[Hack ALA ’14] Las Vegas: A Quickie History

While I was browsing through our Conferences category and Hack ALA subcategory in preparation for #alaac14, a 2011 guest post from April Martin, “Don’t Forget Where You’re Going: NOLA Beyond the Convention Center Walls,” caught my eye. In that spirit, I thought I’d offer up a  brief introduction to the great American city of Las Vegas, Nevada.

I’m on my way to Las Vegas today for the first time in 19 years – I was last there in 1995 with my grandparents! Unfortunately I couldn’t dig up any embarrassing photos from the trip, since I moved recently and stuff is still packed up, but there are definitely some great pics of me giving the side-eye to the Caesar’s Palace showgirls.

According to a timeline on the City of Las Vegas website, the Anasazi and Paiute people first settled in the Las Vegas region about 2,000 years ago, although even earlier nomadic peoples left behind petroglyphs, pictographs and other signs of habitation some 8,000 years earlier. Jim Boone at Bird and Hike gives a good run-down of prehistoric sites in the Las Vegas area, if you have a little spare time and can investigate transportation options.

The modern history of the area is typically traced to 1829, when Rafael Rivera, a Mexican scout on the “Old Spanish Trail” (a trade route connecting the Santa Fe and Los Angeles areas), first dubbed it Las Vegas, or “the meadows” because its abundant water supply and foliage. News of the area spread through the writings of John C. Frémont, attracting settlers to the area, including the Mormons, who built a fort there in 1855.

Logo of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, via Wikimedia Commons.

Logo of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, via Wikimedia Commons.

The remains of the fort can still be seen downtown at Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Park at the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Washington Ave. In 1864, Nevada became the 36th state, and mining and agriculture became important forces shaping the region’s development, drawing immigrants and migrants from across the continent, although the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the later quota system limited the region’s diversification. In the early 1900s, Las Vegas became a major stop on the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, which was controlled by the Union Pacific. The city of Las Vegas was formally founded in 1905 and incorporated in 1911, with a population of 800. With the establishment of the city and its legal code came the famous “quickie” Las Vegas weddings and divorces.

In 1931, with the construction of Hoover Dam, the population of Las Vegas began to boom, a transformation that was furthered by the legalization of gambling in the Spring of that year. By the 1940 census, the city’s population had increased more than tenfold. The area’s plentiful water and cheap energy drew the defense industry to Las Vegas during World War II. The over-the-top hotels and casinos that we know today grew out of the postwar boom, and by 1960, the city had grown to encompass 25 square miles – with more than a fifth of the state’s population living on just 0.02% of Nevada’s land. The postwar period also heralded the Atomic Age, which is still showcased at the National Atomic Testing Museum. The atomic bomb detonations proved to be a popular tourist attraction until the 1963 Test Ban Treaty recognized the risks involved and started mandating that tests occur underground. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has an amazing oral history collection on the impact of nuclear testing.

The 1960s were a formative period for Las Vegas. Howard Hughes led an influx of corporate investment in real estate, and the hospitality industry took off. In 1969, The King opened at the International Hotel (now the Hilton). This growth continued throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, as Las Vegas became a fixture of American popular culture. In November 2009, the section of Las Vegas Boulevard from Washington Ave. to Sahara Ave. was designated a National Scenic Byway, in recognition of its unique place in the national imagination.

There’s more to Las Vegas than Ocean’s Eleven and Casino, though. The 1990s saw a major resurgence of immigration and refugee resettlement; acccording to the 2000 census, 18% of the county’s population was born abroad, well above the national average. Over 60% of those born abroad were born in Latin America, over 23% in Asia, and 1.7% in Africa; and over 25% of Las Vegas’ population at the turn of the millennium spoke a language other than English at home. Nigerian-born writer Chris Abani released a crime novel earlier this year, The Secret History of Las Vegas, that is in part a meditation on the “web of specific histories” that complicate such a one-dimensional picture of Sin City. Though you might never know it from just staying on The Strip, the ethnic enclaves of Las Vegas include Ethiopian markets and restaurants, countless Mexican and Central American neighborhoods, and a Chinatown (actually built from scratch in the 1990s, in contrast to the Chinatowns that developed historically in other US cities) that includes foods and wares from a variety of countries – including the Philippines, the Koreas, and Japan. Many of these areas are easy to access, so tear yourselves away from the bright lights and busy convention center for a while and discover the rest of Las Vegas — you won’t be disappointed.

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