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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Map

Putting Las Vegas on the Map

The Nevada territory was virtually unexplored by Americans and Europeans until Spanish merchants established trading routes from Sante Fe to Los Angeles in 1829. They dubbed a marshy area along the way Las Vegas -- "the meadows."

The West

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As explorers and settlers moved westward throughout the American continent, Utah and California became influential neighbors to the Nevada territory. From dusty mule trails, to iron rails, to hot asphalt -- new routes have been surveyed, graded, and paved in order to pass goods and people between California and inner territories. Las Vegas blossomed as a key stopping point on the route, benefiting from three key things: location, location, location.

1. Old Spanish Trail (1829)
In the winter of 1829, New Mexican traders moved through Nevada on mule trails, carving out the Old Spanish Trail to Southern California. They stopped at a valley of marshy plains and meadows, encountering nomadic Paiute tribes who also sought out the lush environs.

2. Mormon expedition and settlement (1855)
William Bringhurst led thirty Mormons from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas in 1855 to establish a mission between Utah and San Bernardino, California, which the Mormons had settled in 1851. Like the Spanish traders before them, they chose the spot along the Old Spanish Trail and followed a route mapped out by Captain John C. Fremont of the U.S. Army Topographical Corps.

The Mormons built a 150 square foot adobe fort and established relations with the local Paiutes. But after three difficult years, Brigham Young ordered the Mormons to abandon the settlement and return to Utah.

3. San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad (1905)
On August 21, 1900, officials of the Los Angeles Terminal Railway announced that Montana mining magnate William Clark had acquired an interest in their company and would begin building a railroad to Salt Lake City, following the route of the Old Spanish Trail. Clark was not alone, the Union Pacific railroad also planned to run a rail line over the same route. The enterprising Clark, who secured a seat on the U.S. Senate in 1901, settled with the competing Union Pacific Railroad in 1903 and their united efforts resumed. Clark spotted the potential in Las Vegas as key stop on the route and personally oversaw the town site auction in 1905.

4. Highway 91 (1930s)
In 1929 California approved financing of $800,000 to pave the Los Angeles Highway (Highway 91) from San Bernardino to the Nevada state line, in order to provide easier access to Las Vegas and the Boulder Dam project. The approximately 300 mile roadway cut through the Mojave Desert from Los Angeles, entering Las Vegas from the south. In the 1940s casino owners built up the final stretch of the highway into the city and it soon became known as "The Strip."

The Region

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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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

The City

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The City of Las Vegas has continually redefined itself as a means to attract visitors: western prospectors, dam laborers, vice tourists, conventioneers, and family tourists. Beyond the ebb and flow of tourists, Las Vegas' population has changed in demographics and make-up: from old Western prospectors, to Los Angeles organized crime players, to Boulder Dam laborers, to nuclear engineers, and tourism workers. The jobs to support the growing city -- teachers, municipal workers, construction workers and real estate agents -- boosted the population further.

1. Fremont Street (1905)
Senator William Clark and associates set up the Las Vegas Land & Water Company to manage their new city at the railroad depot. On May 15, 1905, they operated an auction from a platform on Main Street, between Fremont and Ogden streets. By the end of May 16, about half of the lots had been sold for a total of $265,000. The railroad built a depot at Main and Fremont Street. Clark and associates decided that Fremont Street would be the major commercial avenue in the nascent city.

2. McWilliams Township (1905)
John T. McWilliams was a Canadian born civil engineer that worked for the Union Pacific and William Clark. McWilliams bought eighty acres of land from Helen Stewart and set out to establish the "Original Las Vegas Townsite" on the western side of the tracks. The McWilliams Townsite was home to fifteen hundred residents and had three weekly newspapers. But Clark controlled the water rights to Stewart's ranch land. On September 5, 1905 a fire all but destroyed McWilliams Townsite.

3. Westside (1950s)
The Westside neighborhood of Las Vegas stands where McWilliams Township did, on the west side of the tracks. The neighborhood lagged behind the city on the other side of the tracks and by the 1940s, town officials began to segregate African American businesses and individuals, relocating them into Westside. In the 1950s the neighborhood was still lacking paved streets, sewers and streetlights.

4. McCarran Airport (1948,1963)
McCarran Airport opened in 1948 as the Clark County Public airport, on the grounds of what had been the Alamo Airport. Within ten years, Las Vegas officials feared that McCarran might become obsolete with the advent of the jet age, but they also were unsure if residents would approve a new bond to "rebuild" the airport. The business community pledged their support to an expanded airport and voters approved the bond issue in 1960. The new airport opened in 1963, and five years later was officially renamed McCarran International Airport.

5. Las Vegas Convention Center (1959)
In the 1950s, on the heels of the new McCarran airport opening, city officials and casino operators looked to bring a new wave of visitors to Las Vegas: the conventioneer. A convention during the week would supplement the weekend visitors from L.A. and give hotels and casinos steady traffic, seven days a week. In 1955 the Nevada State Legislature approved the huge convention center, financed by room taxes in hotels, so that residents wouldn't feel the pinch. In April 1959 the Las Vegas Convention Center opened with a 90,000 square foot exhibit hall and 20,340 square-foot rotunda.

6. Summerlin neighborhood (1990s)
Las Vegas had typically expanded its suburban development eastward from downtown and the Strip, eventually spreading out towards Henderson. In the 1980s, new planned communities began emerging west of the strip. Many of these communities were too far out to be annexed by the City of Las Vegas and existed as unincorporated towns. The city developed on an area of land owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation as a new community named Summerlin. The corporation allowed Las Vegas to annex the land in order to access its sewage treatment plants, which made development and home owning more affordable. Since the 1990s, the beautified community has grown at a quick pace, with over 3,500 residents by 2000.

The Strip

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Throughout the 1940s, beginning with the El Rancho Vegas casino, casino owners, many transplanted from Los Angeles, built up the area to the south of Las Vegas on Highway 91 -- just outside the official city limits to avoid taxes, and also to be the first to attract drivers from L.A. Guy McAfee, proprietor of the 91 Club and the Golden Nugget, remarked that it reminded him of the famous Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and the "Las Vegas Strip" became an iconic stretch of roadway. The resorts featured inviting swimming pools, glamorous style and distinctive architecture to attract traffic from Los Angeles.

No area of Las Vegas morphs more regularly than this stretch of road. From the original western themed casinos of the 1940s to the swinging palaces of the 1960s to the virtual cities of the 21st century -- the Strip is what most people think of as Las Vegas. The popularity of the Strip shifted the entertainment center from the Fremont Street area downtown, to this four mile stretch.

1. El Rancho Vegas (1941)
In 1940 city officials began coaxing Californian hotel mogul Thomas Hull to build one of his successful El Rancho hotels in Las Vegas, recommending spots near Fremont Street. Hull surprised them by purchasing a massive tract of land south of the city on the Los Angeles Highway. By being officially outside of the city, Hull was able to avoid certain city taxes. The El Rancho Vegas, a huge, sprawling resort, opened in 1941 and was soon joined by other opulent resorts including the Last Frontier, Flamingo and Thunderbird.

2. "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada" Sign (1959)
In 1959 Betty Willis, a commercial artist, created the neon sign that has greeted countless visitors with the words, "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas." The sign has been moved several times to accommodate the Strip's growth, finally moving to southern end of the strip in Paradise, one of the unincorporated towns outside Las Vegas established by Clark County. The sign faces the south, greeting visitors coming in from California. The reverse of the sign states "Drive Carefully, Come Back Soon." In commemoration of Las Vegas' centennial in 2005, Nevada released license plates that bear the image of the iconic sign.

3. Caesars Palace (1966)
Despite efforts by Las Vegas City to bolster the downtown area with new hotels, the Strip continued to steal the limelight -- and the traffic. Jay Sarno of the Cabana Motel chain wanted to make a statement with an over-the-top resort. Sarno showed no restraint in building Caesars Palace -- importing tons of marble, statues and other adornments. The opulent rooms were complemented with top-level international cuisine and A-list entertainers.

4. The Mirage (1989)
By the 1980s the Strip had lost much of its luster and prominence. Atlantic City, New Jersey gambling had lured East Coast visitors away from making the cross-country trip to Nevada and deadly hotel fires further eroded Las Vegas' charm. Steve Wynn, who had revived The Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, set out to raise the bar on the Strip, as Jay Sarno and Thomas Hull had done decades earlier. In 1989 Wynn opened the Mirage -- a true mega-resort in scale -- and an outlandish entertainment experience complete with working volcano, dolphins and white tigers. Wynn's follow-ups (including Treasure Island, the Bellagio and Wynn-Las Vegas) found competition in mega-resorts like New York-New York, the Luxor and the Venetian. The Las Vegas Strip was once again unlike any other place in the world.

5. The Las Vegas Monorail (2004)
In 2004, the Las Vegas Monorail Company, a non-profit corporation, opened a four-mile, seven-stop long monorail route through the Las Vegas Strip, replacing a one-mile monorail between Bally's and the MGM Grand that opened in 1995. Officials plan to extend the route north to Fremont Street and south to McCarran airport.

6. The Little Church of the West (1942)
In 1942 the Little Church of the West wedding chapel opened as part of the Last Frontier Hotel, the first wedding chapel on the Las Vegas Strip. The hotel closed in January 5, 2000, but the chapel remains and continues to tie the knot for couples. In recognition of its status as the oldest existing structure on the Las Vegas Strip, the U.S. Department of the Interior added the chapel to its National Registry of Historical Places on September 14, 1992. There are over thirty chapels along the Strip.

7. Desert Inn Golf Club (1952)
The 18-hole Desert Inn Golf Club opened in 1952 as the only golf course on the Las Vegas Strip. It is the only course in the world to have hosted the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour and the Senior PGA Tour. The Desert Inn Golf Club closed in 2002, but Steve Wynn resurrected it three years later as his own Wynn Golf Club.

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