What Was the First Casino in Las Vegas? A History
No one could have predicted back in 1905 that a small stopover town between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City would turn into a mega-resort and the gambling capital of the US that it is today. So, how did it all start and what was the first casino in Las Vegas?
Las Vegas: The Beginnings
Back in the day, the citizens of Nevada and Las Vegas were no strangers to gambling. But then came a day when James Nye was appointed Nevada Territory Governor, which marked the beginning of the territory’s turbulent relationship with gambling.
History tells us that Nye had a firm stance against gambling and other games of chance, but also that Nevada’s people, much like the desert, were untameable. Illegal gambling was rampant, and no amount of fines would change that.
When Nevada became the 36th state in 1864, the Nevada State Legislature tried to legalize and regulate gambling but failed. Another attempt in 1869 succeeded in allowing certain forms of gambling. This is how Nevada’s gambling history began.
Las Vegas was only a trading stop at the time. It was founded as a city in 1905, so it could be said that Las Vegas’s casino history stretches as far back as the city itself.
The Five Oldest Casinos in Las Vegas
Before we continue, it’s important to mention that our list will start with the oldest casino to provide a proper timeline and illustrate how the old Las Vegas casinos evolved into the ones we know today.
On another note, we’re sure there were gambling establishments in Las Vegas before 1905, but none of them survived the test of time. Don’t worry – their successors kept the spirit of Las Vegas alive and well.
1. The Hotel Nevada (1905)
The Hotel Nevada is the oldest hotel in Las Vegas. Since its inception, it has also included a casino on its premises, making it the first casino in Las Vegas.
The hotel was run by John F. Miller, initially as a tent hotel known as the Miller Hotel, until the permanent hotel was constructed and subsequently renamed the Hotel Nevada in 1906.
The casino had operated since the hotel opened but was forced to close when gambling was outlawed in 1909. All the tables and slot machines were moved to storage, where they sat until the end of the ban in 1931. That same year, when the casino reopened, the hotel expanded for the second time and was renamed the Sal Sagev Hotel (Las Vegas spelled backwards).
In 1955, the son of John F. Miller, Abe Miller, leased the ground floor and the casino. The casino operated separately from the hotel under the Golden Gate Casino banner. Due to this change of ownership and because the casino didn’t operate during the gambling ban, it’s debatable whether the Golden Gate Casino is the oldest casino in Vegas, as they like to claim.
In 1974, the casino owners acquired the hotel and renamed it the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino. The casino continues to operate to this day under the same name. It has since undergone a couple of renovations and expansions, but the spirit of the original hotel remains intact.
The Hotel Nevada is the first casino in Vegas and one of the oldest in the whole state of Nevada.
2. Arizona Club (1905)
Gambling, alcohol, and prostitution often go hand-in-hand. So it won’t come as a surprise when we tell you that one of the first casinos in Las Vegas started in the Red Light District, known as Block 16. The Arizona Club was the Queen of Block 16.
The biggest problem with the Arizona Club is pinpointing when the gambling started. In such a neighborhood, you would expect illegal activities, and there are records of them. The Arizona Club had been raided several times for illicit distribution of alcohol during the prohibition period, but gambling wasn’t mentioned.
The fact that the establishment was raided multiple times is shocking because the Las Vegas government was very lax at enforcing bans on gambling and alcohol. It’s believed that there was gambling in the Arizona Club before the 1931 gambling license, but no one knows for sure.
What we do know is that the Arizona Club was one of the first seven gambling license holders in Las Vegas in 1931, qualifying it as one of the first casinos in Vegas.
It is believed that the Arizona Club remained open until sometime in the 1940s. Again, it’s hard to pinpoint when the casino stopped operating. It most probably happened in 1942, when the government of Las Vegas had to outlaw prostitution due to mounting pressure from the US Army, putting Block 16 permanently out of business.
The famed Arizona Club mahogany bar was sold to the Hotel Last Frontier in 1942, and the property was used as a rooming house. Four years later, Block 16 was demolished, and a parking lot was built in its place.
3. The Northern Club (1920)
Another one of the first casinos in Las Vegas opened next to the Hotel Nevada. Salt Lake Brewing opened the Northern as a bar and hotel in 1912. In 1920, the club changed its owner and name. The new owner was Oscar C. Stocker, and the hotel and soon-to-be casino was renamed the Northern Club. Evidence indicates that illegal gambling and illicit serving of alcohol had occurred since 1920.
In 1924, the club applied for a gaming license that would include four tables. The permit was approved due to lax standards in the city of Las Vegas, though gambling was still considered illegal for the most part.
When gambling was made legal again in 1931, the owner of the Northern Club managed to get the first Las Vegas casino license just a day after the bill was passed, and it was the first gambling license issued to a woman, Mayme Stocker.
Licensing coincided with the start of construction on Hoover Dam, with workers flocking to Boulder City, which was just 33 miles from Vegas. The town had a strict no-gambling and no-alcohol policy, so working men migrated to Las Vegas, and a city with 5,000 citizens now had approximately 25,000 people.
A recent statistic shows that only 7% of visitors go to Vegas to gamble. We don’t have any statistics from 1931, but it’s safe to assume that most people at the time were there to drink and gamble. There wasn’t a lot to be seen back then.
Source: Las Vegas Sun
By 1941, the casino was operated by mobster Bugsy Siegel, who popularized the Las Vegas Strip idea, and Dave Stearns, a gambler and entrepreneur. In 1943, the Northern Club changed its owner and became the Turf Club. But the change was short-lived, and in 1945, Wilbur Clark leased the club and renamed it the Monte Carlo Club. The casino would have many owners in the following years and close in 1956. But this original Vegas casino would not stay down for long.
Between 1956 and 1970, there were no casinos in that spot, only diners and restaurants. In 1970, the casino reopened again under the name of Coin Castle. For most of its time, the casino operated as a slot casino exclusively until 1999, when it was closed down, merged with neighboring lots, and then reopened as La Bayou. La Bayou operated until 2016, when it was closed for good, and the lot was split between the Golden Gate Casino and the Las Vegas Club.
4. Boulder Club (1929)
The second most famous street in Las Vegas was getting crowded by now. There was already a Hotel Nevada and a Northern Club when a five-man partnership opened the Boulder Club on Fremont Street. From the beginning, it included a bar and a nickel-in-the-slot machine.
When licensing came in 1931, the Boulder Club was one of the first seven casinos to receive a license, making it one of the first casinos in Las Vegas. From there on, the casino only expanded. During the 1940s, it was considered one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas.
The club continued operating successfully until November 26, 1956, when a fire broke out in the club and damaged most of the place. The cause of the fire was never determined, but arson was ruled out.
In 1960, the Boulder Club closed its doors after 31 years of continuous operation due to an earlier agreement, which stated that the club would cease operations upon the death of one of the partners. The neighboring Horseshoe Club took over the property and expanded into the Boulder Club area.
5. Pair O’ Dice (1931)
Not all of the first casinos in Vegas were on Fremont Street. Some opened on Highway 91 in an area that would be later known as the Las Vegas Strip. The first casino built on the Las Vegas Strip was Pair O’Dice.
The Red Rooster is also mentioned as the first casino on the Las Vegas Strip. However, it was a nightclub first and an illegal pub and casino second. It obtained its gaming license a month before Pair O’ Dice, so it’s debatable which of the two was the first casino on the Las Vegas strip before licensing. But most historians agree that Pair O’ Dice is the oldest casino built on the Las Vegas Strip.
What we know for sure is that the Red Rooster was the first casino in Las Vegas to lose its gambling license. The federal authorities raided the place for illicit alcohol sales. The prohibition period lasted until 1933. Subsequently, the gaming board revoked the permit on July 7, 1931.
The nightclub had a turbulent history and ended up as a hotel. It never again held a gambling license, and we couldn’t find evidence or mention of any kind of gambling after that point. The Red Rooster was located where the Mirage now stands.
Back to the old Pair O’ Dice, where things aren’t entirely clear either. The exact date it opened isn’t precise, but it got its license in May of 1931 and operated until 1939. So we can call it the first casino opened on the Las Vegas Strip that managed to run continuously.
In 1939, businessman Guy McAfee bought the club, remodeled it, and renamed it the 91 Club due to its location next to Highway 91. Two years later, the club was sold to R.E. Griffith, who built the hotel-casino named Hotel Last Frontier. He originally wanted to name the resort El Rancho Vegas. However, the name was taken by another casino resort, which now holds the title of the first casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip.
The Last Frontier wasn’t built on the exact spot of the 91 Club; the club was absorbed into the hotel as a bar named Leo Carrillo Bar. The hotel-casino continued to expand, adding shops, villages, a rodeo, and increasing its casino section. We won’t be covering the rest of the Last Frontier’s history because we consider that Pair O’ Dice effectively ceased to exist when it got absorbed by the Last Frontier and stopped operating as a casino.
Even though it was not among the first casinos, El Cortez Hotel and Casino deserves an honorable mention for being the original Vegas casino still standing and in continuous operation since 1941.
Even before the iconic Caesars Palace was built, Las Vegas had a vibrant casino history. Many of these businesses had different owners, which was a decisive factor in how they looked and how they were used. The first real hotels on the Strip were rustic getaways compared to today’s mega-resorts. It’s difficult to compare how the original casino owners ran their operations to how Caesars Palace’s current owners run their casinos now.
Much more could be written about Las Vegas but for the space constraints. For example, how many hotel rooms are there in Vegas? How many miles of neon tubing does the city have? We encourage you to seek the answers; they may surprise you.
What was the first casino built on the Strip?
The first casino on the Las Vegas Strip was Pair O’ Dice, but the casinos of that time weren’t anything like what we have today. If we’re looking for something closer to today’s standard, that would be the resort-casino complex El Rancho.
When was the first Las Vegas casino built?
The first casino in Las Vegas was the Hotel Nevada, built in 1905.
Was the Flamingo the first casino in Las Vegas?
The Flamingo was built in 1946. It’s not the first casino in Las Vegas, but it’s the third casino built on the Las Vegas Strip. So, what was the first casino in Las Vegas? The Hotel Nevada contained the first casino when it opened in 1905.
What is the oldest casino in Nevada?
The oldest casino in Nevada is the Railroad Pass. It’s located in Boulder City and was constructed during the building of Hoover Dam in 1931. It’s also one of the two cities where gambling is still illegal.