Spanish traders en route to Los Angeles along the Spanish Trail in the early 1700s sought a route that would pass through the then unexplored Las Vegas Valley. At the time, the Spaniards referred to the route through the Valley as "jornado de muerta," journey of death. A young scout named Rafael Rivera was the first person of European ancestry to look upon the Valley. His discovery of a valley with abundant wild grasses growing and a plentiful water supply reduced the journey by several days. The valley was named Las Vegas, Spanish for "The Meadows."
It was not until famed explorer Captain John Fremont wrote of Las Vegas in 1844, that anyone other than Spanish explorers and missionaries, and the indigenous Indian population, knew of the Valley.
In 1855, Brigham Young assigned 30 Mormon missionaries to build a fort in the Las Vegas Valley. The fort constituted the first non-Indian settlement in the region. Their primary purpose was to teach the Paiute Indians farming techniques. The Paiutes rejected the teachings and occasionally raided the fort until it was abandoned in 1857.
The discovery of minerals, including precious metals, lead to the beginning of the mining industry in the late 19th century. The State Land Act of 1885 offered sections of land at $1.25 per acre. Farmers moved in and agriculture became the dominant industry for the next 20 years.
The completion of the main railway, linking Southern California with Salt Lake City in 1905, established Las Vegas as a railroad town. The availability of water made Las Vegas an ideal refueling point and rest stop. The railroad was the principal industry in Las Vegas for the next 25 years.
Las Vegas was founded as a city on May 15, 1905, when 110 acres of land situated between Stewart Avenue on the north, Garces Avenue to the south, Main Street to the west, and 5th Street (Las Vegas Boulevard) to the east, were auctioned off.
The City was governed as part of Lincoln County until 1909 when it became the county seat for the newly established Clark County.
Las Vegas became an incorporated city and adopted its first charter on March 16, 1911. At the time of incorporation, the City encompassed 19.18 square miles, and had approximately 800 inhabitants, less than 1 percent of the states total population. Clark County had a population at the time of 3,321.
By 1930, Las Vegas had grown to a population of 5,165. In 1931, three events occurred that would forever change the face of Nevada and the City of Las Vegas.
On March 19, 1931 gambling was legalized in the State of Nevada. One month later, the City issued six gambling licenses.
Divorce laws were liberalized in the State of Nevada, making residency easier to attain. A "quickie" divorce could be attained after six weeks of residency. These short-term residents stayed at "dude ranches" which were the forerunners of the sprawling Strip hotels.
Beginning in 1931, the construction of Hoover Dam brought an influx of construction workers which started a population boom and gave the Valley’s economy, which was in the grips of the Great Depression, a needed boost.
By 1940 Las Vegas' population had grown to 8,422. The outbreak of World War II brought the defense industry to the Valley. The isolated location, along with plentiful water and inexpensive energy, made Las Vegas an ideal site for military and defense related industries. The site for Nellis Air Force Base was located in the northeast, and the Basic Management Complex, providers of raw materials, was located in the southeastern suburb of Henderson. The defense industry continues to employ a significant number of Valley residents.
Following World War II, lavishly decorated resort hotels and gambling casinos offering top-name entertainment came into existence. Tourism and entertainment took over as the largest employer in the Valley.
In 1956, the City of Las Vegas annexed one square mile of land, its first such addition since incorporation 45 years earlier.
By 1960, Las Vegas encompassed 25 square miles and had a population of 64,405. Las Vegas had more than 22 percent of Nevada’s total population on less than .02 percent of the State's land. At the same time, Clark County had a population of 127,016. During the 1960s, a phenomenon lead by Howard Hughes, occurred in Las Vegas. Corporations were building and/or buying hotel/casino properties. They had the capital necessary and the profitability made entrance into the casino industry extremely attractive. Gambling had become "gaming" and was starting the transition into legitimate business.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, corporations continued to invest in the hotel/casino industry. Gaming had become a legitimate business and some properties had stock traded on the market. Las Vegas economy remained strong and the population increased to 164,674 by 1980. Clark County, meanwhile, had grown to a population of 463,087.
Starting in the mid 1980s, a period of unprecedented growth began. Annual population increases averaging nearly 7 percent caused the City's population to almost double between 1985 and 1995, increasing from 186,380 to 368,360 during that time, a 97.6 percent increase. That is equivalent to building a city larger than Reno in 10 years! At the same time, Clark County’s population increased from 562,280 to 1,036,180, an increase of 84.3 percent.
Contributing to the population growth was a 4 percent annual increase in hotel rooms and a 9.18 percent annual increase in jobs from 1990 through 1994.
And the growth continues still. The latest population prediction in the Las Vegas Valley is 2 million people by 2005.