Mushroom Clouds over Las Vegas

From Hoover Dam to Howard Hughes, Iconic Photos look back at the unlikely success of America’s last frontier town. 

Why Las Vegas? Until very recently, it was not the most accessible place, nor was it the most exclusive of gambling dens; its arid Nevadan weather was unforgiving. Yet it is “Gambling and Entertainment Capital of the World” and every year, near forty million tourists flock to this desert casino town to dole out almost 15 billion dollars. But Las Vegas’ such success was never actually guaranteed; fittingly, no other town in history owed more to luck and coincidences.

Its modern history began with the Hoover Dam; although the Federal Government went so far as to create an artificial city to separate construction workers from Vegas’ notorious red light district, bars, and gambling dens, it was to Sin City that Franklin Roosevelt came when he arrived to open the dam. By then, cheap electricity from the dam had flowed into the city and earned Fremont Street its nickname “Glitter Gulch” (thanks to bright lights from its 24-hour casinos). Soon, the mob moved in.

The next phase came with the U.S. Army and its nuclear testing on a dried lakebed just outside the city; people came to Las Vegas to stand on the edge of the desert, and feel the ground shake, smoke billow and glass shatter around them. They stayed at the Atomic View Hotel, ordered Atomic Hamburgers, Atomic Hairdos, and Atomic Cocktails (equal parts vodka, brandy, champagne with a splash of sherry). Strippers in the city’s clubs took on atomic-themed names befitting third-tier superheroes. For five years, the city chose Miss Atom Bomb who wore a swimsuit fashioned after a mushroom cloud and was crowned by a similarly fungiform tiara.

It was in this giddy (and one might assume, radioactive) atmosphere that an unknown Las Vegas photographer climbed atop a parking lot opposite city’s the then most famous casino, the Pioneer Club, to capture an atomic blast behind the famed neon cowboy, Vegas Vic. Nevada nuclear tests quickly went underground, and today, with the Fremont Street Experience ruining the vista, such a photo would not be possible.

Yet, Las Vegas proved to be durable. In the late 50s, the atomic enthusiasm dissipated and the city was so threatened by newer casinos in Havana that it passed a law preventing Nevadan casinos from investing in Cuba. Yet, historical forces intervened once again in the form of Fidel Castro and his communist revolution; business quickly returned to Las Vegas. Soon, another mustachioed maverick, this time the aviator Howard Hughes, would come to wrestle Fremont casinos away from organized crime. The Strip and the modern Las Vegas it represented would be just around the corner. Literally.

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