Las Vegas Sun

October 31, 2014

A Gamble in the Sand

How Las Vegas transformed itself from a railroad watering hole to the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’

The Mirage was barely nine hours old when Elmer Sherwin broke the new casino — a resort that drastically changed the landscape of Las Vegas — for a record jackpot of $4.6 million on Nov. 22, 1989.

Sherwin's big payout is the same dream that many of the 40 million-plus tourists who visit Las Vegas each year share. A similar sliver of financial fantasy probably resounds in the more than 2 million residents who call Clark County home.

But Las Vegas is more than glitz and glamour, slot machines and showgirls — and unimaginable amounts of money. It’s a city that might have been made, in part, by influential mobsters, but unlike the common misconception, was not built solely by a man they called “Bugsy.”

1930s

A large crowd celebrates the completion of the railroad at Boulder Junction (near the Hoover Dam) on Sept. 17, 1930. Work on the dam began in 1931. Dam workers were forced to stay in tents because Boulder City had not been completely built. That, combined with poor working conditions, led to a strike in 1931.  The strike was soon quelled, and by 1932 Boulder City was established. Launch slideshow »

Despite the pull of its gaming and glamour, this city is like many other major metropolises — a community that cares about its citizens, relishes its own distinct economic and social roles, and offers individuals the ability to fulfill and flourish within their own desires and dreams.

And the small railroad town that was formed a little more than 100 years ago didn't become “The Entertainment Capital of the World” on pure luck, either.

“I don’t think it’s luck at all, I think it was vision,” former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones said, of the most populous American metropolitan area founded in the 20th century.

“This is one of the last cities in the world where true entrepreneurial spirit can flourish,” Jones said. “The giant owners of these big destinations are visionaries. They’re competitive, they’re fearless, and they’re just as much gamblers as the guests they entertain.

“And that spirit, when harnessed in one location, has built a destination that’s unlike anywhere else in the world.”

The Meadows

Seven thousand to 12,000 years ago, emerald green grasses carpeted the Las Vegas Valley, where camels grazed and saber-toothed tigers stalked them. The attraction then was no mirage: The valley’s lush watering holes were formed when the last Ice Age glaciers melted.

Hunter-gatherers hunkering around springs gave way to Spanish explorers, guided by Paiutes and Utes in the 19th century. The explorers stopped to sip from the scarce springs in the high desert between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

The explorers promptly named these springs, surrounded by grasses, willows and cottonwoods, “Las Vegas,” Spanish for “The Meadows.”

In the mid-19th century members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as Mormons, made the first foray to farm in the Las Vegas Valley. Three years later the Mormon settlers abandoned their post in Las Vegas, but returned to build a community soon after Nevada was admitted as the 36th state in the Union in 1864.

The valley’s extreme weather provided a difficult challenge as heat scorched settlers in summer, while winter chilled pioneers to the bone. Depending on the season, blankets of snow or flash floods stopped trains and slowed progress.

The next wave of settlers rode trains to try their luck in Las Vegas, a convenient watering stop between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Sale of the century

In 1905, when Montana Sen. William Andrews Clark sold 600 lots in the middle of the dusty valley for $265,000, Las Vegas was born.

Businessman C.P. “Pop” Squires and his wife, Delphine Squires, traveling from Los Angeles, landed in what would become downtown Las Vegas in February 1905 anticipating the May land auction.

The couple rode on the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad Co. line, paying $13.65 each for the ride.

In an oral history recorded by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Squires recalled their approach to Las Vegas:

“ … with the vastness of the desert made glorious by the morning sun; the vivid glory of magnificent mountains enclosing the valley on all sides … the train bumped slowly along and at last came to a stop near an old passenger coach on a little spur, on which was nailed a piece of board on which was painted the magic name ‘Las Vegas.’ ”

The Squires stayed, building a house on Fourth Street. Pop was instrumental in persuading Congress to build a dam on the Colorado River. He kept the valley’s first weather records and edited local news in the Las Vegas Age.

The Squires, typical of early residents, braved dust, devilish heat and desolation. Adding to the fledgling city’s woes, in 1909 Nevada banned gambling.

But despite the ban, railroad workers continued to arrive in Las Vegas and in doing so kept hope alive for the town’s future. A further boon came when the fledgling community was incorporated as a city on March 16, 1911.

Called “the Matriarch of the Las Vegas Valley,” Helen J. Stewart proved her mettle as a rancher, businesswoman and matron of social and cultural affairs after arriving in 1879. When her husband, Archibald, was murdered at neighboring Kiel Ranch in an undocumented dispute, Stewart managed her own property with the help of local Paiutes Indians.

Stewart sold more than 1,800 acres of her ranch with water rights to Clark in 1902. Stewart, who became the first woman elected to the Clark County School Board, also sold 10 acres for a school and reservation for Paiutes — a colony that remains under Native American ownership to this day.

‘Eighth Wonder of the Modern World’

Hoover Dam - Construction

Boulder Dam's framework shown from the downstream side as its construction gets underway. The Hoover Dam project is awarded to Six Companies Inc. The chief executive of the company develops many of the techniques used to build the dam. Due to the furious pace the workers were subjected to, the project is finished two years ahead of schedule in 1935. Launch slideshow »

Despite those early visionaries, a lack of attractions in the way of resorts or casinos, few agricultural opportunities and harsh economic times nationwide affected growth until the federal government intervened in 1928.

Congress passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act on Dec. 21, 1928, placing the federal government and the nation behind the construction of today’s Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

As the nation’s financial woes turned into the Great Depression, more than 40,000 unemployed workers flocked to Las Vegas seeking one of the 5,000 jobs available at the Boulder Dam project, just 30 miles away.

At the same time that Las Vegas, then home to 8,500 residents, was billing itself as “The Gateway to Boulder Dam,” the Nevada Legislature passed drastic legislation in 1931 that set up the birth of the fabled Las Vegas of today.

It was quite a year to remember as not only the marriage and divorce laws were relaxed across the Silver State, but the gambling ban was lifted. The Northern Club on Fremont Street became the first establishment to garner a gaming license.

The Pair-O-Dice Club also formed in 1931 on Highway 91, opening as the first nightclub on what would later become the famous Las Vegas Strip.

In September 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated Boulder Dam. The dam — which formed Lake Mead, the largest man-made U.S. lake — helped control Colorado River floods as well as delivered water to Southern California and Arizona farmers, and supplied drinking water for future urban empires and generated electricity across the Southwest.

“This is an engineering victory of the first order,” Roosevelt said in his dedication speech. “(It’s) another great achievement of American resourcefulness, American skill and determination.”

A decade of firsts

1940s

Benjamin Launch slideshow »

The 1940s brought big changes for Las Vegas, especially after federal and local authorities in Los Angeles began cracking down on illegal gambling circuits running booze, broads and betting. Many of these shaken gamblers and gangsters sought refuge in Nevada.

Two of those displaced gangsters, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, endured a hot, slow trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in a Cadillac, where Lansky saw Las Vegas as a future gambling magnet.

“The winners are those who control the game,” Lansky said. “All the rest are suckers.”

Although mobsters might have had one vision for Vegas, other entrepreneurs saw the city in a different light.

Thomas Hull, who was busy expanding his regional hotel chain from the Hollywood Roosevelt and other classics, decided to use some similar ideas in Las Vegas and built the El Rancho on Highway 91 in 1941. The Western-themed highway lodge became the first motel on the Strip.

Also in 1941 El Cortez Hotel became the first casino in downtown Las Vegas.

The U.S. Army created a gunnery school that same year that would become Nellis Air Force Base — home to the famous aerial demonstration squadron, the Thunderbirds.

In 1942, the Last Frontier became the second Strip resort.

Pianist and over-the-top entertainer Liberace made his Las Vegas debut in 1944.

By 1946 Nevada, seeing a cash cow in casinos, began levying gaming taxes as a supplemental source of state revenue.

Then on Dec. 26, 1946, the Flamingo Hotel, conceived by Hollywood reporter and gambler Billy Wilkerson and built with mob money raised by Siegel and friends, opened to underwhelming reviews.

The place was designed as the haute destination for high rollers, unlike the Old West theme pervading other Las Vegas casinos at the time. Siegel named the casino “The Flamingo” because the long legs of his showgirl honey, Virginia Hill, reminded him of the water birds. Heavy losses at its opening caused the Flamingo to close, reopening in March 1947. This time, like so many Las Vegas success stories to come, the joint turned a profit by the end of the month.

But when Siegel was murdered at his girlfriend Hill’s Beverly Hills mansion, a tsunami of publicity washed over Las Vegas. Americans began to see what Lansky and Siegel had out in the desert, that Las Vegas was an edgy, glamorous place to be.

Rail and road brought early visitors to Las Vegas, but Clark County saw the need for more. It purchased Alamo Airport in 1948, which would eventually become McCarran International Airport — now ranking annually around the five busiest airports in the U.S. and top 10 internationally. The airport was named after U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, who championed aviation development in the desolate desert valley.

Crooner Frank Sinatra and atomic bomb experiments arrived in Las Vegas during the same year: 1951; the singer in autumn at the Desert Inn, the nuclear weapons tests in January at the recently established Nevada Proving Grounds.

A-Bombs and a boom

Atomic Testing

The Priscilla nuclear bomb is detonated over Frenchman Flat on June 24, 1957.  The test was one of a series of controversial nuclear tests codenamed Operation Plumbbob.   The 37 kiloton bomb was detonated at 700 feet above the valley floor via hot air balloon. Operation Plumbbob sought to take advantage of the nuclear tests with training exercises, war games and lectures for military personnel on how the atom bomb would change the way wars would be fought, culminating in the actual explosions every 5 days during the late spring and summer of 1957. Launch slideshow »

At first the government denied that anything unusual had occurred in Nevada on Jan. 27, 1951. But the first nuclear explosion, code-named “Able,” certainly got people’s attention with its brilliant flash in the pre-dawn sky. Still officials maintained that nothing had happened at Indian Springs, an air base about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas. True — the blast actually exploded 30 miles farther north at the Nevada Test Site.

The atomic secret didn’t last long. There were 235 aboveground experiments conducted at the Test Site, roughly one every three weeks for the next 12 years. After President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed a treaty banning aboveground bombs, nuclear weapons went underground, although the total number of 928 experiments conducted in Nevada would not be revealed until the 1990s.

Nearly 100,000 men and women worked at the Nevada Test Site, which ranked second to mining as the state’s largest employer for many years.

On April 22, 1952, the government invited the media to the Test Site. Standing on News Nob, a location 10 miles away, Walter Cronkite, Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun and other print and TV reporters watched the giant mushroom clouds grow above Frenchman and Yucca Flats.

By 1954 Las Vegas drew more than 8 million visitors annually. Tourists dropped more than $200 million on the green-felt tables and into slots unaffectionately known as “one-armed bandits.”

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce promoted the atomic tests as a tourist attraction, offering postcards, atomic cocktails, atomic hairdos, atomic beauty pageants and real thrills and chills from seeing a bomb bursting in the desert skies.

By 1956 TV sets brought these atomic blasts as well as popular singers into America’s living rooms. Elvis Presley, billed as “The Atomic Powered Singer,” performed his first show in Las Vegas at the New Frontier’s Venus Room. At 21, he was a national sensation, but not the typical Las Vegas entertainer, and his first shows in Sin City suffered as a result. He would not return to a Las Vegas showroom until 1969.

An iconic stretch

While atomic testing provided Las Vegas with plenty of promotional material for its resorts, it also helped override the earlier negative spotlight cast by sensational congressional hearings.

Legalized gambling in Nevada became untouchable to federal control after Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee brought his Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce to town in late 1950. The committee heard testimony from a handful of witnesses and after less than a full day of inquiries, left Las Vegas, seeking bigger mobster fish to fry in Los Angeles and Chicago.

But there was more to Las Vegas than the glitz and glamour that the gaming palaces projected or the shady underbelly the mob could not conceal.

A community beyond the bright lights matured and the Nevada Board of Regents launched a land grant institution, and the Southern Division of the University of Nevada was founded in 1957 — today’s UNLV was born.

One of the champions of higher education was Maude Frazier. As a longtime Nevada education maven, Frazier won her second campaign for the state Assembly in 1950. She served 12 years, shepherding legislation that reorganized a fragmented state school system and attended to the need for a junior college in Southern Nevada.

But the growth as a city was hidden to most Las Vegas tourists. Built on gambling and cashing in on atomic tests, Las Vegas clung to its symbols. For instance, to try and attract steadier tourist traffic, the Las Vegas Convention Center opened its flying saucer-shaped convention hall a block from the Strip in April 1959.

Another major symbol came from Las Vegas resident Betty Willis who designed the most famous sign on the Las Vegas Strip in 1959. Clark County bought her “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” icon for $4,000. The county planted the sign on an island median at the southern tip of the Strip, where it still greets visitors to this day.

Equally, if not more symbolic, for Las Vegas than the shiny silver dome or Willis’ welcome sign was a group of men who simply went by the name of the Rat Pack.

The group, featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford captivated audiences at the Sands’ Copa Room. The unconventional act featured a mixture of politically incorrect comedy, world-class singing and dancing, and, of course, a little late-night carousing and a bit of booze.

By the end of the 1950s, Las Vegas — with the help of some of its most iconic casinos such as the Aladdin, Caesars Palace, Desert Inn, Dunes, Frontier, Flamingo Hacienda, Sahara, Sands, Stardust, and the Tropicana — had kicked its reputation up another notch.

An eccentric visionary

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes poses in front of the his record setting Northrop Gamma Monoplane in this 1930s photo. Hughes broke his first aviation record in the Gamma when he made the west-east American transcontinental run in 9 hours, 26 minutes, and 10 seconds. Launch slideshow »

A bashful billionaire arrived in Las Vegas under the cover of darkness on Thanksgiving weekend in 1966.

Howard Hughes, smuggled into the penthouse suite at the Desert Inn, eventually took over the top two floors of the resort. When management begged him to leave in time for the New Year’s Eve crowd, Hughes decided to buy the hotel.

“We weren’t gambling and we were tying up their best rooms — they were justified in trying to kick us out,” recalled longtime Hughes confidant and alter-ego Robert Maheu, in a 2004 interview with the Las Vegas Sun.

“I told him, ‘If you want to sleep there, you are going to have to buy the place.’ ”

So the DI became the first in a succession of Strip resorts that the engineer, filmmaker, pilot and business mogul bought over the next three years.

Hughes began sweeping mob influence out of Las Vegas hotels and casinos, paving the way for the Nevada Legislature to pass the Second Corporate Gaming Act, allowing corporations to own casinos.

When Hughes left Las Vegas on Thanksgiving 1970, the billionaire had become Nevada’s largest private employer, largest casino owner, largest property owner and largest mining claims owner.

“You could not find a person who could have accomplished so much so quickly,” Maheu said. “Las Vegas was in the doldrums and overall economy was not good.

“All of the elements were in place and Hughes had the money to do it — and no board of directors to answer to.”

While Hughes used his billions to live on the top floor of the Desert Inn, blacks struggled against segregation in Las Vegas.

Unrest over civil rights and the Vietnam War spilled into Las Vegas in the 1960s. Early demonstrations on the Strip were thwarted by a coalition of public and private community leaders. However, by the end of the decade tensions had come full circle and a riot erupted in October 1969. Although no one was killed in the nearly weeklong melee — mostly in West Las Vegas — more than 20 people were sent to hospitals and hundreds of police officers were required to restore order.

When Ruby Duncan, a champion of civil rights, arrived in Southern Nevada from Louisiana, she discovered the same prejudices at work in her new home that permeated the South.

But Duncan, who served as a delegate for Nevada at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, made major strides with race relations in the community, including the founding of Operation Life — a community-run organization to promote welfare reform.

The King

Entertainment tastes also changed. Solo Strip stars such as Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, George Burns, Tony Bennett and others were eclipsed by production extravaganzas, such as Siegfried & Roy, who debuted in Las Vegas at the Tropicana in 1967.

Elvis Presley returned to Las Vegas on July 26, 1969, at the new International Hotel, built by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, and triumphed this time. Elvis eventually signed a five-year contract for four weeks, twice a year, for the tidy sum of $125,000 per week.

Between 1969 and 1977, Elvis played Las Vegas exclusively at the International, which became the Las Vegas Hilton. Elvis played 837 shows in all — becoming Vegas’ biggest icon.

“The thing Elvis liked most about Las Vegas was the people — they are so friendly here,” said Elvis’ well-known manager, Col. Tom Parker, in a 1987 news conference at the Hilton.

“I think the thing he liked the most about performing here — and it was the thing I liked the most — was our check every week.”

Ushering in a new era

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Las Vegas faced some serious setbacks and distinct challenges.

The 1980s opened with a pair of hotel fires that forced Nevada to rewrite fire safety codes for high rises. In November 1980 the MGM Grand, now Bally’s, burst into flames, killing 87 people and injuring 700. Then in January 1981 the former International, now the Las Vegas Hilton, was the site of another deadly fire, which killed eight. The state’s safety code reforms led the nation.

A new Chicago mob generation took control of some Las Vegas casinos, led by Tony “The Ant” Spilotro. In 1974, the Los Angeles Times reported that in the three years Spilotro was in Las Vegas, more gangland-style murders had been committed here than in the past 25 years combined.

But Spilotro met his own demise in typical mob fashion, when he and his brother, Michael, ended up buried in an Indiana cornfield in 1986.

The mob’s highly publicized activities, coupled with increased crime and an economic slump hurt Las Vegas. Atlantic City, with its recently established gambling and large East Coast population to draw from, offered a real challenge to Southern Nevada.

But the Strip and the city rebounded nicely in the 1990s.

Steve Wynn launched the megaresort era when he built the Mirage in 1989, the first new resort on the Strip in 16 years. The largest casino in the world, twice the size of the old MGM Grand, became the model for which Las Vegas’ future was molded.

“I have been waiting four years going on 20 to say welcome to the Mirage,” said Wynn at the Nov. 22, 1989, opening of the resort. “We’ve been saying things like fantasy becomes reality. And in a sense, I guess you can say today fantasy becomes reality, really.”

A year later, UNLV proved it was for real on the national level when its towel-chomping coach, Jerry Tarkanian, and his up-tempo team of Runnin’ Rebels recorded a crushing defeat of powerhouse Duke for the 1990 NCAA basketball championship.

By 1993 it was back to the Strip and Kerkorian, who opened the largest hotel in the world, the MGM Grand, at busy Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. At the other end of the Strip, entrepreneur Bob Stupak opened the Stratosphere — which was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi at the time — in 1996.

Although nearly a dozen other major casinos popped up on the Strip in the 1990s, it was Wynn who again topped everyone in 1998 with the Bellagio, which opened as the world’s most expensive resort with a $1.7 billion price tag.

The Bellagio and similar properties like the Venetian (1999), and Wynn Las Vegas (2005) have helped the city draw more upscale visitors.

The 21st century ushered in a heightened sense of sophistication with multimillion-dollar nightclubs within resorts, posh off-Strip casinos, such as the Palms (2001), Green Valley Ranch (2001) and Red Rock Resort (2006), and high-rise towers such as the currently under-construction CityCenter (projected 2009), which will soon dominate the skyline.

At the same time as company mergers redefine the Strip, master-planned communities such as Green Valley, Summerlin, Lake Las Vegas and Aliante added another level of extravagant living away from the neon playground.

However, other parts of Las Vegas and the valley face a plethora of serious concerns.

Rampant growth to the tune of 5,000-plus newcomers each month, water usage combined with climate changes, crime, historic foreclosure rates and a possible recession have raised as many questions as answers about Las Vegas’ future.

But just like the people and pioneers that have defined this city from its prehistoric beginnings to the unparalleled present, Las Vegas continues to reinvent itself.

Even our good friend Elmer Sherwin — who must not have been completely satisfied with his earlier winnings, because in 2005 he became the only person in Megabucks history to hit the jackpot twice when he won $21.1 million at the Cannery in North Las Vegas — got back in on the fun.

“I’m glad I finally hit; I’ve been trying to do it again,” said the then 92-year-old Sherwin — who promised he’ll try for a three-peat.

Most everyone else in Las Vegas would probably settle for a one-time date with fate.

Sun reporter Ed Koch contributed to this story.

History: Table of contents »