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The History of the Las Vegas Strip: How the City Became a Gambling Hub

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Many casinos, hotels, nightclubs, and commercial centers make Las Vegas in Nevada a mecca for gambling, entertainment, vacationing, and shopping. Still, one particular area, known today as the Las Vegas Strip, stands out in many ways.

The official name of this famous thoroughfare is Las Vegas Boulevard (S). What’s more, it’s not even within the Las Vegas city limits, but in Clark County. Still, be it an official part of the city or not, the history of the Las Vegas Strip is teeming with curiosities, so read on to learn more.

A Brief History of Las Vegas City, Nevada

In the following, you’ll learn various interesting facts, like:

  • When Las Vegas was built
  • How the city got its name
  • When gambling started
  • What connections it had with the mafia
  • Who performed there

How Did Las Vegas Get Its Name?

In 1829, a Mexican scout, Rafaelo Rivera, named the valley Las Vegas, which means “the meadows” in Spanish. Fast-forward 15 years, and US explorer (and later California and Arizona’s governor) John Fremont, was camping in the Las Vegas Springs area. He wrote a journal about it, introducing “the meadows” to the general population of the United States.

Las Vegas Before Casinos

So, how old is Las Vegas?

During the California Gold Rush (1844-55), explorers started settling in the Las Vegas valley and brought their gambling habits with them. Gambling soon became part of the local culture, although the territorial legislature tried to stop it in 1861. Nonetheless, the measures were lax more often than not, until Nevada finally legalized gambling in 1931.

The Casino Era

Now, you’re probably wondering when Las Vegas was founded as a city, and the casinos started appearing.

In 1905, the town of Las Vegas was officially founded, and became a popular stopover for travelers going from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City by train. Soon the need arose, and the first hotel in Vegas – Hotel Nevada, which also became the first casino in Las Vegas – was built in January 1906. Today, it’s known as the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino.

So, when did Las Vegas become popular as an official gambling destination?

Thousands of workers came to the city during the Great Depression to work on the construction of the Boulder (Hoover) Dam. Casinos and venues where showgirls performed started opening on Fremont Street, i.e., the original Vegas Strip. In the 1940s, the mob came to Vegas and began building casinos to launder drug money, most famously opening the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

Within a few decades, casinos, as we know them, emerged in Las Vegas history. From the 1950s onward, gambling establishments continued to sprout, with older venues giving way to new ones from time to time. Rising in fame (or infamy), Las Vegas welcomed various celebrities of the day who had fun and performed in the city, including Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, and the Rat Pack.

During the 1990s, a real estate developer named Steve Wynn introduced a new concept of upscale vacationing in the Entertainment Capital of the World, as this city in Nevada is also called. Treasure Island, Golden Nugget, and Bellagio are some of the famous hotels and resorts that have opened as a result. To promote this, he brought a then-anonymous acrobatic troupe called Cirque du Soleil from Canada, which, as we know, has become a staple of American entertainment in the following years.

The Las Vegas Strip: Everything You Need To Know

Today, the Las Vegas Boulevard (S) in Clark County, a.k.a. the Strip, is among the world’s most visited and prestigious avenues. Yet, the original Strip in early Las Vegas was Fremont Street, honoring the politician, mapmaker, and explorer John C. Fremont, who first introduced the place that was Las Vegas Springs back then.

The current boulevard was just Highway 91 back in the day. It got its present name during the 1930s, thanks to a Los Angeles police officer and businessman – Guy McAfee; his connections with casinos and brothels earned him the “Al Capone of LA” epithet.

In LA, McAfee had a favourite club on the Sunset Strip. And when he came to Las Vegas, he often drove from Fremont Street to the Pair-O-Dice Club, which used to be where the Peppermill Restaurant (a Las Vegas Strip staple) stands now; he started referring to Highway 91 as the Strip along the way.

The First Casino in Vegas

The first gambling facility opened on the Las Vegas Strip was the Red Rooster. It used to occupy the place between Treasure Island and Caesars Palace, where the Mirage Las Vegas Hotel & Casino stands today.

The Red Rooster was a nightclub that served alcohol even in the Prohibition era (the nationwide ban on the production and sale of alcohol in the US). When the authorities legalized gambling in March of 1931, the venue obtained this license on April 1, thus becoming the first casino on the Strip and in Clark County. In other words, that’s when gambling officially started on the Las Vegas Strip.

Surprisingly enough, the Red Rooster was also the first club to lose its license, on July 7 of the same year, due to its alcohol sales – after all, Prohibition laws were still in effect.

The Oldest Existing Casinos on the Strip

You’re likely to find something new every time you come to the Las Vegas Strip. The thoroughfare changes constantly, with older casinos being demolished to make room for new ones. Even famous venues, such as the Riviera, have been destroyed to create more room for the latest chapter in the history of the Las Vegas Strip. Others underwent significant renovations: The Monte Carlo became NoMad Las Vegas and Park MGM.

Even so, some veteran casinos are still in business, and the oldest existing ones on the Vegas Strip are:

  1. The Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, opened in 1946 with the money obtained from drugs, is the oldest existing gambling venue on the avenue. However, it went through various renovations, changing its original appearance along the way.
  2. The Tropicana, which opened in 1957, is the second-oldest standing casino in Vegas history. Different owners renovated the resort to keep it competitive, which is why it still welcomes visitors.
  3. Caesars Palace is the third-oldest working casino on the Vegas Strip. Owned by Caesars Entertainment, Inc. and opened in 1966, it is a much larger property now than it used to be back when it first appeared.
  4. Circus Circus is currently the fourth longest-operating casino on the boulevard. This three-star hotel and casino, located a few minutes by car to the south of the Stratosphere Tower, is a popular spot for budget travelers.

Hotel Rates in the Past and Today

Speaking of traveling on a budget, accommodation rates are quite different today than earlier in Vegas history.

For example, the average price for staying at the best hotels in the 1950s was around $7.5 a day. Tourists traveling on a budget could stay at a motel for $3 per night. Nowadays, one night in Sin City (another nickname for Las Vegas) could cost you anywhere between $50 and $300. The average daily fare is around $95.

How Long Is the Las Vegas Strip?

Teeming with gambling, entertainment, and vacation facilities, the Las Vegas Strip is approximately 3.5 miles long. The thoroughfare stretches roughly between:

  • Stratosphere Tower (the STRAT Hotel, Casino, and SkyPod) in the north
  • And New York-New York Hotel & Casino in the south

You’ll recognize the Stratosphere Tower as the highest building on the Strip, in the city, and in Nevada. On the other hand, New York-New York resembles a bunch of clustered high-rise buildings and lower structures, including a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Note: Many people think that the Strip extends beyond New York-New York, down to Mandalay Bay. If you disagree, Caesars Palace would be the second-oldest operating casino on the Las Vegas Strip for you.

Summary

The history of Las Vegas, Nevada, started in 1829, when a Spanish scout named a valley with spring-fed water “the meadows.” It was later described by Jon Fremont in his journals, and, at the beginning of the 20th century, travelers of the Union Pacific Railroad used Las Vegas as a stopover when traveling between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. That’s when its development truly began.

The real history of the Las Vegas Strip kicked off in the 1930s, when the state legalized gambling and the first casinos appeared. Soon after, it was christened by Guy McAfee in honor of LA’s Sunset Strip. In the following decades, casinos and hotels were built, renovated, and demolished to give way to newer venues with better service or just more height and neon signs.

Today, Las Vegas is one of the most internationally acclaimed gambling, shopping, entertainment, and vacation destinations, generating mind-boggling revenue, Covid-19 and other pandemics notwithstanding. What’s more, some of the biggest gambling wins took place here.

FAQ

How did the Las Vegas Strip Start?

The beginnings of the Strip date back to 1941. Although gambling venues were present even before in Las Vegas’s casino history, that is when the avenue as we know it first came to be.

Back then, the El Rancho Vegas resort opened on the Highway 91 section just beyond the city limits. Many other casinos and hotels followed shortly. The last remaining El Rancho Vegas building was demolished in 2000 to make room for the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, scheduled to open in 2023.

Where Is the Original Las Vegas Strip?

Fremont Street in the Las Vegas downtown area was the old Vegas Strip. Its name honors John C. Fremont, the politician and explorer who raised public awareness of Las Vegas Springs. Built in 1905, Fremont Street became the first paved street in the city in 1925. After that, it was a commercial hub with illegal gambling venues.

Who Built the Las Vegas Strip?

Businessman Thomas “Tommy” Hull, the El Rancho Las Vegas founder, was the initiator of the casino construction on the Strip in its modern sense back in 1941. Following El Rancho’s success, many other casinos were built in the coming years, especially those financed by gangsters for money-laundering purposes.

Mobster Bugsy Siegel, who used drug money from Meyer Lansky to build Flamingo, was among the key figures in the Strip’s development. Some other casinos built by criminals are the Sahara, Riviera, and Sands.

What Is the Oldest Casino on the Strip?

The first operating casino on the Strip was the Red Rooster. It was the quickest to obtain a gambling license in March 1931 when the Nevada government legalized certain games of chance to boost the economy, and the first to lose it, since it served alcohol, which was illegal due to Prohibition laws.

The oldest operating casino on the Strip today is Flamingo, opened in 1946 by Bugsy Siegel – a living piece of the history of the Las Vegas Strip.

Why Is the Strip Called the Strip?

The moniker dates back to the 1930s and is related to Guy McAfee, a Los Angeles police officer and businessman with mob connections. He called the then-Highway 91 the Strip, as it reminded him of the Sunset Strip in LA. He called it the Strip so many times that even the locals picked it up.

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