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Las Vegas - Not Just Gambling

I am taking a short break from writing about port stops in order to talk about a land-based vacation that can be as short as 24 hours or as long as you like. I am speaking specifically about Las Vegas.

My first two trips to Las Vegas were some time ago and both were trips that were won. The first trip was won by a girlfriend who was the proud recipient of an all expense paid trip to Las Vegas for two, from Vancouver. My friend had just had a massive fight with her (then), boyfriend so when she won the three-day trip, she asked me to accompany her and I jumped at the chance for a free trip. She later reconciled with her boyfriend and I was willing to give up my spot for the sake of true love, but by then the airline tickets had been issued and I had to remain her “guest”. Despite the fact I was her second choice, we managed to have a great time and plenty of laughs.

A few years later, I played in a curling bonspiel wherein we won first place in a summer bonspiel and four tickets to Las Vegas. The trip was also fun and it was during that trip that I got an aerial view of the grand canyon when my friend Lynne and I booked ourselves onto a grand canyon aerial tour. Our little plane flew into the canyon and treated us to extraordinary views and spectacular scenery.

Since those initial two trips on my own, my husband and I have been to Las Vegas four times together and although we are not necessarily gamblers, we find that Las Vegas has a lot to offer in the form of entertainment. All price ranges are covered (free up to the very pricey).

Recently, for the first time ever, I went to Las Vegas with the sole purpose of examining it as a tourist destination and through the lens of a travel writer as opposed to a tourist on a mission of fun.

There is a lot of information to cover but I will break it down into the areas that would interest most people and address it in four blog entries.


Most people know that Las Vegas was a sleepy town that boomed when organized crime introduced gambling and high-end entertainment. Shows, booze and an anything goes party atmosphere, became synonymous with the city. But before the lights and party action, Las Vegas had an interesting history. Although many believe that Las Vegas had human occupants starting from the early 19th century when people from the east started to make the trek west, it actually has had human inhabitants for over 10,000 years. Traces of early human occupation indicate life in the area at a time long before the Paiute tribe set down roots. Although the Paiute tribe members were among the earliest recorded inhabitants, they were relatively late comers arriving around 700A.D. By the time the first European settlers arrived around 1821 (the time many people think as the start of human habitation in the area), the area had actually been continuously occupied for centuries.

The city itself was originally was built on a Spanish trail and basically failed to thrive. When the railroad came through, it started to grow but until the introduction of the soon to be ubiquitous casinos, the city was never a growing concern. Before I wander off from the topic of the railway, you should note that the moniker “Sin City” derived from the area of the city that allowed the sale of liquor to railroad workers and passengers and dates to around 1906. Although the name now refers to Las Vegas as a whole, it originally was restricted to blocks 16 and 17 of the old town.

So how did this quiet town in the middle of the desert come to be THE place to party and when did the casinos arrive? It might surprise you to learn that the Hotel Nevada, opened in 1906 and is the oldest casino in Las Vegas. Thanks to a name change in 1955, it is now known as the Golden Gate and is located on the older strip known as Freemont Street. This hotel allowed gambling and liquor sales and was part and parcel of the 1906 naughty section of Las Vegas. Although the gambling was in the limited form of card games it still rightfully earned and still holds the title of the oldest casino in Las Vegas. However, it did not always have gambling, so the El Cortez Hotel and Casino is considered to be the longest continuously running casino in Las Vegas.

To be fair, as the railway was built and expanded, in most western railway towns, houses of prostitution, gambling and liquor could also be found. The abundant saloons were known to be dens of iniquity which leads us to ask, how did Las Vegas morph into the place it is today? In the 1920’s and 30’s, the first organized crime boss to operate in Nevada was firmly ensconced in Las Vegas. James “Jim” Ferguson employed political corruption, violent crimes and non-violent crimes (such as bootlegging), in Las Vegas. By all reports, he did not create the culture of corruption, it already existed, he merely improved upon the existing corruption.

In 1941, the first resort style casino was built and opened on April 3rd. It was limited in size but squarely in the city limits. Called the El Rancho Vegas, it was destroyed by fire in 1960. That brings us to the entrance of organized crime and gambling as we know it today.

In 1946, a fellow by the name of Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo. He was financed by the mob boss Meyer Lansky with money reportedly funneled through Mormon owned banks. Meyer Lansky was a major east coast organized crime figure and was known as the “Mob’s Accountant.” The Flamingo, was originally budgeted to cost $1.5 million but costs escalated to $6 million. Bugsy Siegel died by order of Meyer Lansky and representatives of the mob took over the Flamingo. From that point on, quality entertainment and bigger, grander casinos such as the Thunderbird and Desert Inn started to pop up. Las Vegas morphed from a place to gamble, to a place with multi-faceted entertainment.

By 1959, the strangle hold of organized crime in Las Vegas reached the attention of federal legislators.

U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver, who was considered a champion of law and order and a fighter of organized crime, was particularly strong in his belief that the presence of organized crime in America was a problem. He viewed it as a virulent and vicious attack on democracy and decency of the American way of life. He had been holding a series of public hearings across the country on the subject of organized crime. On November 15, 1950, Kefauver brought his committee to Las Vegas and shone the spotlight on organized crime in Las Vegas and the corruption of city and state officials.

Although Kefauver’s televised hearings brought the issue of mob control in Las Vegas to the forefront, it did not result in the clean-up of mob control. It was not until the late 1960’s when Howard Hughes (a billionaire recluse), bought up a number of hotels, did things change. In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which gave the Department of Justice the legal tools to fight the crime syndicates operating in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas continued to grow and today, with a population of 644,644, it is a far cry from the sleepy town the railway found.

Next up: Casinos & Hotels

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