I grew up in Las Vegas from 1961 to 1977. I did not live in a hotel. My dad was not a member of the mob. I did not learn math by counting cards or by hanging out in the counting room. I had a normal childhood just like millions of other children who grew up in towns all across America.
Less than twenty-five years ago people had a hard time believing anyone actually lived in Las Vegas. But live there we did, just like countless families before us, just like countless families since. That experience gave me a healthy respect for the history of the town.
Las Vegas spent much of 2005 celebrating its 100th birthday, its Centennial. There were the traditional celebratory events such as fireworks, birthday cakes and parades. And because it is Las Vegas, various networks took a historical look at the city’s past. With over 100 years worth of history, I was hopeful that the history of the place that my family has called home for almost fifty years would finally be told. Instead, the same old myths and cast of characters paraded across the airwaves and, as always, I ended up yelling at the television more than my husband cared for.
For the record, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel did not create or build Las Vegas. There was a town with people here long before he arrived. Nor is he the “father of modern Las Vegas”. That title rightly belongs to civic booster, Maxwell Kelch who, towards the end of World War 2, envisioned the town as a tourist destination for Post War America and put the wheels in motion to make it a reality.
In many ways, Las Vegas is the tale of two cities. There is the internationally famous city that is marketed to the world and consists of little more than the five miles known as The Strip. Then there is the 100-year-old town that for most of its young life has lived in the shadows of its more famous self. Filmmakers tend to get dazzled by the glitz and glamour of the Strip and ignore anything that did not happen within that five-mile block.
By now, people feel they know the history of Las Vegas based upon what they have seen on television and read in tell-all books.
But did you know long before Las Vegas became the fastest growing city in America, that people were drawn to it? That long before the modern day conveniences that we take for granted were even invented, people lived in Las Vegas without air conditioning, without regular running electricity, without paved roads? That young men from Las Vegas fought in World War 2?
In any other city the size of Las Vegas, to discover the history you would have to visit the local libraries and dig through the stacks looking for journals, letters and diaries of its early pioneers. In Las Vegas you can still talk to the men and women who grew up there in the 1910s and 1920s and they will tell you first hand what life was like in that small dusty railroad town. Old timers still remember when Fremont Street was an unpaved street lit by bare light bulbs.
It is a history that few people outside Las Vegas really know. It is a history more people should know because the history of Las Vegas is much more than Siegel and the mob.
The real history of Las Vegas is the story of incredible courage and of desperation; of tragedy and heroic deeds; of injustice and of compassion. And ultimately, of good guys trumping the bad guys. It has all the elements that makes any history compelling and worth knowing.
It’s the story of families, like Von Tobel and Beckly, who stood in 105 degree weather on May 15th, 1905 to bid on parcels of land because they looked at the dusty railroad stop and saw a brighter future.
It’s the story of the Hanleys, McDaniels, Pinjuvs, Foleys and others who, in the depths of the Depression and a dwindling population, never gave up on the place they called home.
It’s the story of Maude Frazier who made it her mission to ensure that children of all ages received the best education possible and it’s the story of those children who, because of Frazier’s hard work, went to college and returned home to make their town a better place.
It’s the story of George and Peg Crockett who carved an airport out of the dusty terrain with little more than sheer determination, hard work and a lot of sweat.
It’s the story of James McMillan, Charles West, Lubertha Johnson and others who endured the Jim Crow segregation, fought back and ultimately broke the color line forever.
And while it is the story of the mob, it is also the story of B. Mahlon Brown and others on the local, state and federal levels who worked together to bring down the mob and break its grip on Las Vegas.
The history of Las Vegas is the rich and textured story of everyday men and women who turned a dusty railroad town into the Entertainment Capital of the World. They set the stage for Las Vegas to become the metropolis of the 21st Century. Without them, Las Vegas would be just another forgotten water stop along the railroad and there would have been no reason for “Bugsy” Siegel to ever come here in the first place.