Downtown Las Vegas – The Heyday of Glitter Gulch
The Heyday of Glitter Gulch
Location: Downtown Las Vegas
Las Vegas, NV 89101
What’s There Now: Fremont Street Experience
Closed: Still In Operation
Land auction establishing Las Vegas on May 15
Nevada Hotel (now Golden Gate opens on January 13
Boulder Club opens on April 1
Las Vegas Club opens on April 1
Meadows Club opens on May 2
Apache hotel opens on April 4
El Cortez opens on November 7
Meadows Club closes
Pioneer Club opens
Golden Nugget opens on August 30
Eldorado Club opens
Eldorado Club becomes Binion’s Horseshoe on August 2
Fremont Hotel opens on May 18
The Mint opens on July 11
Four Queens opens on June 2
Plaza Hotel opens on July 2
Golden Nugget bought by Steve Wynn
California Hotel opens on January 1
The Sundance opens on June 28
The Gold Spike opens on May 22
Sundance Hotel renamed Fitzgerald’s
Main Street Station opens on August 30
Fremont Street Experience opens on December 14
Neonopolis opens on May 3
Although most people think of the grand gambling palaces on The Strip when they think of Las Vegas, the city actually got its start miles to north in what we now refer to as Downtown Las Vegas.
The development of the city kicked off on May 15, 1905 when US Senator William Clark held a land auction that created most of Downtown Las Vegas. At the time there was not much there other than a railroad depot on the spot that is now The Plaza hotel.
Early Las Vegas was a wild west town, infamous for its hard-drinking, prostitution, and legal (or at least not illegal) gambling. The epicenter of this was Block 16, a red light district where all of the above was openly tolerated. About a dozen bars with gambling and brothels in back rooms operated on the block between Stewart and Ogden and First and Second Streets (now a parking lot and parking structure for Binion’s).
Even after gambling was made illegal in Nevada in 1910 and Prohibition went into effect in 1920, the bars in Block 16 and along Fremont Street continued to operate, hiding their now illicit activities behind speakeasy style facades and paying off local officials to let the good times roll.
The early 1930s had three major events that turned Las Vegas into a boom town and shaped its future for decades.
The first was in 1931 when work began on the Hoover Dam (then called Boulder Dam). The project, one of the biggest public works efforts in United States history, brought tens of thousands of workers to the area, many of whom traveled to Downtown Las Vegas for recreation.
That same year, Nevada repealed the law banning gambling, allowing all of the clubs on Fremont Street and elsewhere to move their card tables and roulette wheels out in the open. Some places literally just tore down the false walls that shielded the gaming from public view.
Then in 1933, Prohibition was repealed and alcohol began flowing freely and openly again.
Downtown Las Vegas exploded in popularity with dozens of casinos and clubs opening in the area, some of which still exist today. The Las Vegas Club dates back to 1931; The Apache Hotel (now Binion’s‘s) opened in 1932; El Cortez opened in 1941; and The Golden Nugget opened in 1946. The relatively narrow Fremont Street became lined with taller and taller neon signs for the casinos, lending it the nickname Glitter Gulch.
But things started to change in when Los Angeles hotelier Thomas Hull’s car broke down on the highway leading into Las Vegas. According to legend, as Hull sat there in the desert heat waiting for a tow truck, he envisioned a cool swimming pool alongside the highway luring all of the people making the trek from California. In 1941, Hull opened El Rancho at what is now an empty lot at the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Sahara Avenue and effectively created the Las Vegas Strip.
As development moved south, Downtown became a low-cost alternative instead of a main destination for most Las Vegas visitors. Over the next several decades Downtown development slowed while The Strip boomed. Binion’s opened in 1951, The Fremont Hotel opened in 1956, The Mint in 1957, The Four Queens in 1966, and The California in 1975. In that same time period more than a dozen major resorts opened (and some closed) on The Strip.
By the 1970s and 1980s, Downtown Las Vegas was considered seedy and crime ridden; the place people only went to if they couldn’t afford to go to The Strip. Efforts to revitalize the area mostly failed and even those that worked were controversial. The 1992 decision to close Fremont Street – Glitter Gulch – to traffic and turn it into a pedestrian mall with a giant LED canopy over the top was met with howls of protests from purists.
It lured new audiences to the neighborhood but Downtown still struggled all the way until 2010 when Zappos.com, an online retailer, announced it would move its headquarters into Downtown Las Vegas from suburban Henderson. The anticipated influx of thousands of workers spurred development on a level not seen since the 1930s. Old hotels were revamped (The Plaza and The D Las Vegas), new attractions were added (The Mob Museum and Neon Museum), and bars and nightclubs in the Fremont East Entertainment District (Commonwealth, Vanguard Lounge) turned a once dangerous area into a popular hangout for locals and tourists alike.
The future of Downtown Las Vegas looks bright.