See old Las Vegas in neon & lights, the way the city used to be – plus the gambling hotspot’s surprising history

Las Vegas NV - 1970s - Jerry Coli Dreamstime

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See old Las Vegas in the 80s & 90s

Showgirls in front of the historic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign
Photo by Carol Highsmith via LOC
Neon signs in old Las Vegas, Nevada (early 1980s)

Neon signs in Las Vegas, Nevada (early 1980s)

The Vegas Vic cowboy neon sign on Fremont Street

Vegas Vic on Fremont Street in Las Vegas, Nevada

Glitter Gulch girl neon sign at the Fremont Street Experience

Glitter Gulch girl neon sign at the Fremont Street Experience

A huge clown face entrance on the Boardwalk Hotel and Casino (1980s)

Clown face on a casino in Vegas (1980s)

Historic Vegas neon sign on old Fremont Street

Historic Vegas neon sign on old Fremont Street

Old La Concha Motel in Las Vegas

Old La Concha Motel in Las Vegas

Peter Pan Motel’s faded old neon sign

Peter Pan Motel - Old Las Vegas

The Desert Inn & Country Club (1982)

The Desert Inn and Country Club (1982)

Glowing people mover and porte-cochere at Bally’s, Las Vegas, Nevada (1990s)

Glowing people mover and porte-cochere at Bally's, Las Vegas, Nevada (1990s)

Old Las Vegas in the 1970s

Vintage Las Vegas: Growth is booming, despite competition (1977)

By John M Willis – Reno Gazette-Journal (Nevada) October 28, 1977

LAS VEGAS — Even with the threat of legalized gambling nearing reality in Atlantic City, and other states considering gaming as a way to supplement governmental coffers, building and expansion here is moving ahead — and at full speed.

While entrepreneurs in New Jersey are trying to find financial backers for their dream hotels, hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped into expansion and renovation projects, making the “Entertainment and Gaming Capital of the World” even more glamorous, gaudy and inviting.

Why is so much money going into expansion in a period when competition is still around the corner?

The answer is easy: Most local operators don’t believe Atlantic City will pose any problems.

Old Las Vegas - 1970s - Casinos on a vintage postcard

Another reason is a recent report which disclosed that gaming revenues are skyrocketing even faster than projected by state officials.

Big expansion projects are underway at the Las Vegas Hilton, the Flamingo Hilton, the Tropicana, the Silver Bird, and the Desert Inn. Projects at the Flamingo Capri, the Golden Nugget and the Mint have been completed within the past six-to-eight months.

A brand new hotel, the Maxim, opened in July and another new Holiday Inn is under construction in downtown Las Vegas.

Nevada casinos hauled io a record $1.4 billion from gamblers during the fiscal year ending last June 30, a 16.2 percent increase over the previous year. Early reports on the current year indicate an even bigger jump this year.

The Las Vegas area is the state’s big money maker, with gross revenues of almost $927 million in the last fiscal year compared with the Reno-North Tahoe area, which reported revenues totaling $248.8 million.

Casinos in the Las Vegas area will easily gross more than a billion dollars by themselves this year.

Las Vegas in 1976

While Reno is in the midst of a growth boom, officials there are afraid the city might not be able to handle the rapid growth.

But it’s full speed ahead in the Las Vegas Valley, where water is the main item which could curtail growth.

With Lake Mead nearby, the water situation is negligible at this point, and will become less of a problem with the completion of the second phase of the Southern Nevada Water Project within the next few years.

“It certainly shows that we have faith in Nevada,” said Harry Wald, a vice president with Caesars Palace.

Caesars, one of the best-known resorts here, is in the middle of a $9-1/2 million renovation and expansion of its Casino and main floor facilities.

Caesars’ casino is one of the smallest in a major Strip hotel, but it has a reputation of luring the “high rollers.”

In addition to the casino expansion, the project will include a new, enlarged arcade of specialty shops.

Wald said Caesars also is studying the feasibility of increasing the number of rooms available. At present, the hotel boasts 1,236 rooms, but that’s not even close to the local giant — the Las Vegas Hilton.

The Las Vegas Hilton is already the largest “resort” hotel in the world. It is the second largest hotel anywhere, the largest being the rather “spartan” Rossiya in Moscow.

The Las Vegas Hilton now has more than 2,100 rooms, while the Rossiya offers 3,060. The Las Vegas Hilton has embarked on a 644-room expansion which will cost $22.5 million and will raise its room total to 2,783.

Soon to open is the hotel’s new, $7.5 million pavilion for sports and concerts. The pavilion adds more than 44,000 Square feet to the convention space already available at the hotel, and it will be able to handle banquets with up to 10,000 guests.

The Flamingo Hilton is in the midst of a 500-room expansion project which will cost more than $30 million, and will raise its room total to 1,250. The project includes a new showroom and casino.

The new neon Flamingo Hilton sign alone cost about $1.5 million, according to a hotel spokesman, who noted that officials will watch the performance of the new 27-story tower with an eye towards building another one in the future.

70s Las Vegas scenes (1979)
From 1979: Desert climate and luxury accommodations combine for a unique escape into a palm-filled oasis of sophisticated adult fun. The glittering Strip or dynamic Downtown Las Vegas offer non-stop action 24 hours every day of your life!

Ground was recently broken on a 22-story tower at the Tropicana. To be called the Tiffany Tower, the new $20 million building will give the Tropicana 1,105 rooms and Suites and a shopping arcade.

Probably the most extensive project underway is at the Desert Inn, and the former “Queen of the Strip” somewhat parallels the history of Atlantic City.

Atlantic City was once the gem of the East Coast resorts, but it has faded into disrepair over the past two decades.

After opening in 1952, the Desert Inn built a reputation as being the prestige spot in Las Vegas. It drew the high rollers. But as the hotel got older, it was hurt by competition from the new giants, such as Caesars, the MGM Grand and the Hilton.

Purchased about 10 years ago by the late Howard Hughes, the DI is now getting a $50 million facelift and expansion in an effort to restore prosperity.

The DI will close its hotel section Nov. 6 to facilitate completion of construction work, and is slated for a gala grand opening next July 4. When it reopens, it will offer more than 800 super luxury rooms and suites. A. renovation of the DI showroom was completed last year.

Even the penthouse suite once occupied by Hughes has been completely redone.

At the Riviera, the plush new South Lani Tower was opened last summer. The 300-room addition cost about $18 million, and another, 520-room addition is already in the works. In all, the expansion projects will set the Riv back $50 million, but will increase its room total to about 1,700.

“We have unbounded faith in the future of Las Vegas, and feel it can only get better,” said Tony Zoppi, the head of advertising and public relations for the Riviera. “We feel it (Las Vegas) has innumerable advantages over the other parts of the country.”

One of the advantages is the weather, another is an excellent airport and easy access from almost anywhere in the nation.

Las Vegas stars - Ebony cover (April 1972)

Vintage Las Vegas: Hotel remodels

Las Vegas is the number one destination for charter flights in the country.

The trend is no different in downtown Las Vegas, where world-famous Fremont Street is often referred to as “Glitter Gulch.”

The Fremont Hotel is being completely renovated, and the Golden Nugget recently opened a 600-room hotel with an adjacent parking garage.

The price tag on the Golden Nugget project was $18 million. At the Mint, a $6 million revamping of the casino and main floor facilities was recently completed. Even the oldest hotel in town, the Las Vegas Club, is getting into the act.

Mel Exber, president and general manager of the Las Vegas Club, said a $4 million renovation will transform the exterior of the casino into the look of a sports stadium.

The Las Vegas Club is housed in the building which was once the Overland Hotel, which was built in 1908. In addition to new casino facilities, Exber said plans call for a 200-room, highrise hotel.

Officials at the Dunes and Stardust hotels are looking for money to finance their giant plans. Both Strip resorts hope to double their size.

The Dunes now has 1,000 rooms, the Stardust has 1,374. Both projects will cost about $40 million. Steve Wynn, the head man at the Golden Nugget, sounded the bottom line on why operators here are so optimistic.

Wynn said it is generally thought that it will take Atlantic City from eight to 10 years to get established.

“At the present time, Atlantic City will not pose a threat to Las Vegas,” Wynn said. “They’ll make players for use, not take them away.”

He explained that once some of the millions of potential gamblers within a 300-mile radius of Atlantic City get a taste of the tables, they will want to try the “real thing” in Las Vegas.

Besides, Wynn noted, there are only a few companies which can afford to go the Atlantic City route. Money is harder to get these days, and the competition for it is keen.

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See old Las Vegas in the 60s

Dean Martin for the Sands Hotel in old Las Vegas (1962)

Dean Martin for Sands Las Vegas hotel 1962

Las Vegas: The great convention vacation location (1963)

America’s all-year vacation land, where there’s worlds of room for worlds of fun… Wonder-full Las Vegas… centered in the scenic wonderland of wonderful Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Death Valley, Valley of Fire, Mt Charleston… year-round boating, fishing, golfing, swimming, hunting, sunning, star-studded entertainment, excitement… the wonder of the resort world!

And America’s all-year convention land… 1000 Wonder-full innovations including facilities for 100 to 10,000 in the wonderful new Las Vegas Convention Center… already tested by over 441 succesful conventions that prove your convention will look, work, produce better!

Las Vegas Get more done, then have more fun (1963)


Las Vegas hotels and casinos in 1964: Mint, Horseshoe, Fremont, Lucky
Las Vegas hotels and casinos in 1964 - Mint, Horseshoe, Fremont, Lucky
Vintage photo by Bernard Gotfryd

Old Las Vegas in the 60s – Golden Nugget Gambling Hall/Casino (1964)

Old Las Vegas in the 60s - Golden Nugget Gambling Hall - Casino (1964)

Old casinos in Vegas – Lucky and Golden Nugget

Old casinos in Vegas - Lucky and Golden Nugget

The same strip view as above, but at night

Las Vegas in 1965

Neon lights & sights around the Fremont Hotel & Casino

Look back at vintage Las Vegas

The old Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas: Your key to a treasure of pleasure (1965)

Hotel Sahara… the new vacation wonder in the world’s wonder city… now with 1,000 rooms and room for everybody! All the luxurious leisure, the fun and relaxation you expect in one of the world’s finest resort hotels…at rates anyone can afford.

Sun-swimming in 3 spacious pools… dining in 3 famous restaurants… star entertainment in 2 great showrooms. Shops, buffets, health club, golfing, riding… a real “Treasure of Pleasure” — the vacation visit of a lifetime… Hotel Sahara!


STAR-STUDDED SHOWS in the great Congo Room, where famous names reign supreme. Colorful, captivating show productions! (Ad includes Judy Garland)

The old Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas (1965)

Models in bikinis posing by a Vegas hotel pool in 1965

Models at the hotel pool in 1965

Go where the action is: Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas (1960s ads)

Vintage Las Vegas - Stardust Hotel 1960s

The beautiful people go to Caesar’s Palace (1969)

Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas, with Harry Belafonte, Sinatra & the Rat Pack

Caesar's Palace Las Vegas, with Sinatra & the Rat Pack (1969)

The Desert Inn Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas (1969)

The Desert Inn Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas (1969)

Scenes from Las Vegas’ Neon Boneyard, where old signs go to die

Here are several of photographer Carol Highsmith’s pictures of old lighted signs in Las Vegas, taken at the Neon Museum sign boneyard sometime between 1980 and 2006.

According to the museum: “The Neon Museum collection boasts over 150 donated and rescued signs. The core of this collection is contained in the Neon Museum Boneyard, a rambling park approximately two acres in size.

“Signs featured date from the late 1930s through the early 90s and represent motels, local businesses, and celebrated casino resorts from throughout the Las Vegas Valley. While the Boneyard is not electrified, the photogenic collection offers a glimpse into the storied past of Las Vegas and its most memorable art form.

Old Landmark Las Vegas sign with lights

Old Landmark Las Vegas sign with lights

Pocket Lounge neon sign and pool player

Old Pocket Lounge sign and pool player - Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, Nevada

Remnants of famous signs at the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas

Remnants of famous signs at the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, Nevada

Headless old casino sign at the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, Nevada

Old casino sign at the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, Nevada

Sassy Sally’s famous old neon sign

Sassy Sally's famous signs at the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, Nevada

Horseshoe Casino sign at the Neon Boneyard

Neon Boneyard Binion's Horseshoe Casino sign in Las Vegas, Nevada

Golden Nugget historic casino sign

Golden Nugget historic casino sign in the Neon Boneyard, Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas in the 1940s

Old and Vintage Las Vegas hotel signs

Las Vegas in the 1950s

Vintage Las Vegas postcard - 1950s

1950s Las Vegas - Night lights - Woman looking up (1957)
1950s Las Vegas – Night lights (1957)
A look back at the history of (very) old Las Vegas

How the city was founded: Religious men settled Las Vegas (1973)

By Morris A. Shirts – The Daily Spectrum (St George, Utah) June 21, 1973

Few who know the uninhibited nature of the Las Vegas, Nevada casinos and hotels would think of them as a memorial to a tiny group of religious men, but the city traces its foundation to a group of Mormon settlers.

In early 1855, Brigham Young called 30 men (whose chief qualifications were their unemployment and their fidelity to the church) to sell all their possessions and settle Las Vegas.

The artesian springs which welled from the sun-baked desert floor at the site of the now-famous gambling citadel were known to many travelers, and were an integral part of the Mormon leader’s plan to place colonies in strategic positions along entrances to the Great Basin.

Eva Wells, Las Vegas, Nevada 1910
Eva Wells, Las Vegas, Nevada 1910

Others — Jedediah M. Smith, the trapper, in 1826, John C. Fremont in 1844 and Jefferson Hunt in 1847 — had passed through the area before, but the tough, desert-bitten group of settlers who arrived at Las Vegas Springs on June 15, 1855, came to stay.

They had been joined by five men on an exploratory expedition to the lower Colorado, and others searching for scrap iron along the route. The group had stopped for a few days at the confluence of the Muddy and Virgin rivers near the lower Moapa Valley to rest and preach to local Indians.

Old Fremont Street - Las Vegas - 1940s
Old Fremont Street – vintage Las Vegas – 1940s

The actual 55-mile trek from there to the beckoning artesian springs began at 9 a.m. on June 14. The trip took 27 hours, with some riding ahead to return with water. When the men arrived, they jumped in the refreshing water, their bodies bobbing like corks.

The task of surveying for a city began at once, and as soon as plows were sunk in the soil, an exploring party of Rufus Allen, Thomas Brown, Isaac Riddle, Thales Haskell, James Allred, Peter Shirts, interpreter George Bean and a Brother Hulet set off to explore the Colorado River 30 miles away.

Their mission was to determine the feasibility of riverboats and a boat landing on the treacherous river — thus to provide an outlet to the sea for the “Desert Kingdom.”

Vintage postcard - Greetings from Las Vegas, Nevada

They found the river deep, over 400 yards wide and navigable. They traveled about six miles downstream, finding steep volcanic banks with water marks up to 30 feet above river level, and flotsam to suggest heavy flooding.

The next day, they traveled 15 miles farther downstream, but they found treacherous going as they led their horses through the badlands along the stream.

With water and feed nearly gone, they turned back, crossing rocks and sand so hot they could scarcely be walked on. Stirrups of iron were unusable. Some of the mules fainted, and one was left under a mesquite bush.

Scenes of Old Salt Lake City in 1900: Pictures of Utah at the turn of the century

Fremont Street in old Las Vegas - 1940s

With water nearly boiling in their canteens, one member of the party rode to investigate what looked like a small, dark green spot and found enough water to refresh them.

When the explorers arrived back at the new settlement, they once again found the springs of The Meadows to be a refreshing experience. They had traveled for nearly 50 miles, and had almost perished.

The tiny settlement continued to thrive, reoccupied after being abandoned because of the threat of Johnston’s Army in 1857.

It thrives today, feeding its millions of visitors on the same searing heat which nearly drove out the first settlers. It is an unknowing memorial to that tiny group who gambled their lives against a hostile land — and won.

Old Las Vegas in the 1940s

Vintage Las Vegas Pioneer Club 1941

Main Street in Las Vegas, Nevada 1940

Main Street in Las Vegas, Nevada 1940

Vintage Fremont Street in old Las Vegas at night - 1940s

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