Nevada wasn’t always associated with the Las Vegas Strip. In fact, the city of Las Vegas started with the sale of blocks of land around Fremont Street where the railway station was, in what is now the downtown corridor. Although gambling was illegal, there were saloons with poker and slot machines even in the 1920’s when Prohibition was supposed to outlaw drinking and the games of chance were discouraged on the ground floor of any building. About the only thing that wasn’t offered at ground level was prostitution. That was found upstairs.
In 1931, Nevada legalized open gaming and Reno was the hotbed of gambling in the country, but there were several saloons that applied for and received (nobody was turned down) licenses right away like the Boulder Club, Las Vegas Club, and the Northern. Today, the Las Vegas Club still greets visitors at the front of Fremont Street.
At the other end of Fremont, the El Cortez opened in 1941 and was operated by Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway. Later, Siegel and Sedway moved their horse race booking offices into the Las Vegas Club and the Mob was fully entrenched in Las Vegas. Within two years, every saloon and casino that had a horse race operation in Vegas was paying Siegel’s’ Trans Union for the privilege of staying in business, and staying alive.
In 1946, Guy McAfee, an ex-vice squad detective from Los Angeles who had a stake in a half-dozen casinos, opened the Golden Nugget with several partners. They claimed to have spent nearly $1,000,000 on building what they also claimed was the largest casino in the world. That claim helped Moe Sedway demand nearly $900 every week from the tiny race book in the Golden Nugget. Strangely enough, although “Bugsy” Siegel may have been the most notorious gangster in Las Vegas, after he was gunned down in ’47, the Continental race book, operated by the Mob in Chicago, demanded $2,500 per week from the Golden Nugget, and they got it. The boys in Chicago were tough!
Steve Wynn purchased controlling stock in the Golden Nugget in 1972 and gave the property a $2 million expansion. Ten years later, Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson helped open the resort’s new $17 million expansion before Wynn moved on to the Las Vegas Strip and opened the Mirage, Treasure Island, and the Wynn (and Encore).
Today, the Golden Nugget still stands in the middle of the Fremont Experience as the nicest resort in the downtown area. The property has added two new towers, a 200,000 gallon shark tank inside the H20 pool area, and offers large rooms, great restaurants, and 50,000 square feet of gaming in a well-appointed casino. The atmosphere is more casual and fun than the properties on the Strip, so the ambiance of Downtown lives on, just as some of the original casinos have.
The Fremont Experience itself is, well, an experience. Live bands play, vendors hawk big salty pretzels, huge drinks, and memorabilia and souvenirs. Each hour, on the hour, the lights along the roof explode with color and a new show starts in the sky. Music accompanies the light show and it’s really a lot of fun out on what used to be two lanes of vehicle traffic. The weekend crowd may not be well suited for children, but the daytime is fine. The downtown reinvented itself for the better, regardless of how it started.