Discover one of America’s most fascinating cities through 30 dramatic true stories spanning Las Vegas’s 150-year history. James Roman takes readers on a tour through the glamorous and sometimes sordid history of Las Vegas and explains how a railroad town transformed itself into “the Entertainment Capital of the World.” Essays explore the major historic events from the founding of Sin City and the building of the Hoover Dam to the rise of the Rat Pack at the Sands and the establishment of the Mafia-controlled casinos. Also included are intriguing tales of Vegas celebrities from Frank Sinatra and Liberace to Siegfried and Roy, as well as numerous historical photos and full-color maps.
About the Author
James Roman is the author of Chronicles of Old Los Angeles and Chronicles of Old New York and served as editorial contributor to New York Living magazine for six years. He contributes regularly to publications that document emerging technology, and he appeared on the HBO television series Six Feet Under. He lives in Los Angeles.
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Chronicles of Old Las Vegas
Exposing Sin City's High-Stakes History
By James Roman
Museyon, Inc.Copyright © 2012 James Roman
All rights reserved.
It started as an oasis.
Picture a grassy meadow surrounded by an inhospitable desert. For millennia, that was the place we now call Las Vegas. Almost miraculously, over an expanse nearly 40 miles long and 15 miles wide, a spring bubbled up through the Mojave Desert floor. Its fresh water supported plant and animal life, and the indigenous Paiute tribe.
The Paiute believed the earth to be sacred. Though they had no private property rights, they were protective of their spring; it was Paiute ancestral land for as many as 4,000 years. When the white man's culture eventually encroached, it was Chief Tecopa, the final leader entrusted to protect the spring, who gave up the indigenous people's sacred oasis peacefully.
The Paiute didn't know that, for 300 years starting in 1521, Europeans had called their grassy meadow New Spain. And in 1776, when missionaries blazed a path between New Mexico and California called the Old Spanish Trail, the Paiute had no idea.
These indigenous people were nomads who spoke a language similar to the ancient Aztecs. In winter, they wore coats made from rabbit pelts, and when the weather got hot, the Paiute went nearly naked. Five to 10 families would roam together as a group, perhaps as many as 100 people. In the winter, all tribes-members would gather in one or two semi-permanent settlements. Then in the spring, they would scatter again in their nomadic quests for food and adventure.
Meanwhile, merchants and missionaries crisscrossed the territory along the L-shaped Old Spanish Trail. It was the easiest but not the most direct route to Los Angeles; some explorers continued to search for a shorter way. In November 1829, a team of 60 Spanish merchants led by the explorer and trader Antonio Armijo strayed from the trail. Their scout, Rafael Rivera, discovered the verdant oasis that he proclaimed "Las Vegas," "the meadows" in Spanish. Armijo's traders were the first Europeans to behold the unexpected oasis.
In 1844, John C. Frémont, adventurer and son-in-law of a prominent U.S. Senator, surveyed the Nevada Territory with Kit Carson as his guide. During a five-month journey with 25 men, Frémont's cartographers mapped the spring's territory in detail. Frémont wrote: "Two narrow streams of water, four or five feet deep, gush suddenly, with a quick current, from two singularly large springs ... the taste of the water is good but rather too warm to be agreeable."
The Paiute attacked the intruders. Chief Tecopa and his warriors attempted to chase Carson and Frémont away from the spring, grossly underestimating the foe they had encountered. A three-day skirmish ensued; Carson subdued the Paiute with the crack of his pistol, a sound heard at the spring for the first time. Tecopa soon reversed himself, serving as a crucial intermediary between two cultures. However, following this first encounter, Frémont cast a harsh eye on the indigenous hunter-gatherers, writing that the Paiute he observed were "humanity in its lowest form and most elementary state."
Despite the altercation with the Paiute, when Congress published Frémont's report, settlers had one more reason to head west. And, when President Lincoln proclaimed Nevada as America's 36th state on October 31, 1864, a metamorphosis at the Las Vegas springs was inevitable. Tecopa realized that the Paiute must adapt or die.
With the arrival of white settlers, the indigenous people were soon embroiled in conflicts over land ownership and the produce from fields that were irrigated by the spring. Chief Tecopa, just two years younger than Frémont, represented the final generation of nomads.
Though his name meant "Wildcat," Tecopa kept it peaceful. He displayed his willingness to accommodate the white settlers by wearing his best European attire and was frequently seen in a silk top hat and a red marching-band jacket with gold braid. Elsewhere in America, native people were being herded off the land and slaughtered along the Trail of Tears, but not so at the springs in Tecopa's Las Vegas. He encouraged a bloodless assimilation for the Paiute, leading them to work for wages in white culture, as laborers in the mines and as domestic helpers on the ranches. Ten percent of the Paiute population died of typhoid or other European diseases to which they had no immunity. Many others suffered psychological shock, witnesses to the end of nomadic life in North America.
One of the first settlers to own a piece of the meadow was Octavius Decatur Gass from Ohio, who eventually expanded his holdings to 640 acres. He hired Paiute workers to harvest his wheat, oats and barley. After the first harvest, they planted fruits and vegetables too. Other landowners followed. The transfer of the oasis was complete; pioneers mixed with native people to create the first permanent settlement in the valley.
Tecopa lived to see his people into the 20th century; he died in 1904, buried with his son and grandson at the Chief Tecopa Cemetery in Pahrump Valley, Nevada. In 1971, Nevada Governor Mike O'Callaghan dedicated a state memorial to the Chief at his gravesite.
Meanwhile, Frémont became the new Republican Party's first candidate for U.S. President. (He lost to one-term Democrat James Buchanan.) He later became the Governor of the Arizona Territory. Today, counties in four states, and the central boulevard in downtown Las Vegas, are named for him.
Helen J. Stewart, the wife of a prominent rancher, inherited the land and water rights once owned by O. D. Gass. She deeded part of that property to create the Las Vegas Indian Colony for her Paiute friends.
In 1978, the Las Vegas spring was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Springs Preserve, located about four miles from the Strip (and open to the public, seven days a week), is the meadow's last 180 undeveloped acres, where fresh water breaks through the Mojave Desert floor. Las Vegas remains an oasis.CHAPTER 2
NATIVE AMERICANS VS. LATTER-DAY SAINTS
Nevada's indigenous people, the Paiute, couldn't imagine the developments that would happen on their land in the 19th century. It started with a group of white militiamen who came in the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The church was founded in Fayette, New York, in 1830, with young Joseph Smith as its spiritual leader. In 1820, at just 14 years old, Smith claimed that God and Jesus Christ appeared before him as visions in the woods. In 1823, Smith was visited again, this time by an angel named Moroni who anointed him as a prophet; in honor of the angel, Smith called his followers Mormons. According to Mormon beliefs, four years later, Moroni revealed to Smith a set of golden plates, buried in a hillside. Smith translated the inscriptions on the plates in 1829 and named his translation the Book of Mormon. By 1830, when Smith claimed that the Lord instructed him to proselytize to other faiths, the local Christians had heard enough. The Latter-Day Saints were driven out of New York.
Seeking relative safety in Ohio's Western Reserve and in Jackson County, Missouri, the Mormons added converts, but still found no welcome. Smith was tarred and feathered by a mob in 1832. The Mormons were prevented from voting in Ohio, then expelled altogether in 1837. In 1838, the governor of Missouri issued an "Extermination Order," forcing all Mormons to leave Missouri or be killed. Dozens of Mormons were massacred or burned out of their homes. That's when the dynamic Brigham Young stepped up to join Joseph Smith in leading the Mormon followers to safety in Illinois.
Nauvoo, the town they founded in Illinois, grew rapidly, soon becoming one of Illinois's largest cities. It was here that Joseph Smith published many of the doctrines that define the Mormon religion, including its controversial endorsement of polygamy. In 1844, a riot ensued when Mormons destroyed a printing press where anti-Mormon literature was published. Joseph Smith and his brother were murdered in jail, and the mob scene escalated into a full-scale battle: the Battle of Nauvoo. The Mormons were forcibly driven from the town they'd built.
Brigham Young, now the Mormon president and prophet, realized that his people would be better off in territory outside the U.S. borders (there were 27 states on the North American continent in 1845). From their temporary headquarters in Nebraska, they planned for a vast new home in the Mexican Territory, a dubious choice since America went to battle against Mexico over that land mere months later.
When President Polk called for volunteers in the Mexican-American War, Brigham Young sent the Mormon Battalion. They didn't fight, but like their contemporary John C. Frémont, they explored and mapped the vast territory occupied by the Paiutes that would soon belong to the United States. With the Mexican- American War still raging, the Mormon pioneers crossed the Great Plains, led by Young. They arrived at the Great Salt Lake in July 1847.
When the war ended, the Mexican Cession was annexed to the United States. Would the Mormons again be forced from U.S. territory? Incoming President Millard Fillmore recognized the need for settlers in the new land. He acknowledged all Mormons by appointing Brigham Young as the territorial governor.
The new governor went to work. To President Zachary Taylor, he proposed the State of Deseret, a vast new Mormon state that would stretch from the Oregon Territory to Mexico, including all the Gold Rush territory that was attracting prospectors to the area. Surveying the maps prepared by Frémont and the Mormon Militia, Brigham Young suddenly discovered what the indigenous Paiute Indians had known for millennia: there's water in Las Vegas.
To Young, Las Vegas was a strategic location, a midpoint between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. On May 10, 1855, he assigned 30 Mormon militiamen to Las Vegas. They were charged as missionaries to convert the Paiute population and take control of the spring and the land surrounding it. The militiamen selected a site along the creek that flowed from the Las Vegas springs, then built a fort of adobe bricks 14 feet high to protect them from the Indians. The Mormon fort was the first building ever to be constructed in Las Vegas.
Own the land? How could anyone own something sacred? Property rights were a foreign concept to the Paiute, who believed that puha — spiritual power — inhabited the entire natural world. With little conflict, Mormon soldiers seized the Paiutes' land, then expanded the fort by planting crops in the tribal areas.
Their aggression in Las Vegas didn't last long, because the militiamen were suddenly called back to Utah. In May 1857, Utah's Mormon Militia attempted to prevent the U.S. Army from entering the Salt Lake Valley. The Utah War ensued with a series of skirmishes that continued until July 1858, as the Mormon militia held off the Army. It ended badly, with about 150 people, mostly civilians, dead. Though President James Buchanan eventually granted a full pardon to the Mormon people, Brigham Young was stripped of his governorship, with a non-Mormon installed as his replacement. It was one of America's first conflicts over the separation between church and state: President Buchanan refused to permit Utah's "theodemocracy," a government run by religious leaders. The Mormons' grandiose dreams for a State of Deseret vanished.
That concern over a theodemocracy applied to Las Vegas too, when the U.S. Army discovered the few remaining Mormon settlers at the Las Vegas fort. In a rare twist of racial relations to which history buffs marvel "only in Las Vegas," the United States government enforced an existing treaty that forbade the purchase of Las Vegas land by white settlers. The Mormons, all of them white, were occupying Las Vegas illegally. The ruling was clear: Tribal rights for the Paiute Indians were to be restored and respected. American authorities declared the Mormons' land seizure to be invalid.
The Mormons expressed their displeasure by harassing the Paiute off the land the Mormons considered theirs. This time, the Paiute retaliated, seizing the harvest the Mormons had gathered, claiming it for the indigenous people. Outnumbered, and now without food, the Mormon settlers escaped with their lives, retreating back to the Great Salt Lake.
The Paiute had no use for the Mormon fort, though they left the encroachment standing. Their story would change in 1864 when Nevada became America's 36th state, but for a little while longer, only the native people drank from the spring at Las Vegas.CHAPTER 3
THE RAILROAD TOWN
Before 1900, when Nevada was a state but there was no town called Las Vegas, Helen J. Stewart, the local postmaster, owned the spring and hundreds of acres surrounding it on the site of the future city.
She inherited the spring and its water rights while pregnant with her fifth child, after her husband was shot to death in 1884. Over the years, she proved to be a shrewd businesswoman, buying additional property to assemble an enormous ranch. At age 36 in 1890, she was the largest landowner in the county.
By 1902, with her children grown, Helen J. Stewart was ready for a change.
* * *
Years earlier, the Transcontinental Railroad had been completed in nearby Utah. Now industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt were constructing railroads across America, linking cities and establishing trade routes. First New York and Chicago were linked to San Francisco, then San Francisco was linked to Salt Lake City, the largest community between the Rockies and Los Angeles. Next, it seemed logical to expand the rail service to the south, where Los Angeles meets the ocean.
There was one major problem with this vision: steam engines need water, and fresh produce needs ice. To cross the arid route from Salt Lake City, a railroad would need a depot in the desert.
Edward H. Harriman, owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, and William A. Clark, the former U.S. Senator from Montana, saw the potential. Though they started as competitors, they were soon united by the vision of one railroad. They both called upon Mrs. Stewart.
Stewart sold 1,800 acres, including the Las Vegas water rights, to Clark's railroad enterprise for $55,000 (that's over $1.4 million in today's dollars). Harriman and Clark went to work on their ambitious new project: the San Pedro-Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, connecting the port of Los Angeles at San Pedro, California, to the railroad hub at Salt Lake City, with a major stop in downtown Los Angeles and a visit to the depot near the spring at Las Vegas.
* * *
Before the property could be conveyed to the railroad industrialists, a surveyor, J.T. McWilliams, was hired to map the enormous property. In his research, he discovered that an 80-acre parcel of land nearby was still owned by the U.S. government. With his inside information about the railroad's imminent arrival at the Stewart ranch, McWilliams promptly purchased those 80 acres, planning to get rich due to the land's proximity to the railroad tracks. As soon as the new railroad began construction, McWilliams sold small parcels of his townsite for $200 each. (today, it's the area surrounding West Bonanza Road.)
Sales were brisk, but this was rugged territory. With no rail service to provide building materials, the new owners erected tents and ramshackle buildings made of canvas. The McWilliams Townsite soon earned its name as "Ragtown."
By the summer of 1904, when the railroad's construction crew reached Mrs. Stewart's ranch, newspapers gushed, exaggerating the area's virtues. A columnist in the Los Angeles Daily Times described the Mojave Desert as "a territory of fabulous richness." Another town of tents sprang up, this time on the railroad property itself. Optimistic laborers of all sorts awaited the opportunities that a rail line would bring.
To handle the crowd, Charles "Pop" Squires erected the 30-room Hotel Las Vegas: a huge canvas structure 140 feet long and 40 feet wide, with additional tents for a dining room and kitchen. Until the following winter, this massive tent served as the center of all social activities.
Excerpted from Chronicles of Old Las Vegas by James Roman. Copyright © 2012 James Roman. Excerpted by permission of Museyon, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsCHAPTER 1. The Spring,
CHAPTER 2. Native Americans vs. Latter-Day Saints,
CHAPTER 3. The Railroad Town,
CHAPTER 4. Ragtime Vegas,
CHAPTER 5. Legal Tender,
CHAPTER 6. Hoover Dam,
CHAPTER 7. The Original Wise Guy,
CHAPTER 8. Marilyn Plays Vegas,
CHAPTER 9. First High Roller,
CHAPTER 10. Bugsy,
CHAPTER 11. The Flamingo,
CHAPTER 12. Estes Kefauver,
CHAPTER 13. Atomic Las Vegas,
CHAPTER 14. The Other Side of the Tracks,
CHAPTER 15. Breaking the Color Barrier,
CHAPTER 16. Moulin Rouge,
CHAPTER 17. Naked Ladies,
CHAPTER 18. The Skim,
CHAPTER 19. Bobby, Jimmy and Moe,
CHAPTER 20. The Rat Pack,
CHAPTER 21. The Sweet Science,
CHAPTER 22. Howard Hughes,
CHAPTER 23. Liberace,
CHAPTER 24. Elvis,
CHAPTER 25. Siegfried and Roy,
CHAPTER 26. M.I.T. Conquers Las Vegas,
CHAPTER 27. The Entrepreneur,
CHAPTER 28. House Of Cards,
CHAPTER 29. Brief History Of Gambling,
CHAPTER 30. The First Spin: Slot Machines,