History of Las Vegas: Casinos and Crime

This city in the middle of the desert was originally named Las Vegas by Spanish explorers, and that name translates to "the meadows." Soon, a Mormon population relocated there from Utah and eventually became important members of the community. Once a connection to nearby Los Angeles was established, it was only a matter of time before Vegas grew. However, first, the city needed an attraction. Casinos and theaters began popping up and soon Vegas was known for unlawful and sinful behavior. That encouraged organized crime to get into the action. Today, Las Vegas is known as a city of quick marriages, gambling, and glitz. In this video, WatchMojo.com learns more about the history of Las Vegas.

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History of Las Vegas

“What Happens Here, Stays Here.” Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’ll be learning about the history of Las Vegas.

“The Meadows”

Sin City’s history truly began when it was named Las Vegas – or “the meadows” – by nineteenth century Spanish explorers. In 1844, explorer John C. Frémont led an expedition to Las Vegas, and soon, Mormon missionaries relocated there from Utah but quickly left due to extreme desert weather.

City’s Foundation

Vegas’ population jumped when Nevada was admitted as a state in 1864. It became an important railroad stop between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, so the Mormons returned and became pillars of the community. The city was officially founded on May 15th, 1905 when Senator William Andrews Clark auctioned off land in the area, and on March 16th, 1911, Las Vegas was incorporated.


However, Nevada banned gambling in 1910, and problems quickly surfaced: the state struggled financially after World War I when its metals were no longer needed. Though a highway linked Vegas to California in 1926, without landmarks or tourist attractions, the city in the middle of the desert offered little to visitors.

Notorious Reputation

Soon, Las Vegas became notorious for connections to organized crime and illegal activity as entertainment for travelers.

The Boulder/Hoover Dam

At the height of the Great Depression, construction began on the Boulder Dam, later renamed the Hoover Dam. Unemployed masses flooded Nevada for work, and were obliged to live in government-regulated Boulder City as a way to enforce Prohibition Era rules. However, many found ways to blow their paychecks in Vegas.

Laws Loosen

1931 saw Nevada marriage and divorce laws loosened. Because of the potential for profits, gambling was also legalized. By 1933, Prohibition was repealed. Local businesspeople, investors from the Mormon community and major players in organized crime exploited the opportunity to entertain the mostly male dam workforce by building casinos and theatres.

Helldorado Days

As construction finished, those workers left town. Helldorado Days were introduced as a marketing ploy to attract new visitors to Vegas, and as a way to celebrate its frontier heritage.

Glitter Gulch

However, this struggle to draw tourists ended in 1935: the Hoover Dam became an attraction, and provided electricity to downtown Las Vegas. Western-themed Fremont Street – named after the explorer – even earned the moniker Glitter Gulch for its abundance of bright lights.

The Strip

In 1941, El Rancho Vegas became the first resort to open on the Strip. Its success prompted more construction.


When LA cracked down on unlawful gambling in the early 1940s, criminals turned to nearby Sin City. Mobsters like Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Moe Dalitz opened the door for organized crime ownership of Las Vegas casinos. Siegel pioneered Vegas glam with The Flamingo in 1946, and Dalitz earned the nickname Mr. Las Vegas by opening The Desert Inn in 1950.

More Mob-Owned Casinos

Mob-owned casinos continued popping up, with funding from groups like Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters and even the Mormons. Following a federal inquiry, the role of organized crime in legalized gambling was considered safe from government intervention.

Atomic Testing

Even nuclear testing charmed Las Vegas tourists in 1951, and ironically made it a more family-friendly destination.

Elvis and the Rat Pack

By mid-decade, over eight million people visited Vegas annually for gambling, girls and star-studded shows. Names like Elvis, Liberace and the Rat Pack drew huge crowds. This period saw the Vegas color barrier broken after pressure from the NAACP and prominent black entertainers.

Howard Hughes

The Kennedy administration soon chipped away at mob influence in Vegas. Oddball businessman and aviator Howard Hughes further eliminated organized crime when he started buying property in 1966. He changed the town’s reputation to one of sophistication, and legitimate corporations eventually took over ownership completely.

The Megaresort

Vegas’ population exploded in the 1970s. Though Atlantic City offered gamblers another mecca by 1976, Vegas shifted focus to the megaresort.

Bigger and Better

During the 1980s, deadly hotel fires and a resurgence of mob activity negatively thrust Vegas into the spotlight. Leading into the ‘90s, the city was resurrected by bigger and more fantastic hotels and casinos like the Steve Wynn’s Mirage, the Excalibur, Luxor and the new MGM Grand. By century’s end, over 37 million people visited Vegas each year.

What Happens Here, Stays Here

No matter what, Vegas is remembered as the land of quickie marriages and quicker divorces, of betting the house and of endless glitz. Though it’s been reinvented multiple times, one thing remains certain: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

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