Compared to London, Paris, and Rome, Las Vegas is a relatively young city. Despite this, it became the world’s gaming and entertainment capital in the space of a few decades.
Also known as Sin City, its reputation for indulgence, opulence, and extravagance is known around the globe. The smaller casinos and the mind-boggling megaresorts didn’t spring up out of nowhere, of course.
It took a president, a dam, and a few men with great vision to make it all happen. Take a stroll with us through the fascinating history of Vegas and the men who built it.
Vegas Origins in a Nutshell
In 1930, President Herbert Hoover approved the construction of what was to be known later as the Hoover Dam. Construction began in 1931, and the influx of workers pushed up Las Vegas’ population from 5000 to 25 000.
Local entrepreneurs and mafia bosses jumped at the chance to cash in on the huge crowd of mostly male construction workers. Illegal casinos and revue theatres sprang up around town.
Rather than destroy Las Vegas’ fledgling entertainment and gambling industry, Nevada’s state legislature gave gambling the green light in 1931, and issued the first license to the Northern Club casino. It was soon followed by the Apache Hotel and the Las Vegas Club.
Development slowed down during World War II, but gathered momentum between 1952 and 1957. Well-financed mobsters built the Sands, the Sahara, the Royal Nevada, the New Frontier, the Fremont, the Riviera, Binion’s Horseshoe, and the Tropicana.
By 1954, Las Vegas received more than 8 million visitors who spent an average of US$200 million in casinos annually. The city’s stages also began hosting major stars of the era, such as Frank Sinatra, Liberace, and Bing Crosby.
Sin City continued to develop over the next two decades, until the 1980s brought a massive change of pace. It was in 1989 that the Mirage megaresort and casino was built, ushering in a new golden age for Las Vegas.
Benjamin Bugsy Siegel
One of the 20th century’s most famous mobsters, Benjamin Bugsy Siegel is also one of the men who built Vegas. After nightclub and would-be casino owner Billy Wilkerson spent his investors’ money on a poker game, Bugsy took over Wilkerson’s project.
The Flamingo casino was built under the watchful eye of the mobster, who later came to a messy end in Beverly Hills.
Thomas Tommy Hull
A few drinks at the Apache Hotel and a conversation with Las Vegas businessman Jim Cashman is all the convincing hotelier Thomas Tommy Hull needed to open a casino in Sin City.
Tommy opened the El Rancho Las Vegas in 1941, and it was the talk of the town from day one. It featured more than 70 slots, as well as blackjack, craps, and roulette tables, and 110 hotel rooms.
Tool manufacturer, pilot, and film producer Howard Hughes spent a month in the Desert Inn penthouse in 1966. When the manager asked Howard to vacate a month later because guests had booked the penthouse for New Year’s Eve, the wealthy entrepreneur simply bought the hotel.
He went on to spend roughly US$300 million on properties in Las Vegas, several casinos among them.
After inheriting and running his family’s bingo rooms in Maryland, Steve Wynn set his sights on Vegas. In 1989, he bought the Bellagio and Mirage, and instead of demolishing them, Wynn transformed them into the city’s first megaresorts.
Wynn also provided the finance needed to develop the iconic Treasure Island resort, which later became the first permanent base of the famous Cirque du Soleil.