“Even though we’re a young state, we’ve got a very rich history,” said Eugene Hattori, curator of anthropology with the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. “We have evidence of archeological trade that goes back 8,000 years.”
Nevada’s roots in business and industry began with the Native American tribes that resided in the region initially. The Northern and Southern Paiutes, Western Shoshone and Washoe tribes, among others, all left evidence of a robust history of trading in the area – long before the first settlers arrived.
Around 1830, the Spanish Trail opened in southern Nevada which brought explorers from the east. Among the first, and possibly most prolific for Nevada, was John C. Frémont who mapped the western and southern parts of the state. Frémont, along with his scout, a Paiute leader named Captain Truckee, are responsible for naming many of Nevada’s most recognizable features. The Truckee River, Pyramid Lake, Carson River, Great Basin, Walker and, many believe, Las Vegas are all names that originated with this early team of explorers.
Frémont might be most recognizable from the historic cannon that is his namesake, the John C. Frémont Cannon. “Most Nevadans know the UNR/UNLV Frémont cannon trophy, but few know the person or his accomplishments.” said Hattori. “Following publication of his expedition journals and map in 1845, John C. Frémont was, arguably, one of the most widely recognized figures in the U.S. and Europe. He was nicknamed, ‘Pathfinder’.”
Mid- to Late- 1800s
Frémont’s expeditions may have put Nevada on the map, but the region began to boom with the discovery of precious metals and minerals, and the addition of railway lines.
Shortly after Frémont’s map was published, in 1849, gold was discovered in Nevada, which was then part of the Utah Territory. Ten years later, the Comstock Lode became the first major discovery of silver in the U.S. and gave Nevada one of its nicknames – The Silver State.
“Mining pre-dates the state of Nevada,” said Tyre Gray, president, Nevada Mining Association. “Mining played a critical role in allowing Nevada to have a foundational industry.”
In 1861, Nevada became its own territory and gained statehood just three years later, in 1864. The term “Battle Born” is well known in relation to Nevada and the phrase originates with statehood. Nevada was admitted to the Union just in time to help elect Abraham Lincoln who was struggling with re-election in the midst of the Civil War. Nevada became a state three days prior to his election.
Around this time, Elko was one of the major population centers in the state. The city was originally a construction camp for the east end of the Central Pacific Railroad and became a key freighting center for mining districts in Nevada. “The railroad pretty much put Elko on the map,” explained Elko Mayor Reece Keener.
In 1874, Elko became the first site for the University of Nevada. The school opened in October of that year with seven students and one teacher. “We still have the bell from the original building,” said Keener. “It’s placed at our high school, which is the site of the original campus.”
Meanwhile, a railroad town about 300 miles west of Elko was growing fast. That town is Reno, established in 1868. As the population center shifted, the University of Nevada struggled to meet growing demands. The school moved to Reno in 1885 and its first academic year there was just two years later.
While education was growing in demand, mining continued along a boomand-bust cycle. The Comstock Lode and silver had swelled the population and helped propel Nevada to statehood, but production of the precious metal peaked in the late 1870s. Around this time, the federal government also stopped the use of silver in the U.S. monetary system, which led to a fall in the price and a downturn for the new state.
At the turn of the century, Nevada began to branch out from its railroad and mining roots. Gambling, one of the state’s largest industries wouldn’t officially and permanently be legalized until 1931, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a growing industry for the state.
In the late 1800s gambling was illegal in the state, even though Nevada’s first legislature made an attempt to legalize it. Then, sometime around the beginning of the 1900s, gambling was briefly legalized only to be banned again during prohibition. So, while gambling would eventually be a mainstay for the state, in the early-1900s divorce and the legal industry were Nevada’s big money-makers.
By 1906, Nevada’s economy, particularly in Reno, depended on divorce and, by 1909, Reno had become the country’s go-to destination to end a marriage. Divorce became big business in the Silver State as local hotels and homeowners offered accommodations for would-be divorcees to establish brief residency and take advantage of Nevada’s permissive divorce laws. By the 1930s, the Nevada Legislature passed the most lenient divorce law in the country, shortening the residency period from three months to only six weeks. It is estimated over 30,000 divorces were issued from the Washoe County Courthouse in the decade after the law was passed.
In that same time period, gambling was legalized by the Legislature in the hope it would help the state’s economy during the Great Depression. This move ushered in the rise of casinos which were the precursor of the resort properties Nevada is largely known for today.
In southern Nevada, Las Vegas was founded in 1905 when the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake railroad arrived in the region to connect the Pacific to the country’s rail network. After gambling was legalized in the 30s, Las Vegas began to see growth.
“When gaming was first established, Reno was the place to go, ahead of Las Vegas,” explained Charles Harris, commissioner, Nevada Commission on Tourism and president and CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.
Gaming began to transition south in the 60s but was preceded by a southern Nevada population boom. One project helped propel this boom. In 1928, then-President Calvin Coolidge signed an act authorizing the Boulder Canyon Project, which would later become known as Hoover Dam. This project became a reality only after years of debate in the southwest over water rights. This debate was settled in 1922 with a compromise known as the Colorado River Compact. The compact is an agreement between Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to provide an equitable division of the use of waters from the Colorado River.
In 1931, just as legal gambling was taking off, work on what was then known as Boulder Dam began. Boulder City, a nongaming town by design, was established to house dam workers and their families. “Big Jim” Cashman, a local entrepreneur and founder of Cashman Equipment sold six Cat Model 60 tractors to help complete the project. Workers, looking for a respite from the Great Depression, flocked to the region.
Hoover Dam was the largest dam of its time. It is a historical landmark, hailed as a “Modern Marvel” and was completed in 1935, two years ahead of schedule. In March of 1937, Hoover Dam began generating low-cost reliable energy for Las Vegas.
Mid- to Late- 1900s
The mid-1900s brought major changes to the country, and Nevada. Following World War I, there was a major upswing in mining as metal-based production became more prevalent. Large amounts of minerals, such as copper, lead, zinc, iron and petroleum were in demand and Nevada miners rose to meet that demand.
Meanwhile, the Cold War was ramping up and southern Nevada had a major role to play. In 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), responsible for monitoring the development of atomic science and technology during peacetime, selected a portion of unpopulated land north of Las Vegas for a new testing site.
The new site became known as the Nevada Test Site (NTS) and thousands of nuclear tests were conducted there between 1951 and 1992. Many of those tests were atmospheric tests which produced mushroom clouds that could be seen from up to 100 miles away.
“It was actually the main economic driver for the state of Nevada and, of course, Las Vegas, for almost four decades,” said Michael Hall, executive director of the National Atomic Testing Museum. “It wasn’t gambling that built Las Vegas, it was atomic testing.”
In 1957, the NTS conducted Operation Plumbbob, a series of 29 nuclear tests over the course of five months. The goals of the operation were to improve weapon design, provide safety testing, conduct biomedical experiments and test designs for thermonuclear systems. The result was large amounts of radioiodine released into the atmosphere. This operation is estimated to be responsible for 32 percent of all civilian exposures from nuclear testing in the continental United States.
However, the dangers of radiation weren’t well known in the early-days of atmospheric testing and, in the 1950s and early-1960s, Las Vegas saw a boost in tourism from the mushroom clouds. Casinos created atomic themed cocktails and hosted “Dawn Bomb Parties”, scheduled the night before a detonation.
“It was a national craze across the country, in the 50s especially,” said Hall. “Everything was atomic this, atomic that – from kids toys to cereal. Atomic testing was part of our national identity at that time.”
In 1952, an eccentric business magnate, Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. acquired 25,000 acres along the western rim of the Las Vegas Valley with the intention to relocate his California operations. However, the land sat vacant for over 30 years. In the 1960s, Hughes began to make large investments in Las Vegas resorts and purchased the Desert Inn in 1967. This was a significant move for Las Vegas because it marked a change from privately-owned to corporate-owned resorts.
Prior to Hughes moving in on the Las Vegas “Strip”, the area was known as a mob destination as many of the properties were owned by mafia members. While some of these characters were later sensationalized by Hollywood, the mob-run casino image was, for the most part, an accurate portrayal of Las Vegas at the time.
“The mob arrived in Nevada 70 years after the state had been in existence,” said Jonathan Ullman, president and CEO of the Mob Museum. “The singular biggest foray into Strip development was the Flamingo.”
The Flamingo opened in 1946 by mobster Bugsy Siegal at a cost of $6 million.
“The mob were big investors and saw an opportunity,” said Ullman. “When the Flamingo opened it was the third hotel casino located on the Strip. It was preceded by El Rancho and the Last Frontier and was the first that elevated the grandeur and presentation of what a hotel casino could be.”
Ullman believes the Flamingo was the impetus that brought more mob investors to the city. “You had this influx,” he said. “It started in the later 40s and continued through the 60s, pre-Howard Hughes’ arrival.” Because Las Vegas was known as an “open city” to the mob, mobsters from Chicago, New York and elsewhere were able to stake their claims and coexist peacefully. In addition, the mob brought many of the area’s most well-known entertainers.
“When you think about Sinatra, the Rat Pack and Liberace, the big-name entertainers, they were very much driven by the mob-controlled casinos. They were the mob’s way of bringing in more business,” explained Ullman.
After Hughes began purchasing properties the mob slowly began to be replaced by corporations, ushering in a new era for large resort properties in Nevada. “He really gets credit for legitimizing the gaming industry,” said Kevin Orrock of Hughes. Orrock is president Las Vegas region, Summerlin of The Howard Hughes Corporation.
“It was such an exciting time, every single day,” recalls Carolyn Goodman, Mayor of the City of Las Vegas. “When people moved to town, they were caught in the excitement which remains today. Here you can do things, be active and the weather is spectacular.”
During this time, the population and tourism centers shifted from northern to southern Nevada and Reno began to diversify. “Gaming has certainly been a part of the experience when people come to visit here,” said Harris of Reno. “It’s a part of who we are. What has changed is the growth of other areas to compliment gaming. The outdoors here and the natural resources we have are tremendous.”
Fast forward to 1988 – Summa, which would become known as the Howard Hughes Corporation, announces plans to build a master-planned community on the acreage that Hughes purchased 30 years earlier.
“One of the most interesting events I’ve seen in my professional career was when Summerlin was announced,” recalls Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine. Brennan was working with Joyce Advertising at the time, the company responsible for helping promote the new community. “The announcement was made at the top of the FIB Tower, now the Wells Fargo Tower, which was the highest business building in southern Nevada at the time. We imported spotlights and outlined the parameter of what Summerlin would be. We had a mock switch on the wall. When it was flipped, and the lights came on, conversation stopped. Many people in that room said, ‘It’s never going to happen; it’s just too big.’ Now, you drive out to Summerlin and it’s a sight to behold.”
Summerlin, named for the paternal grandmother of Howard Hughes, Jean Amelia Summerlin, consists of 22,000 acres and over 100,000 residents. The area also serves as a conservation buffer for Red Rock. The development initially exchanged 5,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land with Red Rock conservation area for 3,000 acres more appropriate for development.
“It’s really amazing when you look back at where we started,” said Orrock. “If Hughes were alive today, I think he’d look back and say you guys have done a great job.”
The State of Nevada:
Nevada is unique amongst the United States. It is the seventh largest state in land area but ranks only 35th in population. Much of the state is owned by the federal government. The state’s economy relies on gaming, mining, agriculture and manufacturing, among others. Those industries have played a huge role in the formation and continued success of the Silver State.
The 2000s showcased the resiliency of business and industry in Nevada. The millennium began with the Western Energy Crisis as many western states headed toward deregulation. However, the state was booming and led the nation in growth in all sectors. Then, in 2008, Nevada entered the Great Recession and faced an unprecedented budget shortfall of approximately $1.2 billion. This recession had a massive impact on all areas of Nevada, which is still seen today. In many ways, the growth of the past halted during the Great Recession.
Today, Nevada is facing another economic crisis with the COVID pandemic. Even so, the state had already begun its rebound from the recession and both businesses and individuals are once again moving to Nevada. And, there are several bright spots highlighted from the roots of the Silver State.
“Our area boasts the highest household family income in the state,” said Mayor Keener of Elko. “Mining is far and away the highest paying industry segment.” “Mining has a long history of employing people,” added Gray.
“Mining has always been a part of Nevada’s fabric in order to allow Nevadans to live the American Dream.”
Harris points to the natural elements of Nevada that appeal to a wide range of people. “The natural elements of northern and southern Nevada are complimentary,” he said. “In some ways, it’s different experiences within the same state. Nevada is well positioned to appeal to a wide array of visitors.”
“Specific to southern Nevada, we are the entertainment capital of the world and Nevada locals get to take advantage of that,” said Brennan. “Up north, Tahoe is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Mayor Goodman added that Las Vegas, “is the greatest city and it’s only going to get better. I couldn’t be prouder. Since we’ve gotten here, it’s just been a glorious ride.”