Call it what you like – Las Vegas is in a category all its own. It’s bold, romantic, sassy, full of promises, braggadocious, glamorous, extravagant – the list could go on and on. What began in the 19th century as a tiny settlement where produce was grown has metamorphosed into a sparkling, larger-than-life end of the rainbow where anything and everything is possible.
From a few illegal casinos and speakeasies in the 1910s to the rise of the mega casino in the 1990s, Vegas continues to write its own story, and each chapter contains a few surprises. Let’s turn back the pages and discover a few fun Las Vegas history facts and firsts that happened in the city.
The Vegas landscape is dotted with literally hundreds of hotels, but the first hotel in Vegas was the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino at 1 East Fremont Street – originally named Hotel Nevada. It was also the first casino in Las Vegas. Since it’s still in operation, the Golden Gate is easily the oldest one in town.
Las Vegas was founded when a railroad company auctioned off 110 acres of land in 1905. The original hotel site was purchased for $1,750, and the Hotel Nevada opened on January 13, 1906. Room and board were $1 a day, and the hotel was rated “first-class” because it had electric lights, ventilation, and steam heat radiators. The hotel operated as a casino until 1909, when gambling was outlawed in Las Vegas. It was eventually reinstated in 1931, and the hotel’s name was later changed to the Golden Gate. You can even stay in one of the Original 10 rooms to fully immerse yourself in Las Vegas history.
Another Las Vegas first happened right inside the hotel when the city’s first telephone was installed the following year. The phone number? It was 1, of course.
The city’s very first newspaper went into publication even before Las Vegas was officially Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Times was a weekly publication whose first issue was dated March 25, 1905. Publication ceased the following year.
Just two weeks after the first issue of the Las Vegas Times appeared, another newspaper – the Las Vegas Age – began publication. It came out each Saturday as a six-page independent weekly, and subscribers could get it for $2 per year. The Age was a well-known and successful newspaper in Las Vegas and became the leading paper in Southern Nevada. It was known for outspoken editorials, boosterism, quality reporting, and coverage of everything from stories of national importance to local interest pieces. The paper was published for over 40 years until it was finally closed in 1947.
Source: Vintage Vegas
It’s hard to imagine Las Vegas without a resort, but that was the case until Thomas Hull, a California hotel operator, opened the El Rancho on Highway 91 in 1941. Spread out over 66 acres and featuring 65 rooms in cottages across the property, it was the first establishment to offer guests the full resort experience. Along with the casino, the El Rancho had entertainment, a swimming pool, horseback riding, dancing, and a number of dining options. A-list performers like Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt, Dean Martin, Lena Horne, and Sophie Tucker performed there. El Rancho was the first of its kind and truly set the tone for every resort that followed. Sadly, early on the morning of June 17, 1960, the El Rancho was completely destroyed by fire.
For decades the Strip has been speckled with mega neon signs proclaiming the names of singers, dancers, musicians, comedians, magicians, and many others who headlined shows at the thoroughfare’s famous venues. The biggest names in show business – from Sinatra and the Rat Pack to Elvis to David Copperfield to Celine Dion – have done residencies in Las Vegas. But who was the first?
In November 1944, a 25-year-old pianist who had quit as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra walked up and down the Strip, giving out handbills that said: “Have You Heard Liberace?” He told people how to pronounce his name and hyped his show, a mix of show tunes and popular contemporary boogie-woogie songs. The audience loved him. His salary doubled, he was offered a long-term contract, and by 1955 he was making $50,000 a week. Liberace brought crowds to Las Vegas for over four decades.
Frank Sinatra, a staple for many years, did his first Vegas show at the Desert Inn in 1951. And Elvis Presley, another Vegas fave, first performed there at the New Frontier Hotel in 1956.
As the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. heated up, the nation prioritized its nuclear program. On January 27, 1951, the first nuclear device was detonated on U.S. soil at the Nevada Test Site, just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Over the next decade, more than 100 atmospheric nuclear tests took place there.
The dangers of radiation and nuclear fallout weren’t well understood at the time, and Las Vegas advertised the tests as a tourist attraction. After all, the impressive mushroom clouds were clearly visible from the city. Various venues proclaimed that they had the best views. Atomic cocktails were served, Miss Atomic pageants were held, and Las Vegas was even nicknamed Atomic City. The last test was conducted at the Nevada Test Site in 1962.
Where would a Las Vegas resort be without showgirls? They’re as much a part of the city as slot machines, blackjack tables, and kitschy souvenir shops.
In the 1950s, competition between hotels and casinos was fierce. Each went after the top entertainers of the day to bring in the crowds. In 1957, the Dunes Hotel brought in “Minsky’s Follies,” a “family style” burlesque show that started in New York City in the 1930s. Harold Minsky, the show’s founder, went on to produce shows at the Thunderbird, Aladdin, Silver Slipper, Fremont, and Frontier hotels. When other hotels started their own shows with showgirls, Minsky fought back. He had his showgirl revue appear on stage at the Desert Inn topless. Thus began a Las Vegas tradition that continues to this day.
The Golden Gate Hotel and Casino is proud of its long tradition, and it too has documented “firsts” throughout its 115+ year history. The first large electric sign was installed in 1927, a forerunner of the neon that became ubiquitous throughout the city a short time later. The casino installed its first surveillance system in 1950, which consisted of two-way mirrors above the gaming pit. And the first shrimp cocktail was served at the hotel in 1959 – for just $0.50.
The hotel underwent a major renovation in 2012, adding a luxury tower with 16 suites, an extended gaming floor, and a new lobby that features historical artifacts. Another expansion in 2017 nearly doubled the size of the casino. Be sure to visit the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino and book a room or suite to make your own part of Las Vegas history!