A fellow named J. Ross Clark formed a partnership with rail tycoon, E.H. Harriman for the new San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad. They created the Las Vegas Land and Water Company to run the town where the train needed to stop for water for the steam engines. This way station became Las Vegas. In 1905, they put 2000 acres around the tracks for sale. They promised to build a depot and railroad repair shops to provide jobs. They auctioned off 600 lots and made a profit of nearly 500 percent. Clark County was created in 1908.
Nevada was desperate to lure people to the state. They legalized gambling in 1931. But Guy McAfee was the embodiment of casino owners of the day. While a cop in Los Angeles, he fostered relationships with the organized crime. After getting forced out of LA, he bought the Pair-O-Dice Club on Highway 91 in 1938. He built up his interests in the Vegas area, eventually building the Golden Nugget in 1946, and touted it as the world’s largest casino. It was McAfee who coined the phrase, “The Strip” for Highway 91, and provided a tax shelter to casinos along the highway.
Along came Benjamin Siegelbaum, later known as “Bugsy” Siegel (not relation to Morty Siegel). He started his own gang at the age of fourteen, in a effort to rise out of poverty. He got his nickname due to his quick and violent temper. As a teen, he formed an alliance with Meyer Lansky. Starting mostly in bootlegging, the Bugs and Meyer Mob was eventually folded into the Syndicate. Most estimates are that he personally had killed over thirty men, and arranged countless others. He helped set up Al Capone‘s Trans America wire service out of Los Angeles. In the 1940s, Lansky sent Siegel to Las Vegas to scout the area. As he took over the development of a resort, Siegel ran into financial problems. His dream resort, “The Flamingo”, closed a month after it opened. He was murdered in 1947.
Now, a horse trader named Lester “Benny” Binion was operating in Dallas. After numerous problems, he skipped town for Vegas with his wife and five children. In 1951, he opened Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. It was a no frills casino, serving chili from a recipe that he learned in a Texas prison. But he became famous for lots of free booze, and taking any bet a player would put on a table. Gamblers caught cheating were often physically punished. Benny eventually served time in Leavenworth for tax evasion and sold off his casino interests. By 1964, he was out of jail, and his family took over control of the casinos again. In the 1970s, he established the National Finals Rodeo, and the World Series of Poker. He died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1989.
No Vegas story is complete without The Syndicate. Lansky, Siegel, and Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano formed a gang in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By crossing ethnic boundaries, they were the first gang of Jewish and Italian descent. They earned their living through bootlegging, gambling, robbery, and murder. Of course, Prohibition served as a catalyst for quantum leaps in power and and scope of crime for the Syndicate. After Siegel was murdered, Gus Greenbaum, Davey Berman, and Morris Rosen took over the Flamingo. From the 1940s to 1970s, the strip was lined with hotels and casinos made possible by the mob.
During the economic boom of the 1960s, Vegas had few African American residents. The boom brought 15,000 African Americans, who were forced to live on the segregated West Side. They were not allowed to own businesses or homes outside of the West Side. This put the famous Black entertainers in a quandary, people like Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Dinah Washington. Finally, in 1955, the first integrated resort, the Moulin Rouge opened with partial ownership by boxer Joe Louis.
No Vegas story can be done with the enigmatic recluse, Howard R. Hughes. In the four years between 1966 and 1970, Hughes conducted business in the top two floors of the Desert Inn on the Strip. He became Nevada’s largest private employer, largest casino owner, and largest mining claims owner. When forced to move out of the Desert Inn in 1967, he bought it. He owned the Sands, Frontier, Castaways, Landmark, Silver Slipper, Desert Inn, North Las Vegas airport, Alamo Airways, and thousands of acres of land in the Vegas area. Hughes was actually used by politicians to force the mobsters out of Vegas.
Next came Herman “Hank” Greenspun, a PR man hired by Bugsy Siegel. His claim to fame was purchasing weapons from around the world for his Haganah Jewish organization during the formation of Israel. He also bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, renaming it the Las Vegas Sun. He soon used the power of the pen to make or break politicians. Though he ran unsuccessfully for Governor, he amassed the paper, two TV stations, and a cable network. It never hurt that he was a trusted friend of Hughes.
When Senator Estes Kefauver chaired the Senate investigation into Organized Crime, the public expected much more than it finally delivered. But it did raise awareness and spawned the creation of an oversight board in 1955. The state of Nevada required that any owner of a casino be licensed by the state gaming board. This became Kefauver’s legacy, even propelling him for democratic Presidential bids in 1952 and 1956.
Patrick McCarran became the most powerful man in Nevada, first with a seat on the Nevada Supreme Court, then later in 1932 as the U. S. Senator. Though independent and powerful, he formed strong alliances with J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, and Senator Joseph McCarthy. As a Washington power broker, he brought more business and industry to southern Nevada. The main airport is Las Vegas is named for him.
Not forgotten in the success of Vegas are the entertainers. Bugsy Siegel brought numerous Hollywood stars due to his contacts. In the 1950s, topless showgirls became the rage. The biggest names in Hollywood performed here, including Martin and Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, the Marx Brothers, and the King of the Strip, Wayne Newton. Kirk Kirkorian, our Fresno boy, was able to bring Elvis to Vegas for eight years, and 837 shows at $125,000 per week. In the 1990s, Vegas tried to become a family vacation destination, to mediocre success.
Speaking of the Father of the Megaresort, Kirkorian became an investor in the Howard Hughes mold. His MGM Grand Resort came in at six times the cost of Caesar’s Palace, funded by Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamster Union money. But this changing of the guard meant no more coddling of mobsters in Nevada. As Wall Street, Steve Wynn, and Michael Milken came in, junk bonds were used to finance the Mirage at a cost of $630 million.
Federal funds for Boulder Dam played a large part of Vegas success and growth. It provided jobs, and a tourist destination. Atomic tourism also became a fascinating reason to visit the area. At one time, the Nevada test site averaged one bomb every three weeks for 12 years. Vegas has broadened the scope of leisure and entertainment, with huge shopping malls, championship golf courses, upscale housing developments, and even larger megaresorts. When will it stop?