|Maps: Putting Las Vegas on the Map
The 1920s were a time of prosperity for most of America. Though the population of the city of Las Vegas more than doubled throughout the decade. It was still a small town -- slightly over 5,000 residents in 1930 -- surrounded by vast undeveloped land. Over the next two decades, several large scale federal projects began exploiting the resources and remote location, literally remaking the greater Las Vegas area. A city that gained national notoriety for turning away from Prohibition became a key national player in the American effort in World War II and the Cold War.
Boulder Dam (1931-1935)
As early as 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act, government engineers began exploring the idea of controlling the wild Colorado River. On December 21, 1928, outgoing President Calvin Coolidge signed the Boulder Canyon Project Act, to construct a massive dam 25 miles outside of the small town of Las Vegas. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates the Boulder Dam, a massive engineering feat, in 1935. The dam was renamed the Hoover Dam in honor of President Herbert Hoover on April 30, 1947.
Boulder City (early 1930s)
Six Companies, Inc., the collection of constructing companies behind the Boulder Dam, built a complete city to house dam workers, complete with a hospital, department store, homes for married couples, and dormitories for single men. Sims Ely, the city manager, made sure that the city was all about business, and some residents soon made the trek up to Vegas on payday to escape sleepy Boulder City.
Army Air Corps Gunnery School (early 1940s)
In 1941 the U.S. Army established the Army Air Corps Gunnery School at the site of an old airport north of Las Vegas. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, and the U.S. entry into World War II, the school became a critical part of the American War effort, training over fifty-five thousand gunners over the next four years. The school closed in 1949, and was reopened as the Nellis Air Force base in 1950, named after William Nellis, a Las Vegas High School graduate shot down over Belgium in 1944.
Basic Magnesium, Inc. / Henderson (1942)
Magnesium was a key "wonder metal" in the World War II effort, used for airplanes and bombs. Nevada Senator Pat McCarran helped convince President Roosevelt that southern Nevada was ideal for magnesium processing. It was a convincing argument; there were raw magnesium ore deposits in the area, the Boulder Dam could provide the power for the factory, and the newly formed Lake Mead could provide water to cool the hot processed magnesium ingots. The U.S. government contracted Basic Magnesium, Inc. to build the biggest magnesium processing plant in the world -- almost two miles long by 3/4 miles wide. The plant employed 10% of Nevada's population, more than twice the number of employees than the Boulder Dam had at its peak. BMI's "version" of Boulder City was the city of Henderson. Henderson's presence increased the already steady traffic along the Las Vegas and Boulder City route.
The plant closed in 1944 when the government determined it needed no more magnesium. Perhaps the biggest legacy of BMI is the federally funded waterway that brought water from Lake Mead into the Las Vegas Valley and served as the basis for the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
Nevada Proving Ground (early 1950s)
Government interest in the Las Vegas area evolved after World War II to address the Communist threat. The Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) wanted to find a nuclear test area closer than the ones being conducted in the Bikini Atoll in the Far Pacific. With persistent lobbying again from Nevada Senator Pat McCarran, President Truman and the AEC selected an area used as a bombing range by the Nellis Air Force base. The AEC detonated the first bomb at the Nevada Proving Grounds in January 1951. The site of mushroom clouds on the horizon -- not a threat to safety, according to AEC scientists -- afforded Las Vegas a new "atomic" identity .