Eighty years ago, three developments gave birth to modern Las Vegas
Over the 115-year history of Las Vegas, a handful of pivotal events has spurred and shaped the community’s rise from town to city to metropolis. The granddaddy of turning points was, of course, Montana mining mogul William A. Clark’s decision to build a railroad between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles and to place a depot at Las Vegas. No railroad depot, no town of Las Vegas, at least not as early as 1905.
Another critical point was 1931, the year Hoover Dam construction began and the Nevada Legislature legalized wide-open gambling. The dam project employed thousands of workers and attracted tens of thousands of tourists seeking a glimpse of the great engineering wonder. Las Vegas may not have recognized the far-reaching effects of gambling legalization right away, but that legislative act would prove to be the most consequential political decision in the city’s history. This is a point in our history most locals have heard about.
Ten years later, Las Vegas saw its next inflection point — one that many of us are not as familiar with. Three events in 1941 triggered the transition from town to city and built the foundation for the metropolis of 2.3 million people we know today. One could say modern Las Vegas is marking its 80th anniversary this year.
Las Vegas Army Air Field
The United States did not formally join the fight against the Axis Powers until after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. But America contributed money and war materials to the Allies as early as 1940. And, figuring it was just a matter of time before the United States became directly involved, the military was getting ready.
In October 1940, Major David M. Schlatter of the Army Air Corps scouted several Southwestern desert locations for an aerial gunnery school. Las Vegas was selected because it offered vast uninhabited areas north of the town, the ability to train year-round and an inland location that reduced the likelihood of an enemy attack.
Another selling point: Las Vegas had an existing airstrip the Army could use, northeast of the city. The city acquired the airfield from Western Air Express and worked out a deal for it to serve as both an Army airfield and municipal airport. The Army built its runways next to the civilian runways.
The Army began construction in March 1941. The first commanding officer, Col. Martinus Stenseth, arrived in May 1941. His first office was in the basement of the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Downtown Las Vegas. (This building today houses the Mob Museum.) From this temporary base of operations, Stenseth and his junior officers designed the gunnery school curriculum.
Since the base had to be constructed from scratch, it was a massive endeavor. Besides the runways, crews built 173 buildings and installed electrical lines, sewer and water systems, and the technical equipment needed for a cutting-edge military operation.
By July 1941, more than 800 enlisted men were stationed at the fledgling base, moving into the newly constructed barracks and helping to build other structures. After Pearl Harbor, the Las Vegas Army Air Field expanded dramatically. In 1942, its first full year in operation, the airfield graduated 9,117 gunners.
The base’s impact on Las Vegas cannot be overstated. At its peak in 1943 and ’44, the airfield hosted more than 15,000 enlisted men and women, all of whom spent money in area stores, restaurants, theaters, bars, and casinos. Senior enlisted men were allowed to live off the base with their wives, creating a pressing demand for housing.
After the Air Force became a separate department from the Army in 1947, the Las Vegas Army Air Field was renamed the Las Vegas Air Force Base. In 1950, it adopted the name it retains today: Nellis Air Force Base, named after a fighter pilot who died in World War II.
While a military operation sprouted northeast of Las Vegas, another war-related project was gearing up across the valley. Basic Magnesium Incorporated was created to produce magnesium, a lightweight metal that, when incorporated into the structure of aircraft, increased their speed and maneuverability. Magnesium also was used in bombs, flares, and tracer bullets.
The man with the magnesium plan was Howard Eells of Cleveland. In 1936, Eells discovered rich magnesite deposits in northern Nye County. He originally wanted the magnesite to produce furnace bricks, but as war raged in Europe, he recognized the value of his discovery to America’s military buildup.
Eells partnered with a British company to build the plant. The U.S. government, through the Defense Plant Corporation, invested $130 million in the project. Eells decided to build about 20 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Why there? It was close to Hoover Dam, which could provide abundant water and electricity, and not too far from Las Vegas, which had the railroad.
Construction started in September 1941. By December, more than 2,700 men were working at the site. The numbers soared from there, reaching a peak of 13,000 in 1942. Rancho Drive was built so the trucks carrying magnesite ore 350 miles from the Nye County mine would not destroy existing city streets.
With the Army Air Field and Basic Magnesium drawing thousands of people to Las Vegas, the housing shortage was severe. In November 1941, the Las Vegas Review-Journal described the situation: “The streets are full. People are sleeping in their cars. You can’t get a hotel room for love or money. Boom town. Big money. The talk is on every corner.” The city’s landlords took full advantage, jacking up rents four times what they had been just a year before. One imported worker remarked, “We’ll never leave the state with a dollar we’ve earned. It all goes just to live.”
Basic Magnesium eventually built housing for its employees, including 1,000 single-family homes, many of which are still occupied even though they were originally considered temporary structures and built on wooden foundations. Eventually, the facility became the hub of chemical and metallurgical companies it is today.
Just as with the Army Air Field, Basic Magnesium boosted the Las Vegas economy. But its longer-term effects are more important. It led to the creation of the city of Henderson, which today is the state’s second-largest municipality. It recruited thousands of African Americans to work at the plant, dramatically diversifying the community. Although segregation was prevalent in Las Vegas at the time, the influx of Black workers would be instrumental to future civil rights efforts. And the plant built the first pipeline from Lake Mead to the Las Vegas Valley. This simple idea was the catalyst for the water-delivery system that has allowed Las Vegas to grow far beyond the limitations of pumping groundwater.
El Rancho Vegas
Las Vegas did not capitalize on legalized gambling in the 1930s. No one could afford to. Thanks largely to the Hoover Dam project, the Great Depression did not hit Las Vegas as hard as many other places. But Las Vegas did struggle, especially after Hoover Dam was completed in 1936. Small casinos operated Downtown throughout the Depression, but who would have had the cash, or been able to secure a substantial bank loan, to build a casino resort? And if someone had managed to build one, he probably would have struggled to find a sufficient customer base to keep the till ringing.
Conditions changed with the turn of the decade. With growing Hoover Dam tourism and news reports about the soon-arriving Army airfield and magnesium plant, local civic leaders evaluated what the community needed to take advantage of the impending growth. “Somebody had to break the ice and start building large hotels with many rooms so that tourists would be persuaded not only to come to Las Vegas, but to stay there,” wrote Ed Reid in Las Vegas: City Without Clocks.
According to a popular legend, in 1940 a California hotel-builder named Thomas Hull and a friend were driving on Highway 91 toward Los Angeles when their car got a flat tire just south of the Las Vegas city limits. While the friend hitchhiked back to town to seek assistance, Hull waited beside the highway and counted the cars going by. As Katharine Best and Katharine Hillyer claim in their 1955 book Las Vegas Playtown U.S.A., “An hour of this and he became convinced that the mesquite and sage-stippled fright of a desert behind him was a mighty wholesome spot for a luxury hotel.”
That’s a clever origin story, but it bears little resemblance to what really happened. In fact, Hull first expressed interest in building a Las Vegas hotel as early as 1938. Las Vegas business leaders Robert Griffith and Big Jim Cashman, patriarch of the family that remains active in the community today, encouraged Hull to make the investment. However, Hull did not secure financing for the venture until 1940 — in other words, not until news of the soon-arriving Army Air Field and magnesium plant surfaced.
Hull chose not to build within the city limits. Instead, he bought an affordable piece of land on Highway 91 south of San Francisco Street (now Sahara Avenue), just outside the city boundary. There, he would not be subject to city taxes and regulations.
Hull’s Western-themed El Rancho Vegas, with 50 rooms, restaurants, theater, casino, and swimming pool, opened on April 3, 1941. It was the first of many sprawling resorts built along Highway 91, which before long became known as the Las Vegas Strip. (It’s worth noting that 1941 saw the casino industry expand Downtown as well, with the debut of the El Cortez at Fremont and Sixth streets.)
The Census Bureau counted 8,422 people in Las Vegas in 1940. It recorded 24,624 in 1950. That’s a 192.4 percent increase. No decade since has come close to that rate of growth. It all started in 1941 with the Army Air Field, Basic Magnesium, and El Rancho Vegas.
The confluence of these developments transformed Las Vegas physically and psychologically. Las Vegas began to see itself as an entity that expanded far beyond the fairly narrow city boundaries. And visions for the community became bigger and broader than ever before.
Community leaders in 1941 could not possibly have imagined what Las Vegas would become in the 21st century, but whatever doubts and insecurities they had concerning the city’s prospects were cast aside in favor of a more bullish mindset. Although the end of World War II raised concerns that the military base and magnesium plant could be shuttered, thanks largely to local initiative and political clout, those facilities survived and continued to grow.
Luck has played a major role in shaping Nevada. Las Vegas enjoyed a lucky streak in 1941 that had a metamorphic effect and continues to influence the community today. F
Geoff Schumacher is the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas and vice president of exhibits and programs for the Mob Museum.