Many Las Vegas casinos have come and gone, but some have stood the test of time. In this post, we’ll talk about the history of Vegas and look at some of the oldest casinos that are still in operation today. Soon, you’ll understand why these three classic casinos are still among the most popular Vegas hot spots.
The History of Las Vegas
Las Vegas is still a relatively new casino city, especially when you consider that public gambling has been around for centuries in Europe. Since its incorporation in 1931, Las Vegas has become the world’s premier gambling and entertainment destination. That’s a lot to accomplish in less than 100 years.
If you can believe it, Las Vegas started as a farming settlement. It was founded in 1905 when the railroad that linked Los Angeles to Salt Lake City was built. Water from local artesian wells was pumped into the town, and the reliable source of water made it easy for the population to grow.
The town really started to expand, however, when work started on the Hoover Dam in 1931. This construction project brought almost 20,000 new citizens to the area. The vast majority of those people were young men looking for work. This led to the opportunity for large-scale entertainment venues. When Nevada officially legalized local gambling in 1931, enterprising business owners and Mafia bosses opened some of the first casinos, including the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, the El Cortez and the Flamingo Las Vegas.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Golden Gate Hotel and Casino
The first official casino in Las Vegas was the Golden Gate. It officially opened in 1906 but was forced to close over the Prohibition era. It would not reopen until 1931 after gambling was legalized. Some will dispute that the El Cortez casino is older, but most historians and others give the official title to the Golden Gate.
Given its age, this casino was the site of many Vegas firsts. It was the first casino to have indoor plumbing. It is also famous for receiving the first telephone number in Las Vegas. In 1991 it served its 25 millionth shrimp cocktail! For a brief period it was also known as the Sal Sagev (which is Las Vegas spelled backwards) before receiving its official title, the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, in 1955.
Visitors today can enjoy a wide variety of table games, including craps, blackjack, roulette and 3-card poker, as well as tons of slots. The Golden Gate even has a special high-limit room full of surprises, including the original brickwork of the Hotel Nevada dating back to the early 1900s.
Did You Know?
We joked earlier about the shrimp cocktail — a Las Vegas cliche — but the Golden Gate Casino and Hotel is famous for them. This casino was the first to serve the notorious “50 cent shrimp cocktail” in 1959.
While the official title of “Oldest Hotel in Las Vegas” goes to the Golden Gate, the El Cortez Hotel & Casino has been dubbed the longest “continually running” casino in town. Built in 1941, this casino was considered the city’s first major resort and cost roughly $250,000 to build (equivalent to roughly $5 million today).
The first 10 years were a bit rough for this establishment. It changed ownership a few different times and went through a number of renovations. In 1945 it was sold to the mob and the interior was remodeled. The following year, J.K. Houssells, the original owner, reacquired the hotel. In 1950 it was remodeled again, and in 1952 the official “grand opening” took place.
In 2020 the El Cortez celebrated 80 years of history in Vegas with a $25-million renovation. This series of upgrades included a new high-roller room, the tower hotel rooms were remodeled and the casino floor got an update, too. This year, the original 47 hotel rooms got their turn to shine, bringing the ultimate in comfort and style to some of the city’s most historic spaces.
Visitors to the El Cortez will find tons of slots, video poker and other electronic games, as well as staples like blackjack, baccarat, roulette and Texas hold’em.
Did You Know?
The El Cortez hotel was the first casino to be granted a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite its many interior remodels, it is one of the few casinos in Vegas to keep its exterior facade intact (for more than 80 years!).
Flamingo Las Vegas
The Flamingo Las Vegas wasn’t the first hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, but it’s the oldest resort still in operation there today. It officially opened in 1946 and cost $6 million to build. It’s rumored that the casino was named for the owner (and mobster) Bugsy Siegel’s then-girlfriend Virginia Hill. “Flamingo” was his nickname for her because of her long legs. When Siegel was killed in 1947, the casino management changed the name to the Fabulous Flamingo.
The property became one of the first “all inclusive” resorts and focused more on the complete experience rather than gambling alone. Visitors would “flock” to the casino resort for its beautiful gardens, pools and air-conditioned rooms.
The property has changed hands many times over the years. In 1972 it was purchased by Hilton Hotels. In 2005 it changed hands again and became part of the Harrah’s Entertainment empire. In 2018 the hotel underwent a massive pink-and-gold makeover celebrating its 70-year history in Vegas.
Today, the Flamingo features over 1,600 slot machines and 130 table games, including mini-baccarat and pai gow poker.
Did You Know?
The courtyard in the garden has a wildlife habitat that houses flamingos, ducks and other water birds. There’s also a large koi pond that holds fish and turtles. At one time it was also home to penguins, but those were later moved to the Dallas Zoo. Even though they have the proper attire, it’s a bit hot for penguins in Vegas.