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Las Vegas History

Known worldwide as a hotspot for entertainment, resorts, nightlife, and gambling, the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, began as an idyllic, almost pastoral greenscape in the Las Vegas Valley. The name "Las Vegas" itself translates to "The Meadows," and was named such by Spaniards traveling through the region in the early 19th century. They were drawn to the valley's natural artesian wells and subsequent greens and meadows, and stopped frequently in the area to rest while trekking northwest through desert land from what is now Texas.

At that time, the Las Vegas Valley was Mexico's territory, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took note of the region with an observatory expedition in 1844. Four years later, in 1848, the United States annexed the land from Mexico as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Even so, it would be another six years until any development took place where the City of Las Vegas now stands.

That first development was a fort built by members of the Mormon Church. In 1855, Brigham Young sent a group of missionaries to work with the Paiute Indian population living there. The fort itself was built as a stopover for missionaries and other religious folk traveling from Salt Lake City to visit the then-thriving Mormon population in San Bernardino or pick up supplies in Los Angeles.

Although these settlers thrived by diverting a nearby creek to farm surrounding land, the Mormon fort was abandoned just two years after its construction due to a hard, hot summer and a falling-out between two community leaders. A portion of the original adobe fort still stands today, and its location in downtown Las Vegas, and the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue, has been converted into a state historic park and visitors' center.

In 1864, Nevada became a state, and a settler named Octavious Gass sought to cash in on the increase of travelers and commerce heading in and out of nearby mining towns. He purchased the area around the old fort and developed it into a fully-operational ranch that boasted its own blacksmith shop and general store. Helen Stewart took over the ranch in 1881, and over the next few years, mining continued to increase. But with the State Land Act of 1885 offering acres for $1.25 apiece, agriculture dominated the region for the remainder of the 19th century.

In 1902, Ms. Stewart made a sale that would set the wheels spinning toward the Las Vegas we know today. She sold her ranch, both land and water, to the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad. When construction of the rail lines into the valley was completed in May of 1905, the Railroad put 110 acres of land up for auction. With that auction, the verdant desert oasis became a railroad town, Las Vegas, which some would one day call "the entertainment capital of the world."

Las Vegas had a population of just over 5,000 when construction began on the Hoover Dam in 1931. The project, located on the Colorado River just 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, brought considerable economic and population growth to the city during the five years it took to complete.

With the Hoover Dam fresh in Americans' minds, Las Vegas was quickly identified as a convenient and economic location for industrial production at the onset of World War II. Nellis Air Force Base was constructed on Las Vegas' northeast side, and large amounts of magnesium were found to the southeast. Because magnesium was considered the "miracle metal" of World War II, the Basic Magnesium Plant was built on that site, and Henderson township emerged. Incorporated in 1953, Henderson, Nevada, continued to thrive as a highly-livable city in which residents could live peacefully but still benefit from the urban assets of nearby Las Vegas.

Las Vegas, too, came into its own with the attention and growth it experienced during the war as sophisticated hotels sprang up to accommodate visiting military and industry higher-ups. These decadent hotels, paired with the fact that Nevada had legalized gambling in the 1930's, earned Las Vegas a reputation as a lavish resort city. Though industry stayed around after the war, entertainment and tourism quickly surpassed it as Las Vegas' primary source of economic growth and employment.

Las Vegas' tourist attractions grew steadily over the next several decades, and the city was a frequent pioneer of social progress, taboo and entertainment, including a racially integrated hotel in 1955, topless showgirls in 1957, and the country's most sought-after entertainers, all of which proved wildly popular in Las Vegas' decadent environment. The 1960's and 1970's saw considerable corporate investment in these hotels and casinos, and gambling in Las Vegas soon became an industry in itself, a phenomenon unprecedented in its magnitude and popularity.

By the 1980's, Las Vegas' population was increasing more quickly than ever, literally doubling between 1985 and 1995. Most notable in the city's expansion was the 1989 opening of The Mirage, Las Vegas' first "Megaresort," in the area now known as the Las Vegas Strip. Up until this point, new projects and tourism were almost completely located downtown. But The Mirage started a wave of new development along the Strip, which is now the city's hub of casino- and resort-based tourism.

In the past decade, the city of Las Vegas has made a concerted, and considerably successful, effort to redevelop the downtown to attract residents and tourists alike to the area from which the city began. Projects include new retail space, high-rise condominiums, green space, trade show facilities, and re-zoned restaurant and entertainment areas. Having just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005, Las Vegas has turned an oasis of artesian springs and verdant growth into one of modern entertainment, culture and luxury.

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