Contrary to Hollywood legend, there was much more at the dusty crossroads than a gambling parlor and some tumbleweeds the day mobster Ben ‘Bugsy’ Siegel rolled in and erected a glamorous tropical-themed casino, the Flamingo, under the searing sun.
Speared into the modern era by the completion of a railroad that linked up Salt Lake City to Los Angeles in 1902, Las Vegas boomed in the 1920s thanks to federally sponsored construction projects. The legalization of gambling in 1931 then carried Vegas through the Great Depression. WWII brought a huge air-force base and big aerospace bucks, plus a paved highway to Los Angeles. Soon after, the Cold War justified the Nevada Test Site. It proved to be a textbook case of ‘any publicity is good publicity’: monthly above-ground atomic blasts shattered casino windows downtown, while the city’s official Miss Mushroom Cloud mascot promoted atomic everything in tourism campaigns.
A building spree sparked by the Flamingo in 1946 led to mob-backed tycoons upping the glitz ante at every turn. Big-name entertainers, like Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Sammy Davis Jr, arrived on stage at the same time as topless French showgirls.
The high-profile purchase of the Desert Inn in 1966 by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes gave the gambling industry a much-needed patina of legitimacy. The debut of the MGM Grand in 1993 signaled the dawn of the era of the corporate ‘megaresort.’
An oasis in the middle of a final frontier, Sin City continues to exist chiefly to satisfy the needs and desires of visitors. Hosting over 39 million a year, Las Vegas is the engine of North America’s fastest-growing metropolitan area and a fabled destination for countless people seeking their fortune.