Nevada’s history is rooted in the Wild West, from cowboys and Indians to train robberies and silver and gold mines. Though much has changed over the decades – Nevada now draws more than 50 million visitors each year and attracts international audiences – much of the allure of the state still is found in its western heritage and wide-open spaces.
Originally belonging to the American Indian tribes Washoe, Paiute and Western Shoshone, the area we now know as Nevada was claimed by Mexico before becoming part of the Utah Territory and eventually attaining statehood in 1864.
Many famous explorers, including Jedediah Smith, John Fremont and Kit Carson, ventured into the vast expanse of Nevada to find a fast route from the eastern states into the wild frontier of California. Peter Skene Ogden explored what would become southern Nevada in 1826, followed by Smith and his party just a few months later. In 1829, Antonio Armijo led a party into the present site of Las Vegas by way of the Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico to Los Angeles. Fremont and Carson later trekked through northern Nevada in 1844 and discovered Pyramid Lake.
While many temporary towns and trading posts were established throughout the rough Nevada frontier, primarily in Northern Nevada by Mormon settlers and gold miners, the distinction of Nevada’s first town often is given to Mormon Station, which was founded in 1851 near present-day Carson City and later was renamed Genoa. A nearby settlement in what is now Dayton, just a few miles from Genoa, was founded earlier than Genoa but did not flourish, and the debate over which town was Nevada’s first settlement lingers. However, Dayton holds the claim as the site of the first gold discovery in the state in 1849.
Just a few years later, more Mormon settlers moved into the future Utah Territory, and in 1855 a group of those settlers built a fort near what is now downtown Las Vegas. However, in 1857, relations between the federal government and the Mormon Church became tense and Brigham Young, president of the church, called his followers back to Salt Lake City. Nevada’s sparse population plummeted.
Two years later, gold (and later silver) was discovered on the south flank of Sun Mountain, near what is now Virginia City. The discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859 was the first of Nevada’s many mining booms and attracted thousands of new people to the state. In 1860 the Pony Express was established to carry mail between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif., and was a vital link in Nevada’s development.
The Territory of Nevada was created by an Act of Congress on March 2, 1861. The state continued to grow as the mines yielded more and more wealth and by 1863, more than 10,000 miners, prospectors and settlers lived on the Comstock. Later, on Oct. 31, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Nevada’s admission to the Union as the 36th state. The Nevada State Constitution was sent to Lincoln in the longest telegraph message in history up to that time.
The railroad roared into Nevada in 1868 when the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the state line, and soon other railroads were constructed throughout the state to carry supplies to the miners and towns, as well as money and gold. That brought a wave of Chinese immigration, and at one time 90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad workers were Chinese. The completion of most of the West’s railroads is attributed to the Chinese craftsmen who worked tirelessly to link western towns by railroad.
The Gold Rush and Nevada’s rich mining began to fade by the 1880s and Nevada’s population began to gradually decline. In the 1890s, it again plummeted. At the turn of the century, major silver and gold deposits again were discovered, this time in the southern-central Nevada towns of Tonopah (1900) and Goldfield (1902), signaling another boom.
At the same time, agriculture began to play an increasingly important role in the state’s economy. In 1902, Congress approved the nation’s first water reclamation act, and the Newlands Reclamation Project was built near the Northern Nevada towns of Fallon and Fernley. Fallon’s Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is now an essential oasis along the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds.
While Nevada is known in part for its history of legalized gambling, it actually was illegal before 1869 and again after 1910. In 1931, Nevada again legalized casino gambling, this time as a means of raising tax revenues and stabilizing the state’s economy. With the legalization of gambling came the first casinos on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, which was soon to be known as “Glitter Gulch,” and in 1941, the first hotel-casino on the future Las Vegas Strip opened its doors as the El Rancho Vegas.
The construction of the Hoover Dam in the early 1930s cemented Las Vegas as a viable, thriving community. The constant supply of water from the Colorado River made farming dependable and profitable and added an inexpensive source of electricity, allowing for growth and development.
In the northern end of the state, Reno was making a name for itself as the “Divorce Capital of the World.” Initially, the Truckee River crossing became a town in the 1860s and in 1868 was named to honor the fallen Union general Jesse Lee Reno.
While the rest of the nation instituted stringent restrictions and longer residency for divorce, Nevada maintained a short six-month residency for those who wished to divorce. Reno went a step further, adopting liberal grounds for divorce and in 1927 shortening the residency requirement to 90 days. The minimum residency was shortened further in 1931 to only six weeks. Word quickly spread about Reno’s permissive regulations, and by the early 1920s, the town had become a haven for those seeking divorce. Between 1929 and 1967, there were more than 159,000 divorces granted in Reno.
Reno also was growing as a gambling town and saw the opening of Harold’s Club in 1935 and Harrah’s Casino in 1937. The passing of a corporate gaming act in 1969 laid the groundwork for large-scale resorts run by major corporations. In 1966, eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes arrived in Las Vegas and began buying casinos, changing the face of The Strip. Always desiring to be the biggest and best, Hughes set a new standard for the hotel and casino industry. Following Hughes’ example of striving to always “one-up” the competition, the MGM Grand opened its doors in Reno in 1978 as the largest casino in the area while casino moguls such as Steve Wynn opened mega-resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.
While Las Vegas and Reno were booming, the desert 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas was undergoing another kind of explosion – in 1951 the U.S. military began testing atomic weapons, first above ground and after 1963 only underground. The testing ended in 1992, and in 2004, tours began to be offered of the test site.
Nevada has undergone many changes and growth spurts over the years, but tourism has remained its No. 1 industry. In 2004 it hit a benchmark, attracting more than 50 million visitors and generating $40 billion in tourism revenue. Also in 2004, the Nevada Commission on Tourism became the first and only United States entity to be licensed to advertise in China. The China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) estimates that 90 percent of Chinese travelers to the United States go to Nevada, part of the reason that it awarded the license to Nevada. Within just a few years, eight Chinese cities or provinces signed friendship agreements with Nevada to further promote tourism between Nevada and China.
As the Silver State continues to evolve and grow, there are new things to do, places to go and sights to see. Visit TravelNevada.com for suggestions on ways to spend a few days or a few hours in Nevada.