Las Vegas : An Oasis

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The railroad came to Las Vegas in 1902, when, for fifty-five thousand dollars, the copper-rich railroad magnate Sen. William A. Clark bought the land surrounding the springs from the widow of a cattle rancher who had tried to settle there. Three years later the road was completed, and on April 15, 1905, the first excursion train—with Las Vegas’s first conventioneers, the Woodmen of the World, aboard—came to town on the new tracks. There wasn’t much there then, just some tent buildings railroad employees had built, but renewed interest in the mining of land claims south of town brought more settlers, and by 1911 Las Vegas had a population of fifteen hundred and was incorporated as a city.

The railroad depot at the head of Fremont Street was the hub of Las Vegas’s social and economic life until the late 1930s, and though it was torn down in 1940 to make room for the Union Plaza Hotel, some of the town’s first buildings are still standing nearby. There is the sullen Victory Hotel, built in 1910, crouching in the shadows of the ornate Golden Nugget on North Main Street; the railroad’s giant ice plant, erected in 1908; and one of the first plush casinos, built in 1931, now sheathed in neon as Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and Gambling Hall. Hard by downtown, Las Vegas High School is worth the short walk to South Seventh Street. Its beautiful Art Deco facade, elaborately detailed with carvings of local flora and fauna, greets students as cheerfully as it did on opening day in 1931. Walking across the school grounds, between palm trees and over a lush carpet of grass, you feel very far from the giant casinos of Las Vegas’s Strip.

The casinos are Las Vegas’s lifeblood. Gambling—legal in most Western states during the nineteenth century—was outlawed in Nevada in 1915 as a result of progressive reforms back East, but most people in this sparsely settled state flouted the law openly. A decline in mining during the Great Depression led local leaders to reconsider the ban on gaming; in 1931 open gambling and easy divorce laws were legislated to increase revenue for the state. Since then Las Vegas has grown exponentially at the hands of casino owners and their dependable customers. First came workers from the Hoover Dam (a thirty-minute drive southeast of town and well worth a visit for its stunning view, its engineering, and its magnificent Art Deco design) and, later, tourists and dissatisfied spouses from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931 to increase revenue for the state. Today the casinos are Las Vegas’s lifeblood.

Bugsy Siegel, the gangster and casino owner, is the developer we remember most. A Capone syndicate boss, Siegel came to Las Vegas in the late 1930s and saw a potential gold mine in the book operations that casinos used to take bets on horse races in Florida, New York, and California. Offering his syndicate’s race-reporting Continental Wire Service to the bookies at a lower price than any of the existing services, Siegel cornered the market. Then, in 1942, having eliminated the competition, Siegel abruptly raised the prices and demanded a profit share from each book. Without another source for race results, and frightened by Siegel’s connections to Capone, the casinos capitulated.

With the profits, Siegel started his own casino. The ambitious Flamingo Hotel was finished in 1946. Situated on a strip of land along the Los Angeles Highway and designed to be an elegant resort rather than a faux Western gambling hall, the Flamingo forever moved the focus of Las Vegas away from downtown. It also ensured the success of gambling as the town’s major industry. Freed from the confines of their Western heritage, European-style casinos and resorts flourished in the years after 1946. Siegel was shot in a gangland execution in 1947, but his legacy lives on in the gaudy formalism of casinos like Caesars Palace and the Sands.

On my final night in Las Vegas I stood on the roof of my hotel’s parking garage to watch the sun set over Mount Potosi. The soft breeze was dry and hot as an electric blanket while the desert—ruddy and magical to the north, gray and rock-strewn to the south—conspired to give me a sense of being safe in the last remaining city on earth. It must have seemed like that to Armijo, too, for he took strength enough from Las Vegas to finish his difficult journey successfully. I thought of him then, an explorer in the morning of our nation’s history, lounging on the grass by the trickling springs, watching the sunset from an oasis in the midst of a harsh and unforgiving desert.

—Samuel Sifton TO PLAN A TRIP