Overview and History
In Spanish the word "vega" means fertile plain or valley, a fruitful ground, or a meadow. In Cuba it means specifically a tobacco field, usually by the bank of a river. Both sound like places where you can make a lot of money, right? You can see why they chose it for the name of this gambling heaven in Nevada! Let the show begin!
Geologically, Las Vegas is an oasis in the desert. Take a look at Death Valley, just 150km from Las Vegas. Although the Mohave desert is dry as a bone at present, it wasn't always that way. The oasis of Las Vegas was once a wetland full of marshy soil and plants complete with woolly mammoths slurping up the cool refreshing water. Archaeologists found the ten-thousand-year-old remains of a mammoth in the middle of a 1993 construction project. Surprise!
As time went on, (this is geologic time here, waaaay before humans showed up) the marshes dried up and left only some underground water nestled in a valley that was easily missed. Native Americans knew about the oasis but it was a secret to the European travelers until the nineteenth century.
The discovery of this little green stripe in the middle of the Mojave desert is credited to Rafael Rivera, who came through in 1829 en route to Los Angeles. His discovery of this watering hole made life easier for thousands of settlers who were going West in the California Gold Rush. The spot was originally labeled "vegas" on the maps, referring to the meadow in the desert. Around the year 1840 the name was changed to "Las Vegas" and there it has grown ever since.
Here's a look at Las Vegas by night -- not bad for a little watering hole!
By 1904 the railroad companies had begun extending tracks to this gold mine of fresh water. Today the Jackie Gaughan's Plaza Hotel stands on top of the original Union-Pacific train station -- the only station in the world located inside a casino. Where there are trains, there are working men and where there are working men, there are saloons. Where there is a saloon, there will be a game of cards and with that, GAMBLING! A frontier town sprang to life with sweaty men drinking, fighting and betting on anything they could think of.
Nobody knows how many cowboys really had a gunfight in the dust outside a bar in Las Vegas' shimmering past, but in 1910 a strict anti-gambling law came into effect and stopped them all. It prohibited all forms of gaming in public places and for about three weeks everyone mourned the loss of their favorite pastime.
That being finished, the illegal secret night spots took over and business as usual carried on. Soon enough the Nevada stage legislature realized how much money they were missing, via taxes on gambling, and the era of the big casino was off to a running start. The licensed gambling casinos now generate almost fifty percent of the Nevada state budget! Take a look at the Hotel Luxor to get an idea of what kind of money we're talking about here.
Growing cities need water, electricity and jobs for people. In 1931 construction began on the Hoover Dam project to fill these needs by using the Colorado River. When it was finished, thirty miles away from the city, it was the world's largest concrete structure and the world's biggest hydro-electric power generator. This project kept money flowing into Las Vegas during the Great Depression and helped the city to keep growing.
The world-famous Las Vegas Strip followed hard on the heels of the Depression and WWII. The Strip began as a two-lane highway you could follow from Vegas to Los Angeles. It turned into the site of a building boom for the next six decades and saw the arrival of such famous casinos as the Sands, the Riviera, Stardust and the Tropicana.
They got a little competition from Atlantic City when New Jersey legalized gambling in the 1970's. The war was on to see who could make the biggest, flashiest and most opulent mega-resort around their casino. Stop in at the Belagio or Caesar's Palace to find out who won THAT contest...
All of these, by the way, owe a debt of gratitude to the Flamingo Hotel, which beat them to the punch be thirty years. Reputed mobster Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo in 1946, launching one of the most celebrated of the early casinos only six months before being murdered. Viva Las Vegas!
Bugsy's original idea of making a resort in addition to a Casino has now become an altered reality to big to be believed. Las Vegas now hosts hotels and resorts that are like a movie set with tourist facilities built into each scene. You can be a Pirate of the Caribbean, go for a stroll through the city of Paris, or spend the night inside the medieval castle Excalibur.
And say "shush!" to the Sphinx for me when you're in Luxor, the ancient Egyptian temple.
The McCarran International Airport is the one for you, if you're not driving across the desert in a convertible Cadillac that has the horns of a steer mounted on the hood. Los Angeles to Las Vegas is a 300 mile drive which means somewhere out there, there's a person who's done it in three hours. Or tried.
Well, it's mostly a driving city. There are local city buses connecting the suburbs with downtown, the normal interstate buses like Greyhound, and literally a thousand taxis. You can hop a train on the Amtrak line, but don't stand around waiting for the metro. And with Boulevards like this one, who would want to be underground?
People and Culture
Las Vegas has a language that's all its own and it lives in the casinos. There are some familiar ones you already know, like "high roller" (which is a person who spends a lot of money). But did you know that a high roller is the same as a "whale"? And how about "Dark", as in, no show. Dark Sundays means there are no performances, so the main marquee is switched off and the stage is dark.
"Comp" is short for complimentary or free, and if you're "in red" it means your name is highlighted with the color red on the guest list, because you've been comp'ed. And for the modern edge, "eye in the sky" means a hidden surveillance camera in the ceiling. Las Vegas is full of mirrors -- they make the room look bigger, they multiply the lights, and they make a great place to park a supervisory camera system. There's a saying that goes, "if you can't spot the fish at the table, you ARE the fish." Fish is an inexperienced gabler. Card sharks are the ones who eat the fish. Sharks might be using a shiner, too; that's what the eye in the sky is for. (Shiner is a little mirror a shark uses to cheat by seeing your cards.)
Things to do, Recommendations
I've got a recommendation for all you young lovers out there... get hitched at the Chapel of the Bells! Follow it up with an intergalactic honeymoon on the USS Enterprise. Here you will find a full-scale replica of the control room of the famous star ship from Star Trek. Las Vegas may in fact be the world's biggest collection of surreal and odd places to explore, like the Borg chamber, another Star Trek household word.
Have fun, stay hydrated out there, and don't forget to take some pictures from the highest location you can get to. Here's a shot of the volcano erupting at the Mirage Hotel.
And lastly, remember the most important piece of advice there is:
"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
Text by Steve Smith.