How a desert outpost became the glittering city of Las Vegas


America loves a rags to riches story and there is none better than the extraordinary history of Las Vegas in Nevada. To go back thousands of years, the local Paiutes Indians appreciated the springs in this desert region which gave rise to lush, green watering places. When they went on to lead Spanish explorers in the 19th century, the newcomers named the place after the Spanish word for meadows. Some Mormons tried to settle in 1855 but the harsh extremes of climate proved too much for them. It wasn't until 1905 and the establishment of a small railroad station, that the fledgling township really began to take root. It was now connected to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, but it was still a difficult terrain for farming and life was tough in the dusty valley. 

In the Great Depression, workers flocked in looking for jobs on the Boulder Dam, but this significant development was not alone in re-inventing the fortunes of Las Vegas. Legislation passed in 1931 allowed for gaming licenses. The very first club to open was called the Pair-O-Dice. It sat on what is now known the world over, and even seen from space, as the neon-lit Las Vegas Strip. A relaxation in marriage laws also saw couples arriving to wed quickly and easily, a tradition that survives to this day.

Mobster Bugsy Siegel and others of his ilk kept the gambling tradition going, even during prohibition and Las Vegas began to get its reputation as a glitzy and glamorous destination. More hotels and casinos sprang up, and high-ranking talent and celebrities were drawn to its attractions, to perform and to live the high-life. Investors were excited by the possibilities and, by 1954, the city could accommodate eight million visitors. They came for the star power of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, to try their luck at the tables, and to experience a place like no other on earth.

The mega-wealthy Howard Hughes came to Las Vegas in 1966 and never left, buying the hotel he was staying in. His billions contributed to the growth and the spiralling of ever more exotic and luxurious resorts being built. Massively ambitious complexes, modelled on ancient civilisations became the hallmark of the architecture and casinos and entertainment came to dominate employment. Even in the recession year of 2008, Las Vegas was seeing 40 million tourists come through the doors. 

Even a quick glance at the top casino websites will reveal the multi-million dollar sophistication of Las Vegas in the 21st century and you will be amazed by the choices available within the staggering structures on the Strip today. It is beyond doubt a phenomenal man-made playground, where once there was bare dirt.

Las Vegas exerts a powerful hold on the imagination. Not only is it built to look like a fantasy, it also feeds that fantastical desire in many people to potentially get rich quick. To win the record jackpot is always a possibility, and it keeps the roulette wheels turning and the one-armed bandits rolling, all night every night.