Las Vegas attracts close to 40 million visitors each year who come to see its larger-than-life Casino resorts, world class entertainment, and unique attractions. Looking back, Las Vegas actually started out as a Native American oasis, and became an outpost in the Wild West before it transformed into a glittering gambling getaway. It’s difficult to imagine that this burgeoning metropolis sprung from the sands of the Nevada desert less 200 years ago.

Fremont St and 2nd Ave, Las Vegas in 1948

The Early Days of Vegas History

What’s in a Name?  - Today many refer to Las Vegas as The Entertainment Capital of the World or Sin City. However back in the 1800s, the city looked like a dry, dusty desert. Spanish for “The Meadows”, it received its name from merchants who used the spot as a watering post along a trade route between Mexico to Los Angeles. They came for the water, hidden underground in a network of artesian wells.

Recognize this place? Apparently a lot has changed since Las Vegas officially became a city in 1905. At the time, Fremont Street (pictured here) was the main road in the business district of Las Vegas.

The Golden Gate Casino opened its doors in 1906, becoming the city’s first and longest running gambling establishment. Located on Freemont Street, the hotel and casino was considered very luxurious with its large 10’x10’ rooms. The original building still stands today with well over $12 million spent on renovations and expansion.

Although gambling took place illegally in Las Vegas for years, it became officially legal in March 1931.

Organized Crime in Las Vegas History

No factor has contributed more to the development of Sin City than organized crime. Mobsters, who made their money bootlegging spirits during the Prohibition Era, later took their money to Vegas. Some of the most infamous and feared gangsters at the time such as Meyer Lansky,  Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Frank Costello  played a large part in the original development of the Las Vegas Strip. They constructed elaborate casinos and hotels, which began the tradition of building large-scale “Vegas-style” resorts. Over the next two decades in the history of Las Vegas, almost every casino had connections to organized crime.

Fans of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire will recognize Meyer Lansky played by Anatol Yusef as the underboss of New York’s Arnold Rothstein.

Chicago Mobster, Bugsy Siegel made big bucks smuggling alcohol during the Prohibition Era in the 1920s. He also played a major role in the early development of Las Vegas. He named his casino, The Flamingo, after the long legs of his showgirl girlfriend. On June 20, 1947, three months after the completion of the casino, Siegel was gunned down at his girlfriends’ home.

Mobster Bugsy Siegel founded The Flamingo Casino in Las Vegas.

From the 1970s to the early 1980s, Las Vegas saw a resurgence of mob activity, which many may know from Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film, Casino. The movie starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci portrays a Chicago based crime organization that ran the Stardust, Fremont, and Hacienda Casinos in Las Vegas. The criminal organization later faced criminal investigations by the FBI for murder, embezzlement, and skimming (fraud). Since then, Las Vegas authorities have restored Vegas as a family friendly destination, and very little organized crime persists in the city today.

Today, Las Vegas showcases its historical ties to organized crime at the Mob Museum.

In Casino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci portray a pair of mobsters who ran the Stardust, Fremont, and Hacienda Casinos in Las Vegas from the 1970s to the early 1980s.

World Class Entertainment

Entertainment, as well as gambling, encouraged Vegas’ reputation as the world’s play land getaway. They don’t call it the Entertainment Capital of the World for nothing. As far back as the 1940s, tourists flocked to experience the top things to do in Vegas, such as the fantastic amusements including famous singers, comedians, magicians, strippers, dancers, and acrobats.

The Kings of Cool - The Rat Pack, led by Frank Sinatra included fellow performers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford (a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy). The kings of cool made frequent joint stage appearances in Las Vegas. Sinatra: Vegas showcases a box set collection of Sinatra’s performances in Vegas at the Sands Casino and at Caesars Palace between 1961 through the 1980s. In addition, Las Vegas honored Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra following their deaths by dimming the lights of the Strip. The city later named a street Dean Martin Drive to memorialize the performer.

"Las Vegas is the only place I know where money really talks - It says, Goodbye." -Frank Sinatra from The Joker Is Wild

Frank Sinatra playing Baccarat at the Sands Casino. Occasionally, fellow Rat-Packer, Dean Martin would jump behind the tables and deal.

The Rat Pack’s Sammy Davis Jr. headlined at the Las Vegas Frontier Casino during the 1950s. At the time, the casinos were segregated and, like all other black performers, didn’t allow Davis to stay in the city’s hotels. They also didn’t provide him with a dressing room and required him to wait outside by the pool between acts. Davis later refused to work in establishments with racial segregation.  Many credit the Rat Pack for a large part of the desegregation of Las Vegas which occurred in 1960. The Moulin Rouge opened in May 1955 and became the first integrated casino to allow both blacks and whites.

The Rat Pack at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas in 1960. Who wouldn’t want a ticket to that show?

"Man, I really like Vegas." - Elvis Presley

The King... of Vegas - Surely no performer has become more synonymous with Las Vegas than Elvis Presley. “The King” represents an important figure in the history of Las Vegas. He performed in Sin City regularly for seven years, selling out 837 consecutive shows in front of 2.5 million people.

Throughout the course of his 800-plus performances in Vegas, ticket sales sold over $43.7 million (which equals $255 million in today’s dollars). In fact, while Elvis was in town, 1 out of 2 tourists went to see him perform. His legacy still remains a part of Las Vegas, with thousands of Elvis impersonators and tribute shows still common throughout the city. In 1969, Elvis Presley opened at the International Hotel, now the Las Vegas Hilton. After the opening, ticket sales brought in an astounding $1.5 million in a short 29 day period.

Learn more about Live Music at Casinos.

The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos . . .but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space.

– Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Opening night at Circus Circus in 1968.

Las Vegas casino owners began luring customers to their gambling establishments by offering all kinds of amusements. The Circus Circus opened as an attraction on October 16, 1968, and featured the world’s largest circus big top. Throughout the 1970s to the 1990s, the casino expanded by thousands of square feet to include banquet halls, swimming pools, and city’s first theme park. Find out more about what actually happens in Sin City with our Vegas for Dummies – A Visitor’s Guide to Vegas.

Las Vegas Casino resorts also started offering standup comedy as one of the top things to do in Vegas. Before devoting his career to film, Woody Allen often performed comedy routines at Caesars Palace Casino in throughout the 60s and 70s.



Sin City has undergone quite a transformation since its humble beginnings as a desert outpost. Today the city attracts millions of tourists worldwide to its lavish casino resorts and hotels.

Need help planning an upcoming Vacation to Vegas? Read our Las Vegas Must Do List.