Las Vegas was founded in 1905. It was a stop on the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad. It was a dusty stop where railroad employees would take a layover. The area was sparsely populated, mostly by ranchers and miners, before that time. It was the same year that the Hotel Nevada opened on the site now home to Golden Gate.
Las Vegas incorporated in 1911. This was one year after Nevada outlawed gambling in the state. Las Vegas did not care. Underground gambling operations continued in saloons. Las Vegas also ignored prohibition. It was known for its speakeasies during that era.
Fremont Street was paved between Main Street and what is now known as Las Vegas Blvd in 1925. A highway connecting Las Vegas and Los Angeles, known as US 91, opened in 1926.
In 1931, Hoover Dam construction began near the town now known as Boulder City. This created Lake Mead. That was the same year that the Nevada Legislature once again legalized gambling in the state. This made for a powerful combination that would put Las Vegas on the map.
Boulder City was home to the construction workers at the Hoover Dam project. It is about 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Boulder City was a government town that did not permit gambling. That policy continues to this day. The workers would find entertainment during off time in Las Vegas where gambling, brothels, and booze were widely available.
Fremont Street became the center of the action in downtown Las Vegas. The city’s casinos lined Fremont Street, the road that connects downtown with Boulder City. The current street name once it leaves downtown is Boulder Highway.
A major building boom hit downtown Las Vegas in the 40’s. It all started with the construction of El Cortez in 1941. Pioneer Club, Monte Carlo, Golden Nugget, Eldorado Club, and Westerner Club were among the new casinos. These casinos included the neon that is a part of the history of Las Vegas. The area around downtown Las Vegas was known as Glitter Gulch due to the neon that covered it. A strip club on Fremont Street still carries this name.
The 40’s also saw casinos expand into the area now known as the Las Vegas Strip. Some casino owners, often associated with organized crime in that day, were fed up with some city officials. Moving outside the city allowed casinos owners a way around city ordinances that were not on the books in the county.
The 50’s would see the Las Vegas Strip explode, including the construction of its first high rise, the Riviera. Riviera Las Vegas opened on April 20, 1955. It ceased operations on May 4, 2015. This started the movement of action away from downtown.
The Horseshoe became the first casino to install carpet during this era. It also was the first to offer gamblers comps, including free drinks and meals. This was the idea of the legendary Benny Binion.
Fremont became the first high rise casino on Fremont Street in 1956. Wayne Newton was the opening night performer. The launch of Fremont created a new era for downtown Las Vegas where motels and small hotels turned into resorts.
Las Vegas started to sprout suburbs in the 1960’s. This started the decline of downtown Las Vegas. The shops aimed at residents began to draw fewer locals as malls and shopping centers opened closer to residential hubs. Downtown Las Vegas became more of a tourist attraction than one for locals.
The train depot that helped start Las Vegas was demolished in 1969. It gave way to Union Plaza in 1971. This property is known simply as Plaza today.
The decline of downtown continued with the launch of megaresorts on the Strip. That started in 1989 when Steve Wynn opened Mirage. Much of the new investment in Las Vegas would flow into the Strip for the next 20 years. The 80’s would only see two hotels constructed downtown; Fitzgerald’s and Main Street Station.
Las Vegas officials decided to close Fremont Street to traffic to construct the Fremont Street Experience. This pedestrian area gives tourists easy access to all casinos without the nuisance of traffic. It also plays light shows every hour at night. These consist of classic rock acts and videos produced specifically for the Fremont Street Experience. There are several stages located throughout the Fremont Street Experience. Street performers also congregate there among the visitors.
This created a new reason to visit downtown Las Vegas. It helped the old part of Las Vegas compete with the new one.
The Fremont Street area is home to cheap drinks and entertainment that is often free. Only a handful of events each year, including some concerts and New Years Eve, require an admission fee. People of all ages are welcome to Fremont Street Experience on nights where there is no admission, although it is not kid friendly at night due to the adult nature of some performers and the rampant alcohol consumption by guests.
One issue that plagued downtown Las Vegas was the area east of the Fremont Street Experience. This neighborhood, known as Fremont East, was mostly low income housing and old motels. It brought an undesirable element that reflected badly on downtown in the eyes of tourists. The 2000’s saw revitalization in this area. The old buildings were razed to make room for modern housing. The block east of the Fremont Street Experience was transformed into a bar district that attracts locals and younger crowds to the downtown area.
Much of this change can be attributed to the Downtown Project. It is fronted by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. His company moved downtown into the old city hall. The Downtown Project invests in many businesses downtown through partnerships. It also operates the Container Park, a family friendly shopping and entertainment area across from El Cortez on Fremont Street.
Downtown Las Vegas casinos still generate most revenue from gambling. This is different from the Strip where gaming is only about 36 percent of all revenue generated by resorts.
A new entertainment option is Slotzilla. This is a zip line that runs the length of the Fremont Street Experience. There are two lengths and speeds of zip lines to choose.
Gambling in downtown Las Vegas is far better than it is on the Strip. The best video poker games in Las Vegas may be found downtown. There are games that return over 100% with perfect play and five coins played at Main Street Station, California, Las Vegas Club, and El Cortez. It is also home to the best blackjack game in Las Vegas. It is a single deck game at El Cortez that pays 3-2 on a blackjack and allows double down on any two cards.
Downtown is the best place in Las Vegas to play craps. Main Street Station offers 20 times odds. Plaza, Golden Gate, The D, and El Cortez offer 10 times odds. All have a $5 minimum bet.
While gambling is still important, quality dining options have surged. Golden Nugget was acquired by Landry’s, a well known restaurateur. Many brands that are operated by Landry’s are spread in Golden Nugget. Oscar’s, named after former mayor Oscar Goodman, anchors the Plaza. Hugo’s Cellar is a longtime favorite for Las Vegans and its tourists. Guests looking for cheaper eats will find a variety of quick serve and café options.