Explore the History of Las Vegas Casinos | LeoVegas

Las Vegas Casinos History

Las Vegas might just be the most famous city in the world for casino gaming. While it certainly has a lot of competition for prestige and revenue from places like Monte Carlo and Macao, Sin City has put a lot of work into creating its global image.

Now, Las Vegas casinos are the most famous in the world. The city has cultivated and upholds its persona as the entertainment capital of the United States. It has essentially become the brand for casino gaming, which is why the likes of Vegas Gold, Vegas Ball Bonanza, and even Invading Vegas hold so much appeal.

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Greatly helped by the relative lack of commercial casino options across the rest of the US, Las Vegas has become the casino hub of the biggest entertainment market in the world, now boasting over 60 full-fledged major casinos. Still, Sin City wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for that first casino on Fremont Street in an old railroad town.

Early Beginnings: Pre-1940s

To uncover the beginnings of Las Vegas, we must delve back to a time before it was even a place for society. That sends us back to the days of railroads being established on the West Coast at the start of the 20th Century.

The Legalization of Gambling in Nevada

Nevada had been a state since 1859, joining the Union in 1864. In May 1905, Las Vegas was first founded. The 110-acre lot of land was sold by a railroad company to become a railroad town. At the time, hotel and casino venues weren’t outlawed. That changed in 1909, though, when gambling was banned until 1931.

It was in 1931 that the foundations of the modern-day Sin City were laid. The Assembly Bill 98 legalized two of Las Vegas’ most famed selling points: divorce and gambling. Powering this attempt to recover from the Great Depression was the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border in 1931.

First Casinos on Fremont Street

As all towns do, Las Vegas began with a couple of streets to service those who’d come to work on the railroads. One of those streets was Fremont Street, and at 1 Fremont Street, the first hotel-casino opened its doors in 1906. The Golden Gate Hotel and Casino was the original Las Vegas casino.

Notable Figures in the Early Casino Industry

The most notable figure in the earliest of the Las Vegas casino industry days was the owner of the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino. Opened by John F. Miller in 1906, it was originally called Hotel Nevada, which operated a casino within its walls. After the gambling ban was lifted in 1931, the name was changed to Sal Sagev, and then the casino building was renamed to Golden Gate in 1955.

The Golden Age: 1940s to 1960s

In 1931, the ingredients for modern-day Sin City were sprinkled across Nevada. Over the next couple of decades, Las Vegas became a true gambling town thanks to its liberal laws and an influx of workers.

The Rise of The Strip: Introduction of Iconic Casinos

When work began on the Hoover Dam, which was originally the Boulder Dam, Las Vegas saw its population multiply five-fold, from 5,000 to 25,000. To capitalize on this, several people with business interests set up new entertainment venues to appease the mostly male workforce.

This led to several showgirl theatres popping up, as well as a surge of casino houses. While what is now Golden Gate was the first casino on Fremont Street, Northern Club was the first to get a new gambling license in 1931 and was joined by Hotel Apache and Las Vegas Club.

The Strip, as we know it today, wasn’t a part of Las Vegas initially. The city was seeing so much tax revenue escape its clutches for years after El Rancho Vegas started the fad of building there in 1941. When the Mafia moved there in 1946, The Strip became cemented as the go-to location to build an entertainment venue in Las Vegas.

Mafia Influence and Organized Crime

Las Vegas wasn’t exactly devoid of gambling while it was outlawed. In fact, by the time it was legalized, there was already a well-established underground gambling scene part-run by Mafia crime lords.

Knowing the potential of full-fledged gambling operations, and being flush with cash already, the Mafia leapt at the opportunity to run gambling businesses that were legal, on the face of it. By 1941, there were 24 casinos, surging to over 90 by 1955.

Before Prohibition ended in 1933, alcohol was served at these venues, courtesy of the Mafia’s connections in organized crime. The first big move was made by Bugsy Siegel of the Jewish Mafia. He helped to fund and then took over The Flamingo in 1946.

The Rat Pack Era: Entertainment and Casinos

Entertainment was the name of the game in Las Vegas. With so many venues competing with each other, owners were forced to look for new ways to bring in the crowds. One way was to commit to desegregation; another was to welcome world-class entertainers.

In the case of the Rat Pack, the two may have gone hand in hand. The Rat Pack ran from the late 1940s into the 1960s, starring Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, and Nat King Cole, and later, Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and Joey Bishop.

This mega-group would put on shows at the casinos of Las Vegas, greatly raising the profiles of those they visited. Apparently, Sinatra even refused to perform at one casino because it wouldn’t give Davis Jr. his own room during the days of segregation.

Technological Advancements in Casino Gaming

While the one-armed bandits and classic slot machines were beloved across Las Vegas, they became even more popular in the 1960s. This is when electronic slot machines first broke through. They couldn’t be manipulated by players but were capable of offering bigger and better payouts.

Evolution of Themes and Architecture: 1970s to 1990s

With Las Vegas firmly established as the entertainment capital of the US and competition being fierce, incoming and established moneymen were eager to stand out. Given the money being made, any risk would have seemed worthwhile.

Emergence of Themed Resorts

By the 1970s, the impact of the Mafia skimming cash from their operations was felt, as was the effect of the recession from 1973 to 1975. To revitalize Las Vegas in the face of this downturn and Atlantic City gunning for equal fame in 1978, Steve Wynn designed a colossal, absurdly lavish casino with a Pacific Ocean theme, The Mirage, which cost $630 million and opened in 1989.

Architectural Marvels: The Transformation of The Strip’s Skyline

The Mirage pioneered the new format of megaresorts in Las Vegas. What followed was a slew of new, massive casinos. Many of them were developed by Wynn, including Treasure Island. Others that followed over the next decade completely changed the skyline of The Strip, including the Bellagio, Venetian, Rio, Stratosphere Tower, MGM Grand, Luxor, and Mandalay Bay.

Impact of Corporate Ownership on Casino Culture

Corporations wanted to appeal to as many people as possible. So, naturally, the raunchy, hard-gambling, whiskey and smoking lounges of the Golden Age were pushed to the sidelines. It made for a much more accessible and family-friendly casino culture in which anyone with some spare cash could play and enjoy a sense of luxury.

Challenges and Reinventions: 2000s to Present

As with the rest of the world, Las Vegas had to adapt to the American subprime mortgage crisis that plunged the world into a financial crisis in the late 2000s.

Economic Downturns and Resilience of Las Vegas Casinos

While several economies and industries struggled to bounce back from the recession, Las Vegas recovered remarkably quickly. Housing and tourism were up by 2013, and during the recession, Encore, Palazzo, CityCenter, and The Cosmopolitan all opened in Sin City.

Digital Era: Online Gambling and its Impact

Nevada has long embraced online gambling, and now, those in the state can play real-money online poker and bet with registered sportsbooks. However, online casino gaming still isn’t permitted. This is likely to drive residents and tourists towards the gambling tables that are crucial to the local economy. That said, most estimate that the rise of online gambling across the world hasn’t significantly hindered Sin City’s revenues or its global appeal as a tourist hotspot.

Sustainability Efforts in Modern Casinos

In the 2010s, Las Vegas - a city lit up like a Christmas tree every night – decided that it might be a good idea to incorporate some green and sustainability efforts. Neon lights have been replaced by LEDs, Caesars Palace repurposes old soap into new soap, and some send all of their waste to Renu Oil to sort recyclable materials from the rest. Republic Services also facilitates recycling operations in the Bellagio and MGM Grand.

Iconic Casinos and their Legacies

The Las Vegas skyline is epitomized by its collection of iconic casinos, each with their own unique and grandiose designs with grand beaming lights and plaza features.

The Mirage: Birth of the Megaresort Concept

The Mirage is the progenitor of the massively popular megaresort concept that now personifies Las Vegas and locations like Macao – which Sin City greatly helped to build. Developed by Steve Wynn, the 1989-opened hotel-casino resort on The Strip spurred a new trend for the city. While being a colossus resort was a major selling point, so too was its array of additional attractions, which initially included an artificial volcano, an indoor tropical forest, and even a kind of mini zoo housing dolphins and tigers. Quite frankly, it was insane, but now it’s normalized.

Bellagio: Fusion of Elegance and Entertainment

Opened in 1998, the Bellagio is another Steve Wynn brainchild. Themed on Italy’s Lake Como, it began with over 3,000 rooms, but another 33-story tower was added in 2004. Within its walls, you can see the Gallery of Fine Art, stroll through botanical gardens, and see the epic 8.5-acre Fountains of Bellagio. While elegance is a big part of the Bellagio’s appeal, so too is its reputation for attracting global stars. This began with the hiring of Sandy Gallin, a famed talent manager, before welcoming the water show “O” by Cirque du Soleil.

Caesars Palace: Symbol of Luxury and Grandeur

Caesars Palace has been a staple of The Strip since 1966, and while it wasn’t the first megaresort, it certainly became one of the most famous. With its Roman Empire theme, the focus was always on luxury rooms, luxury dining, and, of course, luxury casino gaming. As their competitors were building bigger and better venues, Caesars had to keep up. Renovations in 2001, 2005, 2011, 2015, and 2021 all expanded the venue. The Octavius Tower and the Augustus Tower were erected between 2005 and 2012, adding over 1,500 additional rooms.

Las Vegas Casinos History FAQs

Here are some quick-fire answers to a bunch of the most frequently asked questions on the history of Las Vegas casinos.

What is the oldest casino in Las Vegas?

While it hasn’t been in operation continuously since it first opened on January 13, 1906, the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino does stand as the oldest casino in Las Vegas. Between 1909 and 1931, casino gaming came to a halt, but it is old enough to be the first hotel to receive a telephone number in the city.

How did Las Vegas Casinos start?

Las Vegas itself started as a 110-acre plot of land sold by a railroad company in 1905. By 1906, Fremont Street had been founded, and on it, the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino. It wasn’t until 1931 and the Hoover Dam job that Fremont Street saw its casino boom to accommodate the colossal influx of workers.

What is the most famous casino in Las Vegas?

The most famous casino in Las Vegas almost certainly comes down to two candidates. On the one hand, Caesars Palace has incredible name recognition and is seen as one of the great gambling houses of Sin City. On the other hand, the Bellagio is arguably more iconic for its instantly recognizable design and fountains.

Which mobster built the first casino in Las Vegas?

Many cite Bugsy Siegel of the Jewish Mob as the first mobster to build a casino in Las Vegas, or at the very least, be the mobster who acted as the catalyst for what is now The Strip. He got the ball rolling by funding and then assuming control of the Flamingo Hotel, which opened on Boxing Day 1946.

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