Las Vegas history: from marshland to mega resorts

Las Vegas history
Posted on: February 24, 2023 04:22 PST

Viva Las Vegas! Sin City needs little introduction, as it’s one of America’s best-known gambling and poker destinations. With more than 41 million annual visitors, Las Vegas today is still one of the most visited cities in the US. 

But what’s the story of Las Vegas? How did a desert water stop become one of the planet's most prominent, brightest, and most expensive destinations? Here, we run through the history of Las Vegas and explain some of the most significant events in the city’s history.

Early history of Las Vegas 

Las Vegas was incorporated as a city in 1905, but the land on which the famous “Sin City” sits has an intriguing back story.

Before human settlement, the Las Vegas valley was a marshland with abundant water and vegetation. However, during an undefined historical period, the water that once flowed through the valley went underground, with only a tiny amount of it being channelled into what is now the Colorado River. 

The earliest humans known to have resided in Las Vegas were the Native Americans, who moved into the Las Vegas valley at least 10,000 years ago. The Southern Paiute people then populated this part of Nevada around 700 AD, settling near the oasis of Big Springs. 

As with many Native American settlements, the Paiute people lived in the Las Vegas valley undisrupted for generations. However, things changed quickly when the Spanish sought to create a colonial trade route through what is now the state of Nevada.

Colonisers decided that the valley would be the best location for a trade route into California, naming the area “Las Vegas,” meaning “The Meadows” or “Fertile Plains.”

John C. Fremont – US Senator for California – was responsible for establishing a fort in the Las Vegas valley in preparation for war with Mexico in May 1844. Following the Meixcan-American War (1846-1848), America took the Las Vegas valley from the defeated Mexicans, which was now part of their territory.

The fort built by Fremont became the focal point of the newly established trade routes, as it provided safety for passing travellers.

It wasn’t until 1905, some 40 years after the end of the American civil war, that Las Vegas, Nevada, became an official city. Few could have anticipated the meteoric rise that was to come.

The rise of Las Vegas

In its early days, Vegas was merely a water stop for wagon trains on the trail between Los Angeles and Albuquerque. Still, with the completion of the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake railroad, Las Vegas saw a significant increase in its population in a short time.

Subsequently, the city of Las Vegas was incorporated in May 1905, when 110 acres (in today’s downtown area) were auctioned off to various buyers. The establishment of Clark County followed in 1909, and Las Vegas was a fledgling, yet fully functioning city, by 1910.

Interestingly, Nevada became the final western state to outlaw gambling (1910), which remained in place until March 19, 1931.

Las Vegas between the wars mimicked much of America – periods of prosperity followed by years of economic hardship, particularly following the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

However, the commissioning of the Boulder Dam (later Hoover Dam) in 1930 significantly impacted the population of Las Vegas, swelling the city’s inhabitants from just 5,000 to 25,000 in a matter of months.

As most of the new settlers in Las Vegas were single males involved in construction, reputable business owners and crime bosses saw an opportunity for mass public entertainment – showgirls, liquor, and gambling, which included poker games.

As a result, the Nevada State Legislature legalised local gambling in the state in 1931, and the Northern Club became the very first casino in Las Vegas. 

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Las Vegas was growing, and Thomas Hull opened El Rancho Vegas in 1941 – the first hotel on the famed Las Vegas strip. This paved the way for the post-war Vegas boom, in which Mafia bosses, not legitimate businessmen, sought to profit from Sin City's creation.

Modernisation of Las Vegas

The post-war boom of Las Vegas can be attributed mainly to the major crime figures of the day. When notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel – alongside Meyer Lansky – opened The Flamingo, they showed other crime bosses what was possible in Sin City. 

In the 1950s and beyond, gangsters moved into Las Vegas in their droves, with the likes of Wilbur Clark (Monte Carlo), Moe Dalitz (Stardust Resort), and Lefty Rosenthal (Fremont & Hacienda) all making names for themselves in the casino business. 

By 1954, more than eight million people visited Las Vegas yearly, spending more than $200 million on Nevada’s burgeoning casinos. Of course, people came to the desert to play poker and to gamble, but they were also entertained by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bing Crosby, such was the popularity of the Vegas entertainment scene.

It’s fair to say that the modernisation of Las Vegas began in the 1960s, with policies of desegregation and improved local governance helping the city enhance its image and attract a wider pool of investors. The installation of air conditioning also significantly improved the gambling experience in Vegas, given that the temperatures often exceeded 100F. 

Sin City was booming by the 1970s and 1980s, and the city saw year-on-year growth until the early 2000s. With the RICO cases of the 1980s bringing down many of the significant mobsters involved in Vegas casinos, the landscape changed somewhat in the 1990s with the birth of the mega-resort and significant Wall Street investment.

Las Vegas today 

Today, Las Vegas is a city of mega-resorts. Replacing mob-owned hotels and casinos, wealthy conglomerates and developers own the mega-resorts of today. The Rio and Excalibur were built in 1990, followed by MGM Grand, Treasure Island, and Luxor in 1993. 

The Bellagio was built in 1998, with Mandalay Bay, the Venetian, and Paris opening before the new millennium. These mega resorts attract millions of tourists worldwide each year, seeking an unrivalled gambling experience and reducing some of the negative press that Vegas rightfully received during the mob years.

More than 41 million people visit Clark County every year to gamble and play poker on the Las Vegas strip, and Las Vegas is now home to more than half of the 20 largest hotels in the world. You can gamble at 150 casinos in Vegas and stay in one of 150,000 hotel/motel rooms in the Las Vegas area.

As a result of the extraordinary pull of Las Vegas, McCarran International Airport is the seventh busiest airport in the United States, welcoming holidaymakers from all around the world.

Vegas remains the world’s gambling capital and is the best place to play poker, table games, and slots. 


The history of Las Vegas is fascinating, and the area in which Sin City sits today has come a long way since the Native Americans first settled there more than 10,000 years ago. 

If you’re planning a trip to Sin City, check out our recent article introducing the ten best poker rooms in Las Vegas so you can grab a seat at the hottest poker venues in town.

Feature image: Jean Beaufort under Creative Commons.