Las Vegas can be a city of sin; what happens there stays there. It can be a city where fortunes are made or lost. Las Vegas is also a city where you can gain a great deal of knowledge. I’m not talking about not drawing to an inside straight, or where they serve the best dollar shrimp cocktail, if there is such a thing as a good dollar shrimp cocktail, but more about history and natural beauty. Las Vegas proper is rich in history as is the surrounding area. You need to hunt a little in the city and get past the songs of the slots. Much like Ulysses and the Siren’s songs, you may have to wear blinders or plug your ears, but once you sample some of the history, you’ll be hooked.
Start your search for history by finding wonderful areas within the city that ooze out with stories of its wild and reckless past. It was not always surrounded by the starkness of the desert, but at one time was a lush, heavily vegetated marsh until the water disappeared to small underground rivers. The harshness of the Mohave Desert held the remaining Oasis that would eventually become the city of Las Vegas, known only to the Native Americans that inhabited the area. It wasn’t until a Mexican scout, Rafael Rivera, ventured out from his scouting party that was looking for water in early 1830, that a person of European decent first set foot in the Las Vegas Oasis. This brave scout went alone, leaving his group between the Christmas and New Year holiday and returned to the trading party on the 7th of January. This opened a shorter path for traders from New Mexico to California, and began the development of the city now known as Las Vegas. A statue of the brave scout stands statue at the Rafael Rivera Community Center, near Stewart Street and Mojave Road.
John Freemont camped in Las Vegas 14 years later and because of his maps, hundreds of people now had access to the Las Vegas Oasis. His legend as an explorer of the old west is well known, so much so, that his father in law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton gave a fitting quote that has remained the descriptor of Freemont to this day, “From the ashes of his campfire have sprung cities.”
The Mormons eventually came and built a 150 square foot fort from the adobe made from the local materials. The Mormon settlers came to give the local Indians religion, the Lamanites, as the Mormons referred to the American Indians, were thought to be direct descendants of the ancient Israelis. The Mormons also were there to provide a safe haven to those traveling from California to the bed of the religious community in Utah, and so, the trail became known as the Mormon Trail. They left in 1858 after the proverbial last straw. The drought had been severe and there was little food. The final decision was made after Indians raided their crops, leaving them with little food. Today part of the original fort can be seen near the intersection of Las Vegas Blvd North and Washington Avenue.
There are many other places that have a rich history, but unfortunately only a small marker. Block16 was the only place in 1905 that was allowed to have liquor. It became notorious for gambling and prostitution. It is on North First Street between Ogden and Stewart Avenues.
The railroad played a distinctively important part in the development of the city of Las Vegas. There are several sites that commemorate its part. The railroad cottages that housed the workers were located from Casino Center to Fourth and from Garces to Clark. These 64 bungalow-style cottages were constructed with concrete block. Several of them can be seen at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve and one, at the Clark County Museum. These houses build in 1909 and 1910 were the first housing development for the city of Las Vegas. They are now on the Nation Register of Historic Places.
If you like to see how Vegas casinos looked in the early years when Freemont Street was the place to go, stop at the Golden Gate Casino. It was originally built in 1905 and opened its doors as Hotel Nevada, where room and board was $1 per night, on January 13, 1906. A visit to the website will give a wonderful description of the history. In 1955 after a number of name changes it became the Golden Gate Casino. It hosted many firsts during its 100+ years of operation. It was the first to have a telephone in the city. Its most notable first, I believe, is the first shrimp cocktail. After all, besides gambling, isn’t Las Vegas best known as the city of the 99-cent shrimp cocktail?
The best gamblers used to frequent the casino at regular intervals and it was so fascinating that even the renowned gangster Al Capone used to have a nice round of blackjack and buktiqq during the 1920s and 1930s.
For Movie buffs, across from Mandalay Bay is the Little Church of the West built in 1942.It was designed to look like a chapel of an old mining town and was originally built where the New Frontier now stands. It has been physically moved three times in its 60-year history and has been the start of marriage for over 100,000 couples. In the movie “Viva Las Vegas” Ann Margaret married Elvis, but in real life many celebrities from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Cindy Crawford have said their “I do’s”. Today it is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
Stop at the museums. The Museum of Natural History on North Las Vegas Blvd is located relatively close to the Lied Children’s Museum. On VanBuren there is an African American Museum. Many of the casinos also have museums. The Bellagio has a Museum of Art, The Nevada Institute of Contemporary Artis located at the Cannery on East Flamingo Road, The Guggenheim at the Venetian, the Imperial Palace has an antique car collection, and the Museum of King Tut is at the Luxor. The Mirage has an Aquarium, a Dolphin Habitat, and a wild tiger habitat.
Pages upon pages can be written on the educational stops in Las Vegas, and they have been. I have supplied some links below for your benefit. Remember, what has been mentioned so far, is only WITHIN the city of Las Vegas. There is a plethora of history on the outskirts of the city, and some of my favorite places to visit. Perhaps, another day, we will travel there together.