Las Vegas was discovered by Spanish explorers, who gave the site its name—meaning "meadows"—because of the verdant grassland fed by natural aquifers. Las Vegas served as a watering place on the Spanish trail to California. In 1855 Mormon missionaries established a settlement, cultivating the land and building a fort to provide protection to travelers on the Salt Lake—Los Angeles Trail. They abandoned the place two years later when the enterprise became unprofitable, but their fort is still standing and is the oldest historical site in Las Vegas. In 1864 Fort Baker, a U.S. Army post, was built nearby; in 1867 Las Vegas was detached from the Arizona territory and became part of the Nevada territory.
Around that time Las Vegas began to expand as a series of farmers cultivated the land. The area encompassed 1,800 acres when it was sold to William Clark, a Montana senator. In 1905 Clark auctioned off parcels of land for the building of the Union Pacific Railroad link between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The town was incorporated in 1911. Construction on the Hoover Dam—originally the Boulder Dam—on the Colorado River was begun in 1931, bringing to the area thousands of men seeking employment. The seventy-story-high dam, which is regarded as one of the wonders of the modern world, still supplies affordable power to parts of California, Arizona, and Nevada.
Another significant event occurred in 1931: the legalization of casino gambling in Nevada. The gaming and entertainment industries boomed in Las Vegas after World War II. A street lined with large, glittering casino hotels came to be known as the "Strip"; downtown, in Casino Center, lavish palaces featured the country's top entertainers. By the 1950s Las Vegas, dubbed the "Entertainment Capital of the World," had become synonymous with the unique form of recreation it had created. Because of lenient state laws, Las Vegas also became popular as a wedding site; eventually wedding chapels were operating around the clock, and each year thousands of couples were coming to the city to be married.
Since the 1930s Las Vegas's population has steadily increased, jumping from slightly under 8,500 people in 1940 to nearly 25,000 people in 1950. By 1960 almost 65,000 people lived in Las Vegas, and in 1980 the census figure was 164,674 people. Between 1980 and 1990 there was a more than 60 percent increase, or a total of 278,000 people. Newcomers, primarily from California, are attracted by the favorable climate, the high standard of living, low tax rate, and jobs produced by a boom in business and the entertainment and gaming industries. In the 1990s an average of 6,000 to 7,000 people moved into Clark County each month; that figure remains in the mid-2000s.
Las Vegas' population continues to grow by leaps and bounds, nearly doubling between 1990 and 2000, with no real signs of slowing. On May 15, 2005, Las Vegas celebrated its centennial birthday with citywide parties and events on the day and throughout the year—one such celebration included a 130,000 pound cake registered with the Guinness Book of World Records.
Historical Information: Nevada State Museum & Historical Society, 700 Twin Lakes Drive, Las Vegas, NV 89107; telephone (702)486-5205