Las Vegas Who Built America's Playground? Larry Gragg Digs beneath the Glitzy Surface of America's 'Sin City' to Find out How This Extravagant Home of Gambling and Glamour Came into Being

By Gragg, Larry | History Today, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Las Vegas Who Built America's Playground? Larry Gragg Digs beneath the Glitzy Surface of America's 'Sin City' to Find out How This Extravagant Home of Gambling and Glamour Came into Being


Gragg, Larry, History Today


IN THE 1974 BLOCKBUSTER Godfather Ha character named Hyman Roth, modelled after crime boss Meyer Lansky, pays homage to a departed friend,

   ... he had an idea--to build a city out
   of a desert stop-over for GI's on the
   way to the West Coast. That kid's
   name was Moe Green--and the city
   he invented was Las Vegas. This was a
   great man--a man of vision and guts.
   And there isn't even a plaque--or a
   signpost--or a statue of him in that
   town! ...

Green is a reference to Lansky's associate Benjamin, 'Bugsy' Siegel of the infamous New York and Brooklyn-based crime syndicate known as Murder Incorporated. Seventeen years after Godfather II premiered, Warren Beatty made an award-winning film, Bugsy, which likewise depicted Siegel as a visionary responsible for the famous Las Vegas Strip. In the final frames of the film, the viewer is treated to a panoramic shot of the glowing Strip at night with the words:

   By 1991 the six million dollars
   invested in Bugsy's Las Vegas dream
   had generated revenues of 100 billion
   dollars.

The two films reflect what many believe about the city that today attracts nearly 40 million tourists a year. The Siegel myth is that he established the Las Vegas Strip and developed the modern casino resort with the opening in December 1946 of his Flamingo Casino and that those two developments transformed a little-known desert town into the world-famous sophisticated centre of gambling and glamour. Contrary to this view, however, by the time Siegel opened the Flamingo, Las Vegas was already a thriving tourist town with two successful casino resorts on the outskirts of town along the Los Angeles highway, known as the 'Strip'.

Established in 1905 by the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad as a division point for the rail line, Las Vegas is located in southern Nevada, a state dominated by mountain ranges and desert. Approximately half way between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Los Angeles, California, Las Vegas proved to be a good place to build repair shops and house mechanics as well as train crews. Yet it grew slowly. There were only 947 people in 1910 and just over 2,300 a decade later. Area mines failed to produce a reliable income for the region even though sharply increased demand for copper, silver and tungsten during the First World War produced a temporary boom. The Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1911, vigorously promoted the agricultural prospects of the area because of its numerous artesian wells and also sought to boost Las Vegas as the centre for tourism in the scenic southwestern United States, all with little success. When Las Vegas workers joined in a nationwide rail strike in 1922, the Union Pacific, which had purchased the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad a year earlier, punished them by shutting down the repair shops. The loss of 300 jobs devastated the small community. Until the Calvin Coolidge administration in late 1928 decided to construct a dam nearby on the Colorado River, Las Vegas faced an uncertain future.

The federal government spent $19 million dollars to build the dam and nearby Boulder City to house the construction crews. By 1934, there were over 5,000 Boulder Dam construction workers collectively earning $750,000 a month and they spent a good deal of it in Las Vegas, which was only thirty miles away. Several later fondly recalled their twice-monthly payday trips to Las Vegas. Bud Bodell spoke for many of the construction workers when he described Las Vegas as a welcome escape from the rigours of work on the massive dam project, 'It was open all night. The town was free and easy'.

Secretary of the Interior Raymond Wilbur, in rejecting the community as a place to house the Boulder Dam construction workers, was not as charitable in his characterization of Las Vegas which he saw as a 'boisterous frontier town'. Much of the nation's press agreed and with good reason. …

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Las Vegas Who Built America's Playground? Larry Gragg Digs beneath the Glitzy Surface of America's 'Sin City' to Find out How This Extravagant Home of Gambling and Glamour Came into Being
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