The road formally known as Las Vegas Boulevard and informally as “The Strip” has been a part of Las Vegas history from the very earliest days of settlement. It was originally a section of the Old Spanish Trail connecting Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, traversed first by 15th century Spanish explorers and then traveled extensively by the pack trains of traders over the next 400 years.
From Byway to Highway
In 1855, Brigham Young established a fort on the route to protect his followers as they journeyed between Mormon missions in Salt Lake City and the San Bernardino Valley. The stronghold eventually became a museum and it can still be visited at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue.
When the city was incorporated in 1905, the dusty old trail was no longer much traveled. The east and west sections of the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad had been joined, making long treks by horse-drawn wagon obsolete. But the rise of the motorcar in subsequent years caused renewed interest in the byway. Improved and made part of the new federal roadway system, it was designated U.S. Highway 91 in the mid-1920s.
When gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, one of the first facilities to open up on U.S. 91 south of the town center was called the Pair-O-Dice Club. It was owned by Frank and Angelina Detra, who served Italian meals to the sounds of live music, with the added attraction of table games. Over the next several years, the little nightclub became quite popular among crowds of tourists passing through Las Vegas en route to see the massive new “Boulder Dam” (later renamed Hoover Dam).
Then in 1939, Guy McAfee, a former vice squad officer from Los Angeles, took an interest in the Detras’ property. He bought the club, renovated it to focus more on gambling and renamed it the “91 Club.” As a joke, he would compare the barren bit of highway running by his door to Hollywood’s famous Sunset Strip. The tag stuck, and the thoroughfare has been known as “the Strip” ever since.
World War II didn’t slow the growth of the Strip for a minute. In fact, it fueled it. The establishment of the Las Vegas Gunnery School (later Nellis Air Force Base) on Las Vegas’s doorstep provided plenty of customers for new establishments offering entertainment. In 1941, California resort developer Thomas Hull opened the El Rancho at the corner of U.S. 91 and San Francisco Street (now Sahara Avenue). It featured 40 cottages and a gambling hall for craps, blackjack and roulette.
Sensing opportunity, Texas cinema magnate R.E. Griffith bought out McAfee’s 91 Club in 1942 and erected an even bigger resort with a Wild West theme in its place—The Last Frontier. Because construction materials were all being used for the war effort, Griffith scavenged deserted mines to build his mammoth hotel-casino. It was here that Harry James and Betty Grable tied the knot in 1943 and the sequined pianist Walter Liberace debuted in 1944. This was also where a wise guy from back East spent much of the war years—Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
As the war drew to a close in 1945, Siegel spent $1 million to buy an extravagant but stalled project on the Strip—the Flamingo Hotel & Casino. When finished, it would have a golf course, riding stables, a four-story hotel, palm trees, a three-tier waterfall, a European-style casino and a huge showroom. He convinced New York Syndicate boss Meyer Lansky to back the venture and in 1946 the Flamingo opened with top-notch entertainment, including Jimmy Durante, George Jessel, Rose Marie and Xavier Cougat.
Unfortunately, the Flamingo was not a financial success. Cost overruns, casino losses and poor marketing of its shows and rooms caused the Syndicate to rethink their investment in 1947. Siegel was gunned down in Beverly Hills in June; his killer was never caught. Lansky called in Gus Greenbaum, Joe Rosenberg and “Icepick Willie” Alderman to take over operations and the era of “mob rule” on the Strip began.
The Building Boom
In 1950, Wilbur Clark opened the $4.6-million Desert Inn with financial aid from “friends” in Cleveland and Detroit; its stage saw the Las Vegas debut of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. Then came construction of a second Syndicate-backed property in 1952—The Sands, where Sinatra, Dean Martin and their buddies, “The Rat Pack,” would become an institution.
By and large, the mob got along well with local government. They managed to avoid municipal control along U.S. 91 by getting Clark County to designate the area as an unincorporated township that they named “Paradise City,” and that’s how the seven-mile segment of road known as the Strip has remained to this day.
As the 1950s rolled on, some $230 million from the Teamsters Union Pension Fund was funneled into Las Vegas for casino construction. The Sahara, the Riviera, the Dunes, the Hacienda, the Tropicana and the Stardust sprang up, one after another. The world had never seen anything like this transformation of a desert trail into an entertainment oasis.
The Modern Era
In the 1960s, more resorts were added along Las Vegas Boulevard, including the Aladdin, Caesars Palace and Circus Circus. But the days of mobster involvement were coming to an end. Crackdowns on organized crime by the federal government combined with stricter licensing policies by the Nevada gaming commission to force “known criminals” from casino ownership. The Strip properties had to go legit.
When billionaire Howard Hughes bought and moved into the Desert Inn in 1966, the shift began. Even as he purchased and “legitimized” more former mob properties, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian began designing the MGM Grand. They paved the way for later giants like Carl Icahn to own the Stratosphere, Steve Wynn to build the Mirage and Bellagio, and public corporations like Harrah’s to consolidate properties all along the Strip under one corporate umbrella.
In 1974, Interstate 15 was completed along the route of U.S. 91, and the old road was officially re-designated as Nevada State Route 604. In the nearly 40 years since then, many more changes have come to the Boulevard in the form of themed mega-resorts like Excalibur, New York New York, Monte Carlo, Planet Hollywood, the Luxor, Mandalay Bay and the posh new CityCenter. Upscale shopping malls have been added and a monorail now runs behind the hotels on the east. One can only wonder what Guy McAfee would think of his prophetic “Sunset Strip” joke today.