Las Vegas has long pervaded the American imagination with images of Elvis, showgirls, gambling, and nonstop neon. Its reputation as "Sin City" has attracted millions of tourists in the seven decades since gaming was legalized in Nevada. And, in recent years, its ranking as one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States has prompted scholarly inquiry into its status as a phenomenon of urban development.
The idea that Las Vegas could inspire serious research surprises many outsiders who perceive the city as lacking both history and culture. This is understandable when one considers the demolition of buildings that have often defined the city's past and reflected its mystique and excitement. But Las Vegas does have a unique history, and there exists a rich body of documentation of its evolution from a dusty railroad outpost to the gambling and entertainment capital of the world. Much of this material can be found in the special collections department of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas Libraries, which is charged with documenting the city's social, cultural, political, and physical history.
Originally established in 1967 within the then Nevada Southern University library, the department was the first central repository for historical documents in southern Nevada. Early collection efforts were directed toward assembling material on the area's history (especially the pioneer figures of early Las Vegas), gambling, and culinary arts (with the latter supporting the university's College of Hotel Administration). Greater emphasis has now been placed on documenting the city of Las Vegas in a way that captures a more complete picture of its role as a mecca for entertainment and an exemplar of urban growth.
A desert oasis
Long before Las Vegas became synonymous with gambling and entertainment, it owed its existence to the natural springs of the area, which attracted first Spanish explorers and then 19th-century Mormon missionaries to the desert oasis. "Las Vegas" is Spanish for "the meadows"--a name chosen because of the lush grass that flourished from the natural artesian water supply. There is little documentary evidence of these early visitors; far more plentiful are the records documenting the arrival of the railroad in the early 1900s--the event that first put Las Vegas on the map. UNLV's collection holds corporate records from the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad (SPLASL), whose land auction in May 1905 signaled the birth of modern Las Vegas, and the Union Pacific, which bought out SPLASL in 1921.
Other UNLV records that chart the city's development in its early days include a comprehensive collection of city commission minutes from its 1911 incorporation to 1958, detailing minutiae from the laying of sewers and the placement of sidewalks to the issuance of early gaming licenses, as well as chamber of commerce documents that provide evidence of early efforts to promote a seemingly inexhaustible supply of artesian water for agriculture. Local history is also well represented in the personal papers and records of early residents, businesses, and civic organizations that shaped the city in the days when Las Vegas was an unassuming desert town with a population of less than 5,000.
One of the events responsible for transforming this small town into a major gaming and entertainment destination was the construction of Hoover Dam, from 1931 to 1935, which brought in workers and their families to swell the population of Las Vegas and nearby Boulder City, and successive waves of tourists to view what is still considered to be one of the wonders of modem civil engineering. UNLV contains a near-complete photographic record of Hoover Dam and its environs before, during, and after construction along with related items such as the oral histories of men who helped build it, the diaries of a chief engineer and a medic who worked at the construction site, and colorful ephemera that has promoted the dam as a major tourist attraction. …