Nevada is essentially made up of three industries: mining, gambling and nuclear weapons testing (in that order). The first settlements were created on the back of silver strikes in the north, and when those dried up the inherent gambling scene of the mining towns evolved into Las Vegas and Reno. The US government liked the barren desert of Nevada for testing their new atomic bombs throughout the 1950s. All three of these sectors continue to attract tourists in their own way, though Vegas easily leads the charge.
Before the discovery of silver in Virginia City in 1859, Nevada was generally skirted by settlers heading west. The lure of riches changed everything for this barren land, which was quickly granted its own territory in 1861 and statehood in 1864. Mining continued to shape Nevada’s society for decades, with big strikes in Tonopah in 1900 and Goldfield a few years later.
Nevada’s first towns like Virginia City still retain much of their frontier look and feel, now serving as tourist destinations since the mining has dried up. The unregulated gambling that was once an integral part of town life evolved into a semi-regulated industry by 1931 when it was officially legalized by the government. Eight days later the federal government granted the funding to build the Hoover Dam.
Las Vegas was established shortly after gambling was allowed and began to really take off with the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935. The dam provided the power to light up the casinos and resorts, which were largely run by mob figures like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Fascinating museums dedicated to the early days of Vegas can be found in the Tropicana and downtown in the new Mob Museum.
The testing of nuclear weapons was another major facet of Nevada’s economy in the early 20th century. The Nevada Test Site, opened in 1951, is just 65 miles from Las Vegas. More nuclear bombs were exploded here than anywhere else in America up until the last one in 1962. Today, the Atomic Testing Museum is dedicated to this unique industry.
Once the nuclear testing sites were shut down, Nevada focused firmly on its gambling revenue from Las Vegas and Reno. They began to lure retirees with affordable housing and loads of entertainment to the valley. Vegas remains the main driver of Nevada, attracting visitors in droves despite the recent economic downturn.
Few visitors realize there’s whole other culture in Nevada outside of the glitz and debauchery of Las Vegas. The City of Sin certainly defines the state in many ways, but venture into the small towns up north like Ely and Elko and they embrace gambling in a more western style. Cowboys trump showgirls and artists are just as common as weathered old rock hounds.
Nevada also has a large population of retirees, mainly living in the Las Vegas area. Overall, the state is a total mishmash of senior citizens, party people, blue-collar casino workers, and grizzled cowboys in the other towns. Nevada is a fun and wild state and as the saying goes, "What Happens in Las Vegas, Stays in Las Vegas," so leave your inhibitions behind. You may not encounter much friendliness in Las Vegas, but in the rural towns people are generally laid back and open to visitors.