A Brief History Of Las Vegas: The Pre-Mob Years To The Old Vegas Casinos

November 10, 2021

By Deepti Govind

It’s a story that everyone in today’s legitimate U.S. casino industry knows. But some stories never grow old, no matter how many times you revisit them. So, in today’s feature, we introduce you to a timeless tale: Of powerful characters, money, intrigue, violent crime, the building of a city, and the birth of a form of entertainment that would one day draw millions upon millions from all over the world. It’s how a desert town that was originally built as a railroad town evolved into the casino capital of the world, with serious early patronage from a decisively murky crowd: The Vegas mob.

This will be the first in a mini series Biometrica plans to do on the history of Las Vegas, its undeniable shaping by organized crime groups, key events tied to the mob, and what the city has developed into today.

The modern history of Las Vegas can be traced back to the early 1900s. It was in 1905 that the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad arrived in Las Vegas, connecting the city with the Pacific and the country’s main rail networks, per History.com. According to LasVegasNevada.gov, it was founded as a city on May 15, 1905, when 110 acres of land were auctioned off by the railroad company. The availability of water made Las Vegas an ideal refueling point and rest stop.

Las Vegas was officially incorporated on June 1, 1911. According to the government website, when voters in the unincorporated township of Las Vegas went to the polls to vote on the issue of incorporation, 168 were in favor of it but 57 opposed it. It was in the 1910s and the 1920s that the city, though newly incorporated, was perceived as an “open city.” That perception proved to be one of the aspects that drew the mob to it.

Per reports across sources, one of the major factors that contributed to this image of Las Vegas was the fact that from the early 1900s on, as a state, Nevada was known to be a place where unhappy couples could come to get a quick divorce. In 1931, divorce laws were liberalized in the state by allowing people to come to the state and obtain one after just six weeks of residency. These short-term residents stayed at “dude ranches,” which were working ranches taking in paying guests to help make ends meet, the government website says. Las Vegas is said to have added another aspect to it by also embracing the concept of quick marriages that didn’t involve waiting periods.

The other crucial aspect was that gambling in Nevada far predates even the creation of the state itself. Prospectors searching for gold in the Sierra Nevada brought their games of chance with them when looking to strike it rich, according to an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Five years after Nevada became a state in 1864, the Legislature decriminalized gambling.

The Golden Gate Hotel & Casino says on its website that it was very first casino to be built in Las Vegas. Land for the construction of the casino was acquired in 1905, its website adds, making it the oldest one in the city. But, in 1909, all “games of chance” were banned by a legislation. So, the Golden Gate ceased operations and resumed gambling activities only after the state reinstated gambling in 1931.

Another event from the 1930s that had a big impact on the landscape of Vegas was the construction of the Boulder Dam, later renamed the Hoover Dam. It drew thousands of workers to a site just east of the city. Casinos and showgirl venues opened up on Fremont Street, the town’s sole paved road, to attract the project’s workers. When the dam was completed in 1936, cheap hydroelectricity powered the flashing signs of Fremont’s “Glitter Gulch.”

Then, in 1941, El Cortez opened. It is the oldest continuously existing casino in the city, according to some. And like a lot of the old Vegas casinos, it ended up being owned by the mob. But before we go to the entry of the mob in the Vegas casino landscape, we pause to mention another crucial development: Also in 1941, El Rancho Vegas became the first themed casino, and opened on Highway 91 on what would later on become the Las Vegas Strip. Most casinos during this era were built around the regional or Old West themes that were popular on Fremont Street.

Ownership of the El Cortez casino, as we mentioned above, also ended up transferring into the hands of the mob. But, one of the biggest entries by the mob into the casino landscape came in 1946 with the opening of the Flamingo. And that’s where Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel comes in. The Flamingo was originally called The Fabulous Flamingo, and opened its doors on Dec. 26, 1946. It was the third establishment to come up on the Strip and allegedly the first resort-style hotel there. What made it different was that the Flamingo was a swank resort that took its cues from Hollywood, with top talent and celebrities attending its Christmas Day opening.

Apparently, Bugsy Siegel and his partners took over the final phases of construction of the Flamingo and invested a significant amount of money to open the hotel and casino. It was Bugsy Siegel’s vision that is widely viewed as the beginning of the mob’s 50-year relationship with Las Vegas and organized crime that helped define the city, per Las Vegas Review-Journal. There’s no shame in acknowledging that the mafia developed Las Vegas, former state archivist Guy Rocha is quoted as saying in the Las Vegas Review-Journal article.

Siegel’s partners in financing the casino included a hit man and trusted associate of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who organized the Mafia from New York into a national crime syndicate, with the help of the mob’s money man, Meyer Lansky. Siegel was murdered in 1947. Historians believe the flamboyant Siegel may have been killed because he was stealing money from the casino operations, the Las Vegas Review-Journal article says. “Journalistic photos of his bloodied, bullet-riddled body lying in the Beverly Hills home are a stark reminder of what can happen when the mob is crossed,” the article adds. Despite Siegel’s death, his vision for Las Vegas didn’t just live on, it probably surpassed even his expectations to become today’s legitimate billion dollar industry.

Siegel’s contribution to the world of casinos was only the beginning of the mob’s connection to Las Vegas. There are several other aspects of the mob’s impact on the city, and what later became an all-legitimate industry, which we will explore in the next part of this mini series.