Old Las Vegas Strip: Some History of Fremont Street in Downtown

By Steve Beauregard

Before there were pretend volcanoes, or dancing fountains, or the highest Ferris Wheel in the world, there was the five block area in downtown Las Vegas that was the center of gambling in the United States: Fremont Street, or as many refer to it: the Old Las Vegas Strip.

The old Las Vegas Strip is grittier than the new Strip, but less expensive, more laid back, and in many cases, a lot more fun.

A new look at the old Las Vegas Strip
A new look at the old Las Vegas Strip

It’s a place where you can still find $5 blackjack. Here you’ll find cheap drinks, a zip line, street performers, and a constant party atmosphere all under a 1,500 foot long video screen/canopy that contains 12.5 million LED lights.

The five block stretch runs from Main Street on the east, to N. Las Vegas Boulevard to the west. It is home to ten casinos and six hotels.

Notable resorts include the Golden Nugget, Binions, The D, Four Queens, Golden Gate, Fremont and The Plaza. This list doesn’t even include several hotels and casinos a block or two off of Fremont Street.

Unlike the longer, more glamorous Strip to the South, Fremont Street is walk-able, and shaded to boot, with the aforementioned four-block long canopy providing shade in the day, and a dazzling light and sound show at night.

The old Las Vegas Strip during the 1940's
The old Las Vegas Strip during the 1940’s

A Very Short History of the Old Las Vegas Strip

In its early days, Fremont Street was sort of the “Main Street” of Las Vegas, due to its proximity to the main transportation hub of the day, the city’s first train depot, where the Plaza Hotel and Casino stands now.

Las Vegas was founded in 1905, (although not incorporated until 1911), and Fremont Street was the heart of it, with the town’s first paved road and eventually, its first stoplight. The was home to the city’s very first telephone number, at what was then the Hotel Nevada, now the Golden Gate. That very first number? “1.”

Back then, dusty (and we mean that literally), sawdust joints operated as the first casinos. Gambling was legal for years, then outlawed in 1910, but later legalized for good in 1931. According to the city’s official website, the population of Las Vegas in 1909 was just 800 residents.

During the 30’s, the construction of Hoover Dam, brought thousands of workers to the bars and casinos downtown. The dam would open in 1935.

Soon street lamps, and the expansion of electricity to the old Las Vegas Strip brought modern signage to Fremont Street in the early stages of what would be known as “Glitter Gulch.”

Some of the early Fremont Street casinos in this era included:

Lucky Strike
Hotel Apache
Boulder Club
Pioneer Club
Eldorado Club
Monte Carlo
Las Vegas Club
The Mint
The Birdcage

Like these other early casinos, the Pioneer Club is no longer, however its legacy remains. Have you seen the large neon cowboy standing tall above the street? That’s Vegas Vic, an iconic part of Las Vegas signage who part of the Pioneer Club’s facade back in the 1950’s.

My favorite casino, however, was the aforementioned Hotel Nevada, which, at one point in 1931, changed its name to the “Sal Saveg” (which is “Las Vegas” spelled backward).

Vegas Vic overlooks Fremont Street
Vegas Vic overlooks Fremont Street

The density, and variety of the brightly lit casino signs up and down this original Las Vegas Strip made it a natural background for TV and movie appearances. The many productions filmed on Fremont Street include scenes from the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Honey I Blew Up the Baby,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” and U2’s video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

(Related: Distance from Fremont Street to the Strip)

Old Las Vegas Strip and the Fremont Street Experience

Wanting to modernize downtown and bring in more tourists, city officials closed Fremont Street to vehicle traffic in 1994 to begin construction on what would become the Fremont Street Experience light and sound show we know today.

Today Fremont Street remains a “must see” in Las Vegas, in my view. Yes the Strip to the south is fancier and glitzier, but there is character, and a certain crazy charm to Fremont Street: the old, and original, Las Vegas Strip.

(Photos courtesy of matze_ott and Janice Waltzer, and Jim Colyer via Flickr).