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Neon MetropolisHow Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century
By Hal Rothman
RoutledgeCopyright © 2003 Hal Rothman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneInventing Modern Las Vegas
The numbers are there, but they don't mean much. How do you explain a town that began as a railroad land auction in 1905, reached eight thousand in 1940, and topped one million people in 1995? There's no precedent for Las Vegas, no way to put its experience into the framework of other American cities. Distinct from the American whole, away from the arrows of progress and prosperity, Las Vegas was an insignificant part of the great government-industry matrix that defined the twentieth century. No set of circumstances led to Las Vegas. It didn't have fertile land or rich mineral veins; railroads didn't meet, highways didn't cross there. Banks didn't seek out Las Vegas, developers didn't fashion it into the next paradise, corporations didn't come to the desert to establish new headquarters, and people certainly didn't come looking for the little oasis to put down roots. Las Vegas's attractiveness was lost on Americans until after World War II and to the mainstream until well after 1975.
The reasons are obvious. Las Vegas was nowhere, a "miserable dinky little oasis town," the mobster Meyer Lansky supposedly called it, and without transportation that made it easy to reach or air-conditioning to make the stay bearable, Las Vegas's appeal was as seasonal as any ski resort. Before 1945, it had little to recommend it. Las Vegas had no markets, no hinterland to colonize. Even today, nearby St. George and southern Utah, heavily Mormon, look north to Salt Lake City; Kingman, Arizona, is a highway crossroads of its own; Flagstaff is fast becoming a suburb of Phoenix; and Barstow occupies its own dystopic universe. Las Vegas did not even have enough water to make it prey for Los Angeles. At its twentieth-century birth, Las Vegas was podunk, weak, and dependent, an inconsequential speck on the map.
The new town was typical of the small-town West. Modern Las Vegas began atop the remains of a nineteenth-century Mormon settlement that left only a few cantankerous ranchers. It started as a railroad town, a repair shop for the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad. Like so many other places in the West, its sustenance came from the rails, and when they prospered, as they did with the opening of the silver mines in Bullfrog and Rhyolite before 1910, so did the town. By 1910, Fremont Street, the heart of the old downtown, was paved, guttered, and flagged with sidewalks, and ten miles of local dirt road had been oiled to reduce the dust. The company built sixty-four workers' cottages and offered easy terms to workers who wanted to build their own. When the railroad's fortunes dipped, so did the town's. A track washout in 1910 sent the population spiking downward from twelve hundred to eight hundred. Only an upsurge in regional fortunes redirected the number upward. A pattern that typified the rural West in this period and ever after defined Las Vegas was set: the town was dependent on decisions made in other places.
Las Vegas's circumstances mirrored the history of the state. Nevada has always been a colony, dependent on the whims and needs of other larger, more powerful states, some adjacent like California, others farther away. Shoehorned into the Union to guarantee Abraham Lincoln's reelection in 1864, Nevada enjoyed the privilege of statehood at the cost of its dignity and, some said, its independence. Some nineteenth-century senators from Nevada never lived in the state. Some of those who did never bothered to attend the Senate. Nevada may be the only state in the union that faced the genuine prospect of losing its statehood. By 1900, the state's population had so dwindled that its status was in question. Representative Francis Newlands, a Californian who transcended the carpetbagger label, decided that farmers would save the state. In 1902, he engineered the Reclamation Act, which created the Reclamation Service, later the Bureau of Reclamation, to impound water for yeoman farmers. The bureau became a dam-building monstrosity, a remarkable example of what political scientists call the "iron triangle" that took on a life of its own. Despite Newlands's intentions, the Reclamation Act created a new colonial master for Nevada, a federal agency that controlled the most basic need of an arid state.
For two decades, Las Vegas was a simple small western town. Its main industry was the Union Pacific, which bought out the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake in 1921, kept the maintenance shop, and became master of the railroad town, responsible for its infrastructure as well as for its open social climate. Las Vegas had all the virtues and vices of such places. It was tough, raw, and sometimes mean. The rules of high-tone America not only did not apply, they simply didn't exist. Like many similar towns, Las Vegas did not explicitly forbid prostitution. As long as it was confined to one square block, block 16 of the original town plat, "quasi-legal" best defined its status. Railroad flat restricted gambling, legal in Nevada until Progressive reformers barred it in 1910 in a prohibition that lasted until 1931 and alcohol to the same area. Illegal but only in a technical sense, such activities were part of the compact the railroad made when it created towns that functioned like the port cities of yore. The railroad brought life and it tacitly condoned behavior at odds with Victorian norms. Railroad companies well understood the advantages and drawbacks of the rails, and towns that grew up along them made accommodation, even in the most moralistic of times.
Las Vegas's circumstances were typical of the rural West and even more characteristic of railroad towns. The railroad provided a capital regime; it was the only consistent source of funding for the town, and its goals determined those of the city. Much like the cattle trade of the nineteenth century, the rails brought a rowdy element with plenty of cash and a feeling of mobility. Workers lived in Las Vegas, but travelers passed through, and the sense of movement along the rails freed people from place and time. Vice flourished and became an integral part of local commerce. Although still considered not quite proper, it was recognized as necessary. Catering to other people's desires proved so lucrative that even the most upright small-town burghers held their noses and looked away, as they had in the cattle towns. The accommodation made life palatable. Without vice there wasn't enough business to eke out a living.
This condition reflected a larger theme in the state's history. While Nevada liked to bill itself as the Old West, where the rules of modern civilization didn't apply, it was equally true that the state had few choices. Neither of its two nineteenth-century industries, mining and railroads, encouraged stability. Mining exploded on the landscape, peaked in great rushes, then left huge visible scars as testimony to its transience. The railroad epitomized nineteenth-century mobility, defying the rooted ideals of the time. Its reputation in American folklore for encouraging transience and license and freedom inspired generations of songwriters and other artists. The state embraced these industries because it had no other choice. If Nevadans seemed more willing to mind their own business than most, this incipient libertarianism was a product of the limits of its land and infrastructure in a harsh climate.
One-owner towns had their drawbacks for the people who lived in them. Even though they allowed locals considerable autonomy and leeway, outside power maintained tremendous control. Early Las Vegas was wise to heed and placate its masters. When it didn't, disaster resulted. After the Union Pacific purchase in 1921, the new owners laid off sixty workers, earning the ire of the town. The next year, an opportunity arose for railroad workers to pay back their new overlords; workers shut Las Vegas down during the national railroad strike in 1922. The new masters were not amused. In retribution, the Union Pacific signed the town's death warrant: it moved the maintenance shop and three hundred jobs to Caliente, about 125 miles uptrack toward Utah. The railroad regime ended as arbitrarily as it had started, and Las Vegas was consigned to the fate of other small western towns. It had to adapt-or diminish, wither, and finally go under. The period just following the railroad's departure was the bleakest in modern Las Vegas's short history. The whistle-stop easily could have become a ghost town.
Only California and its imperial need for water saved the city. Since the remarkable fiction that created modern Los Angeles, the City of Angels became a vacuum for every drop of water it could collect. Southern California's growth demanded ever more water and threatened its neighbors near and far, paralyzing even distant states like Colorado. Largely to prevent California from taking all the water in the Colorado River, the other river states sued for peace. The result was ratification in 1927 of the Colorado Compact, which adjudicated the waters of the Colorado River on a state-by-state basis, and the decision to construct the Boulder Dam, now Hoover Dam, the largest public works project of its time, in Black Canyon about thirty miles from Las Vegas.
The dam was the signal event in the history of southern Nevada with ramifications far beyond the region. Beginning in 1931, construction lasted nearly four years, which meant four years of paychecks to almost five thousand workers at the height of the Depression. When Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the dam on September 30, 1935, the 760-foot concrete face presided over a technological miracle: a holding tank for all the water in the river, distributed by legal agreement between haves and have-nots. The dam created life, an economy, infrastructure, business, and even tourism. Secretary of the Interior Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur decided he wanted no part of the sinful railroad town of Las Vegas for the project. A stern moralist, Wilbur preferred the dry style of the Coolidge administration that preceded his tenure. Although Wilbur built a government town called Boulder City, dry and free of gambling, the road to the dam led through Las Vegas. Wilbur's puritanism had inadvertently given Las Vegas a new future.
The synergy the dam created was tremendous. Its success paved the way for the the Bureau of Reclamation to become the preeminent federal agency of the 1930s and a powerful engine of federal spending until the 1970s. After Boulder Dam, the Bureau of Reclamation engaged in forty-year orgy of dam building until it controlled the distribution of most of the water west of the Mississippi River and created legions of dependent local oligarchies in the small-town and mini-city West. As the dam revived Las Vegas, it also provided a new master, one that carried other federal beneficiaries in tow.
Las Vegas was entirely typical of other western towns in the 1930s. The region's economy survived or thrived based on the size of the federal contribution. Compared to places without a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, which housed young men paid a dollar a day to work on federal projects, or a WPA project, Las Vegas fared well. The dam pumped $19 million into the region. Another $4 million went for federal dole to the many disappointed people who showed up in southern Nevada for a job only to find that they were all filled. In the desperate 1930s, Las Vegas was little different from Wichita, Omaha, Billings, or Prescott. It responded to the same stimuli and felt the same losses, held to same sentiments and emotions and aspired to the same things. There wasn't a tube of neon to be found, and when Slats Jacobs, a Las Vegas cowboy who competed in the national rodeo circuit, won the annual competition held in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1938, he was the archetype of the moment. Despite the preeminence of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas every December since the 1980s, Jacobs might have been the last real cowboy of any note to come from Las Vegas.
There was one way that Las Vegas could stand apart from the multitude of similar towns. It possessed a sense of itself as a place out of time, left over from an older western past. A certain amount of the Old West was considered ribald by 1930s standards, but Las Vegas wasn't really sinful, its symbolism seemed to say. It just hadn't changed while everyone else had, and so held a convenient place in memory that allowed it-and you, when you visited-to get away with things that you couldn't at home. In a society quick to condemn aberrant behavior yet nostalgic for its lost roots, ribald could be packaged as individual freedom.
This tradition became the crux of the vaunted Nevada individualism, the most appealing and vexing characteristic of the state then and now. Nevada was and is wide open, a dream for anyone who was ever a sophomore in college and entranced by Ayn Rand, even for a moment. In their rugged self-image, Nevadans pride themselves on having real freedom, not the namby-pamby eighteenth-century Paul Revere-style freedom within the constraints of the community, but the right to do what you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, and with whomever you want. Fusing its rugged history with economic necessity, Nevada put as few constraints on the individual as possible. Your property is your property more in Nevada than in any other state in the union; you can carry a concealed weapon with less red tape than in most places, and the concept of self-defense-your right to protect yourself-is carried further in Nevada law than elsewhere in the nation. The desert alone was not the sole attraction for James "Bo" Gritz, the survivalist who negotiated the surrender at Ruby Ridge in Idaho. Nor is it accident that within a mile of the state capitol in Carson City, legal houses of prostitution flourish. Nevada is the home of the Sagebrush Rebellion, an attempt to privatize most federal lands in the West under the pretext of furthering private property rights. Nevada still sells this same nostalgia. All of this individualism pulls on the nation's emotions in an age when we're oppressed by institutions and information and told that the self is all there is. But this romanticism embodies a difficult paradox: with ideals like these, it's hard to run a modern society.
The next capital regime, federal dollars, illustrated the perils of colonial existence. Lacking industry or infrastructure, Las Vegas depended first and foremost on outside money. Almost as an afterthought, the state permitted activities that were regarded as scandalous. Southern Nevadans especially recognized the perils of dependence. An arbitrary change in federal policy could threaten not only individual livelihood, but the economic viability of the entire region. Before air-conditioning, attracting newcomers to a town where summer temperatures routinely topped 110 degrees was a difficult task without the lure of easy prosperity.
Excerpted from Neon Metropolis by Hal Rothman Copyright © 2003 by Hal Rothman. Excerpted by permission.
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