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What was the first Las Vegas, NV casino?

The First Vegas Casino

Updated on March 17, 2022


If someone said the phrase 'gambling in Nevada', what's the first thing you think of? Probably Las Vegas, right? Sin City has made and kept a reputation as the gaming capital of the United States, and certainly competes with other notable gaming destinations around the world, such as Monte Carlo, Singapore, Sun City in South Africa or Atlantic City on the east coast of the United States. Despite the proliferation of gaming throughout the United States, Vegas remains a world destination for gaming and gaming related entertainment.

But of course, we're not telling you anything you don't already know. Gaming is Nevada's number one industry (followed by - and we're not making this up - marriage, mining, and divorce). The first gaming establishments in Nevada were not in Vegas. That honor belongs to Vegas' little sister to the north; Reno.

But even before gaming became an industry, it was a pastime in isolated mining towns such as Virginia City or Goldfield. When the winter nights were long and cold, the women few and far between, and shipping companies had to halt their businesses due to inclement weather, prospectors took to gambling almost out of sheer boredom, and the activity became a staple of the Silver State.

In 1909, in a flurry of so-called 'morality legislation'; a mentality that eventually led to Prohibition, Nevada outlawed gambling in an attempt to stem the various forms of crime that can associate themselves with gaming. When the rates of those crimes actually rose, the legislature began to reconsider the State's legal stance on one of it's most revenue-generating industries.

In 1931, two years ahead of the national curve, Nevada repealed the ban on gambling and issued licenses to the Riverside Hotel and the Bank Club in Reno, in March of that year. And while the Bank Club is long gone, the Riverside is still there, perched on the southern bank of the Truckee River.

But where Reno was a farming, ranching prospecting hub with a major transcontinental railroad stop, Las Vegas was a quiet town int he desert surrounded by a smattering of cattle ranches. A few months after the clubs in Reno opened up, a couple of saloons in Vegas were granted limited gaming licenses; The Red Rooster nightclub (on the sight where the Mirage stands today) and the laboriously named 'Gracie Hayes' Hi Ho Club San Souci', which was built on what would later become Fremont Street.

Both Vegas locations were primarily saloons, but business would grow as the cattle ranchers who came in to shake the dust off their boots were soon joined by construction workers who had begun work on a project just outside of town called The Hoover Dam.

As you can probably guess, Las Vegas began to grow.

Then it began to boom.

How the Hoover Dam Construction Affected Vegas

Of course, other industries began to flourish as well; pawn shops, wedding chapels, and places where one could obtain quick cash advances. These were not the same cash advance businesses that deal in personal loans and installment loans today. These establishments were run by - shall we say - more 'interesting' characters. More on that later.

Meanwhile, in late 1932, as dignitaries and higher class public figures began arriving in Las Vegas to observe the progress on the Hoover Dam, the first luxury hotel - including air conditioning and an elevator - called The Apache Hotel opened on what would later come to be known as The Strip. The hotel had some limited gambling facilities in its bar, but did not have an actual casino floor.

At this point, you're probably wondering why we haven't mentioned Bugsy Siegel. You may have seen the movie named after him, in which Warren Beatty plays a mafioso who comes to an empty desert town and realizes the potential for a gaming mecca.

Havana Was before Las Vegas

But that's not exactly how things went. Siegel didn't just seem to appear out of nowhere, and gambling in Vegas was already a fairly popular regional activity for over a decade. To understand why Vegas became the City of Sin, and why the mafia took such an interest in it, we have to go back to per-revolutionary Cuba. In those days, Havana was a popular desination for the wealthy looking to indulge a few vices, which the Cuban Batista was only too happy to accommodate. Gambling was the center activity around which revolved drinking (especially during the Prohibition Era), smoking those legendary cigars, and several other unsavory activities which cannot be mentioned here. Needless to say, these activities attracted the east coast mafia families, and by the time Fidel Castro fired up his revolution, mafia hands were in every conceivable activity nuder the Havana sun.

But Fidel didn't see things the same way his predecessor did, and he promptly outlawed all vices save for smoking.

Bugsy Siegel Revives the Ghosts of Havana in Vegas

Enter Bugsy Siegel; a prominent member of New York's Jewish Mafia and co-founder of the notorious gang known simply as 'Murder Inc.' He'd been a medium level player in the Cuban Casino industry, and had moved to California to explore the possibilities of turning Los Angeles into a Cuban style gaming destination. But certain prominent figures in LA Law Enforcement, knowing who he was, clamped down hard on his efforts (it's part of the reason why you never hear of the LA Mafia. For a very loose telling of these events, see the excellent film LA Confidential, which is essentially a fictionalized recounting on how and why the mafia were never able to gain a foothold in Los Angeles). Siegel had moved west in order to revitalized a very damaged reputation which included a public murder trial and feuds with the Italian mafia families.

But the mafia did have its hand in the construction project going on just outside of Las Vegas, and were providing services to the thousands of workers such as bootleg liquor, 'companionship', and some say the Hoover Dam is where a few unfortunate souls who crossed the mafia wound up buried in thousands of tons of concrete.

While it is certainly true that gambling halls and hotels were already functioning in Las Vegas, Siegel saw an opportunity to revive the ghosts of Havana and give them new life in a desert town that had very little power in terms of law enforcement, building regulation, or even gaming regulation.

Bugsy Siegel Invests in a Hotel

So Siegel invested in a hotel; a relatively modest property situated on what would later become The Strip. He also invested heavily in a major refurbishment, improvement room comforts, building the first real floor space dedicate solely to gaming, and constructing venues for entertainment, dining and the all important swimming pool area.

It was, in essence, the first real Hotel Casino ever built.

And nobody seemed interested in visiting.

Bugsy Rebrands

Advertising efforts made the hotel seem like just another gambling establishment. So Bugsy had the place closed for several months during which time he booked known entertainers out of Los Angeles such as movie stars and famous singers. Then he advertised.

The Flamingo Luxury Hotel and Casino Opens

He also paid other well known entertainers and Hollywood stars to come to the hotel for the weekend, no strings attached. These entertainers naturally talked of their luxury experience in Las Vegas and on December 26, 1946, the Flamingo Luxury Hotel and Casino officially opened to the public.

Or at least, the Casino portion was opened. It would be several months before the hotel was finished, but by then, The Flamingo had become the desired destination out west, surpassing even the great hotels in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Bugsy Murdered

Once the hotel was opened, Bugsy managed to basque in his newfound glory for all of three months. On June 20th, 1947, he was shot dead at his girlfriend's house in Los Angeles; the target of a mafia that never forgave him for his success.

But the seed had been planted, and within a year, some twenty more luxury hotel casinos were under construction, and the dusty little desert town of Las Vegas was... well you know the rest.

The Flamingo Set the Standard for Hotel Casinos

Technically speaking, The Flamingo was not the first Vegas casino. But in terms of what we picture today - luxury hotels with large floors full of slot machines, poker tables and black jack stands, restaurants, shops, large poolside areas, bars, and entertainment theaters - the Flamingo in Vegas is the pioneer that set the standard for all such properties that came after it, including the mega-casinos you find in Vegas today.

80 years ago, Las Vegas was not the first town in Nevada to have gambling, nor was it the entertainment destination we all know today, but it's hard to see Vegas as anything other than what it is now, and in some cases (probably much to Seigel's astonishment), many Vegas destination resorts have reinvented themselves to become family friendly, even while other establishments maintain their reputations as being a part of Sin City.

We at CASH 1 hope you have enjoyed this look at Las Vegas history. And while this story focused primarily on gambling, we strongly encourage you to borrow responsibly if you find yourself in need of an online loan, an installment loan, or a title loan. Never gamble with borrowed money. As they say, 'the house always wins'.

If you feel you might have a problem with gambling, please call the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700.

If you are in a position of financial need, come see us at CASH 1 Loans or call us at 1-888-858-9333 and find out if an installment loan or title loan are right for you.

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Noel Ballon

Noel Ballon is a skilled personal finance writer passionate about helping people to succeed financially.

As a guest writer for CASH 1, Noel has shared his knowledge on a variety of financial issues, including budgeting, saving, investing, and retirement planning

Noel has a background in economics and finance with over five years of experience writing in the financial sector.

He works to simplify complicated financial ideas so that people from every area of society may understand them.

When Noel isn't writing, he likes keeping current on the latest financial sector changes and looking for fresh approaches to assisting people in choosing wise financial decisions.