A popular local adage states that "Nothing ever changes in Las Vegas, except the way it looks and the people who live here."
Native residents ”” especially the old timers ”” barely keep up with the new casinos that are constantly opening. Yet, they can tell you about the not-so-distant past when Las Vegas had 5,000 residents and was little more than a watering hole for area miners and people on the way to somewhere else.
While Las Vegas has a colorful, albeit short history, the community hasn’t dwelled on the past. Indeed, historical buildings or monuments sometimes haven’t been treated kindly. Most of the time, they serve as props for televised implosions or demolitions.
Examples of historical sites that never made it to the Register of Historical Places include, Elvis Presley’s old penthouse apartment at the Las Vegas Hilton, which could have made a nice museum, but instead was converted to a high-roller suite.
The suite once used by Howard Hughes doesn’t exist any more since the Desert Inn was shut down. And the Flamingo Hotel razed Bugsy Siegel’s fortress-like suite, with its false stairways and bulletproof office, to make room for its expansion in the early 1990s.
Although the wrecking ball has made rubble of most of Las Vegas’ historical places, a few still exist and are worth searching for.
The city of Las Vegas, population 3,000, was incorporated in 1911. Virtually everything was located downtown, including the city’s oldest hotel, which still operates at the corner of Fremont and Main streets as the Golden Gate. Built in 1906, the hotel was originally called the Hotel Nevada.
The first rooms cost $1 per night and included electric lighting, ventilation and steam heat radiators. There was no air conditioning, of course, and guests shared common bathrooms at the end of the hall. The hotel’s ground floor had a lobby and a few offices but no casino; yet there was gambling ”” a roulette wheel and a few poker tables”” until it was outlawed in 1909.
Over the years, the hotel expanded. During the 1920s, a third floor was added, and in 1931 ”” the same year gambling was legalized again ”” the hotel was renamed Sal Sagev, or "Las Vegas" spelled backward.
The hotel was renamed the Golden Gate in 1955 when a group of San Francisco investors took over the hotel and opened the casino. Four years later, the new owners introduced Las Vegas to the shrimp cocktail ”” a tasty little treat they discovered in an Oakland deli. The dish caught on and has been a Golden Gate tradition ever since.
Today, while the Golden Gate has modernized to keep with the times, it retains much of its historic charm. Many of the original 10-foot by 10-foot guest rooms remain, though they’ve been updated with air conditioning, private baths, cable TV, coffee makers, voice mail and even computer ports! The rates have increased, but the mahogany doors, plaster walls and tiled bathroom floors remind guests of the hotel’s rich history.
Besides the legalization of gambling, 1931 signaled the start of the Hoover Dam project, the biggest single kick to the southern Nevada
economy. Over a four-year span, this massive federal project brought 5,000 workers and a veritable cascade of money into the area.
Exploring Hoover Dam is a nice way to spend a morning. It features guided tours that take you into the heart of the dam and below the level of Lake Mead. There are also historical displays that depict how the dam was built, and what it was like to operate the power plant.
At about the time Hoover Dam was completed, motel-style resorts started popping up. The El Rancho opened in 1941. The Western-themed Last Frontier opened in 1942, using a stagecoach to bring gamblers from the airport. Neither of these hotels are still standing, but you can glimpse one of their neighbors, the Algiers Hotel, which still stands across the Strip from Circus Circus. This venerable "motor court" style hotel features a bleeding brick architecture from the 1950s, guest rooms with casement windows and a swimming pool with towering palms trees.
You can also view lodging from the 1950s in some of the old motels on Fremont Street, east of downtown, which at one time was the road to Arizona, as well as on Las Vegas Boulevard south of Tropicana, which used to be called the old Los Angeles Highway. Noteworthy is the old Glass Pool Inn, a pink retro-style motor court that has been a frequent backdrop for feature films and TV shows.
In downtown, you’ll find the El Cortez Hotel, the first hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Built in the 1940s, the original adobe-brick section of the hotel remains, and some of the older walk-up guest rooms are reminders of downtown’s roots.
Just a few blocks away, spread along the mall that is now the Fremont Street Experience, you can view some of the historic neon signs that are scattered about in an informal walking tour. Among the relics are the Aladdin’s lamp sign and the classic horseman from the old Hacienda.
A good place to study the history of the area is at the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society, located at Lorenzi Park, about a mile north of downtown. The museum has exhibits, displays and tours on virtually everything from the early Paiute settlers to the Nevada Test Site.