to the nearby Nevada desert, which could often be witnessed from the city. The radiation exposure from the fallout was greatly underestimated. In fact, Las Vegas often promoted the distinctive mushroom cloud explosions as a tourist attraction, even going so far as to offer Atomic Cocktails in the Sky Room at the Desert Inn. There were even several ‘Miss Atomic’ pageants held.
By 1966 the mobs influence was waning, enter Howard Hughes, eccentric hero of the American aviation industry. If you want to know more about him, you need look no further than Leonardo de Caprio’s portrayal of him in the 2004 film, The Aviator. Hughes spent an estimated $300 million to take over many well-known hotels and because of this was instrumental in changing the image of Las Vegas from its Wild West roots to a more refined cosmopolitan city.
The Rat Pack era and Mafia influence came to an end by the 80s with the aging out of the WWII generation and the boom of entrepreneurs who introduced the concept of the mega resort shaping modern day Vegas into a more commercialized, family orientated destination.
But whatever its beginnings it’s a city firmly beloved, one which has captured the imaginations of filmmakers, artists, writers and tourists alike. A place where what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.