Before there were slots, there was sand and a spring. While Las Vegas seems to change faster than the flashing lights of its oversized signs, the city has managed to embrace some of its past. From its days as a desert outpost, through its years as a neon-infused land of possibilities, vintage Vegas can still be experienced.


A Tough Little Town

Freemont Street, archival photo: Von Tobel collection/UNLV Libraries Special Collections

Freemont Street, archival photo: Von Tobel collection/UNLV Libraries Special Collections


In draw poker—a variation of the strategy game—you can replace any or all of the cards the dealer gives you. It’s no wonder the game is popular in Las Vegas. The city’s philosophy has always been that a person can change the unfair hand they’ve been dealt.

“People often came to Las Vegas to reinvent themselves,” says Geoff Schumacher, senior director of content at the city’s Mob Museum.

Vegas’ story began as a watering hole, where local Indigenous groups, the Spanish, Mormons and later miners would stop to use its natural springs. A sense of permanence developed with the arrival of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad in 1905, and Vegas’ incorporation as a city in 1911. The early city was built on a system of blocks centred around the railway station at the top of Fremont Street. Block 17—location of The Mob Museum—was set aside for African Americans, while Block 16—now a parking lot—was the red light district.

“It was a tough little town,” says Schumacher. “Miners were out in the desert for weeks on end, so when they came to town they wanted to have some fun. The city was pretty tolerant.”

Where to experience this history today


1.Golden Gate Hotel & Casino

The Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, photo by Steve Collins

The Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, photo by Steve Collins


For many of the settlers during Vegas’ early days, the journey to a better life started with a short walk across the dusty street from the train station for a hotel room and a drink.

Among the first buildings was the two-storey Hotel Nevada on Fremont Street, which opened in 1906. The original building is now part of the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, run by the same group that owns the nearby The D Las Vegas, and a display case in the lobby chronicles the hotel’s history. It was home to the city’s first telephone; its phone number was “1.”  The owner’s home had the second phone installed and its number was “2.”

The Gate saw a number of historic moments. In 1959, the iconic 50-cent shrimp cocktail was introduced to Vegas by the casino, and members of the Rat Pack—Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—would stop by for a drink before catching the train out of town.

2. Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort

In the 1850s, the Mormons arrived, selecting the area—halfway between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City—for a fort. The sober-looking, adobe-walled Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort is now a historic state park.

Neon Signs

The Hoover Dam, archival photo: Manis Collection/UNLV Libraries Special Collections

The Hoover Dam, archival photo: Manis Collection/UNLV Libraries Special Collections


Driving along Route 95 southeast of Las Vegas, a power line comes into view. It’s joined by another. Then another. And another. A snaking mass of cable stretches across the dusty ochre hills above and valleys below the highway. They converge at Hoover Dam, a wonder of concrete construction that rose from Black Canyon between 1931 and 1936.

The dam’s construction coincided with the legalization of gambling in Nevada in 1931 and the end of prohibition two years later. During the Great Depression, an estimated 42,000 work-starved men descended on the site for one of 5,000 jobs. The workers were housed in nearby Boulder City, a gambling- and alcohol-free town they eagerly escaped from every payday for Vegas’ neon lights—the first of which appeared on Fremont in 1928.

The power generated by the dam allowed Vegas to really glow. Businesses installed neon signs to attract the dam workers, the estimated 100,000 tourists who came to see its construction, and later visitors during neon’s brightest decades: the ’40s to the ’60s.

The Hoover Dam (present day), video by Dean Lisk


Where to experience this history today

1. The Neon Museum

The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, photo by Steve Collins

The Neon Museum, photo by Steve Collins


More than 200 signs—the majority with their glass tubes, once filled with inert gasses, now broken or missing—rest in the Neon Museum’s Boneyard on Las Vegas Boulevard. Iconic signs from Binion’s Horseshoe, the Stardust and Caesars Palace sit next to those for pool halls, dry cleaners and wedding chapels. “The Moulin Rouge was the first integrated casino. It was short-lived, but helped to desegregate The Strip,” says one of the Neon Museum’s interpreters, referencing the historic sign. Located in a small yard across the street from the museum, Brilliant is an immersive outdoor show that allows spectators to see some of Vegas’ iconic signs come back to life—without the neon. Choreographed lights and videos are projected onto the old signs while classic songs play.

The Neon Museum, video by Dean Lisk

2. The Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge

Some of the Neon Museum’s restored signs—such as The Silver Slipper and The Hacienda Horse and Rider—have been installed along Las Vegas Boulevard. Meanwhile, diners can immerse themselves in the decor of The Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge. This Vegas institution boasts an interior lit by hot-pink and electric-blue neon.

The Mob Era

The Silver Slipper, archival photo: Las Vegas News Bureau

The Silver Slipper, archival photo: Las Vegas News Bureau


For organized crime, which saw bootlegging profits dry up when prohibition was repealed, gambling became an even more lucrative racket. Gambling had always been part of the mob’s portfolio, but with a crackdown on illegal gambling, they doubled down on Vegas where it was legal. Vegas turned into an “Open City.”

“Any mob organization could come into town and invest here,” says The Mob Museum’s Schumacher. “That wasn’t the case in New York City where there were territorial boundaries. In Vegas, there was enough for everyone.”

That mostly conflict-free atmosphere meant organized crime was able to invest in the casinos that would eventually dominate Las Vegas Boulevard—known as The Strip. By the 1950s, a number of Vegas hotels were mob-owned or had ties to organized crime, including Stardust and Tropicana.

It was only with a change in casino ownership rules in the ’60s, increased federal scrutiny and the arrival of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes—who bought properties like the Desert Inn, Sands Hotel and Casino and Silver Slipper—that the mob era began to decline.

Where to experience this history today

1. The El Cortez Hotel

The El Cortez Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, photo by Steve Collins

The El Cortez Hotel and Casino, photo by Steve Collins


One year before he opened the iconic Flamingo Hotel & Casino in 1946, mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was part owner of the El Cortez. When Jackie Gaughan bought the hotel and casino in 1963, he acquired more than just the gaming equipment. He also got a mysterious lodger at the Cortez. According to myth, Fat Irish Green was an associate of Siegel’s who promptly returned a large amount of money he was holding to the mob after his boss was murdered. To thank him, they let him stay rent-free at the Cortez. He lived there until his death in 1977.

Gaughan, who died in 2014, was a legend in Vegas. He handed out “fun books”—discount coupons—to casino guests and was known for helping out his employees. “He covered funerals and helped with the purchase of homes,” says John Dorweiler, manager of the El Cortez. “Some urns are still in an office downstairs because the employees didn’t have families.”

2. Wynn Las Vegas and The Venetian Las Vegas

Today, the Wynn Las Vegas and Venetian Las Vegas stand on the site of the Desert Inn and the Sands, with the only real remnant of Howard Hughes’ time in the city being an old house he briefly lived in during the early 1950s. It is located on the site of Channel 8, a local CBS television affiliate Hughes owned.

Atomic Bombs

A mushroom cloud near Las Vegas, archival photo: Don English/Las Vegas News Bureau

A mushroom cloud near Las Vegas, archival photo: Don English/Las Vegas News Bureau


In 1951, atomic bomb testing began at the Nevada Proving Grounds northwest of the city. “Las Vegas was only about 25,000 to 30,000 people. It was a very small community, but, overall, they were supportive of what was going on,” says Michael Hall, director of the National Atomic Testing Museum on E. Flamingo Road. “People were immensely proud.”

Hall says the bomb symbolized everything modern and sexy. There were Miss Atomic beauty pageants, the cover of the 1953 Las Vegas High School yearbook features a mushroom cloud, and atomic-themed cocktails were served during early morning parties, when customers would flock to the roofs of casinos and bars to watch the explosions more than 100 kilometres away. Sometimes, the blasts blew out windows downtown, but no one complained. It was the patriotic days of the Cold War, says Hall.

“People think gambling built Vegas, but that’s not true,” says Hall, who adds 200,000 jobs were created during the program’s first 20 years, with the government creating housing and schools for the workers and their families.

Where to experience this history today

1. Atomic Liquors

The Hunter S. Mash is Atomic Liquor’s best-selling cocktail, photo by Steve Collins

The Hunter S. Mash is Atomic Liquor’s best-selling cocktail, photo by Steve Collins


Geiger counters, used to ensure the food and drink—and customers—were not radioactive, are still on display on the shelves behind the bar at Atomic Liquors on Fremont Street. The oldest free-standing bar in Vegas, Atomic opened in 1952 and was a popular spot to watch the atomic tests. The bar’s exterior hasn’t changed since it opened, nor has part of the wooden bar or—as the staff jokes—the popcorn ceiling. Only one of the bar stools has a back support and this is where Barbra Streisand would sit and chat with the owner.

Another legendary customer was journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The Hunter S. Mash is Atomic Liquor’s best-selling cocktail and was created after the owners discovered a cache of Old Crow whisky—Thompson’s favourite brand— from 1976 in the bar’s back room.

Try this drink: Atomic Fizz

Popular through the early 1900s, a fizz is a shaken drink that mixes alcohol with citrus, sweetener and sparkling water. When asked to create a signature drink for the T-Mobile Arena—home to the Vegas Golden Knights—mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim wanted to reflect the region’s history and culture. The Atomic Fizz features vodka, Aperol, fresh lemon, prickly pear purée (which gives it the magenta colour) and chilled sparkling water.


[This story appears in the September 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]