The road formally known as Las Vegas Boulevard and colloquially as “The Strip” has been a part of the history of Las Vegas since its earliest settlement. It was originally a portion of the Old Spanish Trail that connected Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, traversed first by Spanish explorers in the 15th century and then by pack trains of merchants for the next four centuries.
From Byway to Interstate
Brigham Young built a fort along the route in 1855 to safeguard his followers as they traveled between Mormon missions in Salt Lake City and the San Bernardino Valley. The fortress was converted into a museum, and it can still be visited at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue.
In 1905, when the city was incorporated, the desiccated old trail ceased to be heavily traveled. The east and west sections of the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad were connected, rendering lengthy horse-drawn carriage journeys obsolete. In subsequent years, however, the rise of the automobile rekindled interest in the byway. In the mid-1920s, after being upgraded and incorporated into the new federal roadway system, it was designated as U.S. Route 91.
When gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, the Pair-O-Dice Club was one of the first establishments to operate on U.S. 91 south of the town center. It was operated by Frank and Angelina Detra, who served authentic Italian cuisine accompanied by live music and table games. Over the next several years, the small nightclub grew in popularity among tourists traveling through Las Vegas on their way to see the enormous new “Boulder Dam” (later renamed Hoover Dam).
Guy McAfee, a former Los Angeles vice squad officer, became interested in the Detras’ property in 1939. He purchased the club, renovated it to emphasize wagering, and rechristened it the “91 Club.” As a joke, he would compare the desolate stretch of highway near his home to the renowned Sunset Strip in Hollywood. The designation stayed, and the street has been known as “the Strip” ever since.
World War II did not halt the growth of the Strip for a single second. It actually fuelled it. The establishment of the Las Vegas Gunnery School (later Nellis Air Force Base) on the outskirts of Las Vegas provided a large client base for new entertainment establishments. Thomas Hull, a developer of California resorts, established the El Rancho at the intersection of U.S. 91 and San Francisco Street (now Sahara Avenue) in 1941. It featured 40 cottages and a casino where craps, baccarat, and roulette could be played.
In 1942, R.E. Griffith, a Texas film mogul, purchased McAfee’s 91 Club and erected The Last Frontier, an even larger resort with a Wild West theme, in its stead. Griffith scavenged abandoned quarries to construct his colossal hotel-casino, as all construction materials were needed for the war effort. Here, Harry James and Betty Grable wed in 1943, and flamboyant pianist Walter Liberace made his debut in 1944. Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, a wise person from the East, spent many of the war years here.
Siegel spent $1 million in 1945 to acquire the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, an extravagant but stalled undertaking on the Strip. It would feature a golf course, facilities for horses, a four-story hotel, palm trees, a three-tier waterfall, a European-style casino, and a vast exhibition hall when completed. He persuaded Meyer Lansky, the head of the New York Syndicate, to support the endeavor, and in 1946 the Flamingo opened with top-tier entertainment, including Jimmy Durante, George Jessel, Rose Marie, and Xavier Cougat.
The Flamingo was not a financial success, sadly. In 1947, cost overruns, casino losses, and inadequate marketing of its shows and accommodations prompted the Syndicate to reconsider its investment. In June, Siegel was murdered in Beverly Hills; his murderer was never apprehended. The era of “mob rule” on the Strip began when Gus Greenbaum, Joe Rosenberg, and “Icepick Willie” Alderman were recruited by Lansky to take over operations.
The Construction Boom
In 1950, Wilbur Clark launched the $4.6 million Desert Inn with financial assistance from “friends” in Cleveland and Detroit; Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, made his Las Vegas debut on its stage. Then, in 1952, a second Syndicate-backed property, The Sands, was constructed, where Sinatra, Dean Martin, and their friends, the “Rat Pack,” would become an institution.
The mafia generally got along well with local government. They were able to avoid municipal control along U.S. 91 by convincing Clark County to designate the area as an unincorporated township designated “Paradise City,” and the seven-mile stretch of road known as the Strip has retained this designation to this day.
As the 1950s progressed, approximately $230 million from the Teamsters Union Pension Fund was invested in the construction of casinos in Las Vegas. After one another, the Sahara, the Riviera, the Dunes, the Hacienda, the Tropicana, and the Stardust emerged. The world had never before witnessed the transformation of an arid path into an oasis of entertainment.
The Modern Era
Along Las Vegas Boulevard, more resorts were constructed in the 1960s, including the Aladdin, Caesars Palace, and Circus Circus. However, the era of mobster involvement was drawing to a close. The federal government’s crackdowns on organized crime, coupled with the Nevada gaming commission’s stricter licensing policies, have prevented “known criminals” from owning casinos. The Strip properties were required to become legitimate.
The transition began in 1966 when billionaire Howard Hughes purchased and moved into the Desert Inn. Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian began designing the MGM Grand as he purchased and “legitimized” additional former mafia properties. They paved the way for subsequent titans such as Carl Icahn to own the Stratosphere, Steve Wynn to construct the Mirage and Bellagio, and public corporations such as Harrah’s to consolidate properties along the Strip under one corporate umbrella.
In 1974, Interstate 15 was finished along the route of U.S. 91, and the former road was renamed Nevada State Route 604. Excalibur, New York-New York, Monte Carlo, Planet Hollywood, the Luxor, Mandalay Bay, and the ritzy new CityCenter are just some of the themed megaresorts that have been added to the Boulevard in the nearly 40 years since. There are now upscale shopping complexes and a monorail running behind the hotels to the east. One can only speculate what Guy McAfee would make of his “Sunset Strip” joke today, given its prophetic nature.