Categorized | Features, Take a Trip

Taking A Gamble On Las Vegas Without Placing A Bet


Photo: Las Vegas — Neon Museum: Benny Binion’s Horseshoe sign contained more than 30,000 bulbs. A sign for Sassy Sally’s Casino stands nearby. (photo by ellen l. weingart)


By Ellen L. Weingart

It’s nearly impossible to stay at a Las Vegas hotel, eat at one or see a show without going through a casino, but the gambling Mecca offers other “sure-thing” ways to have fun.

Here are four of them, an engineering marvel, a wonder of nature, one that’s Vegas ketch and one that’s out of this world.

Hoover Dam

The roadway over Hoover Dam connects Arizona (r) with Las Vegas. Traffic has eased considerably since the building of the nearby Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge over the Colorado River. (photo by steven w. weingart)

Hoover Dam has been described as the eighth wonder of the world. Started in 1931 and opened in 1936 — two years ahead of schedule and under budget — the dam was constructed primarily to control flooding along the Colorado River. The sale of the hydroelectric power generated by the dam, mainly to Arizona, California and Nevada, paid for construction and now covers operating costs.

The dam also created Lake Mead, the United States’ largest reservoir by capacity and both a water source for the same three states and a popular recreation area.

Straddling the Nevada-Arizona border, the dam is an easy, less-than-30-mile drive southeast of Las Vegas. Guided tours of the power plant and dam, along with access to the visitors’ center, are offered daily, except Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Arcy, our guide for the power plant tour, was a fount of knowledge and statistics.

Started in the midst of The Great Depression, the massive construction projection drew thousands of unemployed men to the area. Working seven days a week, 24 hours a day in three shifts, about 25,000 men would work on the project; about 100 of them would die during the construction. Pay was around $4 a day, a good salary for the time, Arcy said. Boulder City, about six miles from the dam and one of only two municipalities in Nevada to prohibit gambling, was built to house the workers and their families. The project used 6.6 million tons of concrete, enough to pave a highway from San Francisco to New York City.

The completed dam stands 726 feet high. Its 17 turbines generate enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes, while Lake Mead is capable of irrigating 2 million acres of fields.

As for the river, it has flooded only twice since the dam’s construction — once for testing and once in 1981 due to record snow in Colorado.

Red Rock Canyon

The red rock formations that give Red Rock Canyon its name, topped by sand stone peaks, with the Keystone Thrust formation in the background (photo by ellen l. weingart)

While Hoover Dam is a wonder of engineering, Red Rock Canyon, a National Conservation Area, is a wonder of nature. A pleasant 15-mile drive west of Las Vegas, the almost 200,000-acre site includes the large red rock formations that give it its name, sandstone peaks and the walls of the Keystone Thrust. A visit to Red Rock Canyon can be as easy as driving the 13-mile Scenic Loop or as strenuous as the 5-mile, 5-hour hike along Turtlehead Peak. And anything in between.

We opted for the drive, which gave us magnificent, close-up views of the red walls and pale peaks in changing light. The numerous turnouts and parking lots allowed us to linger, stretch our legs on short walks and catch a peek at more adventurous visitors scrambling up and down the cliffs. A visitor center at the start of the loop road includes exhibits, handouts and staff to provide additional information and advice.

Neon Museum

The Neon Museum bills itself as “the world’s largest collection of neon signage.” (Neon Museum)

When it comes to kitch, it’s hard to beat the Neon Museum. It’s the place to go when you have the urge to see those iconic Las Vegas signs of a bygone era. Visits are by guided tour only.

Billing itself as “the world’s largest collection of neon signage,” the outdoor museum — called the Boneyard — with more than 200 signs and architectural landmarks is, as the ad says, “Part history. Part art. Completely awesome.” The museum opened in 2012.

Enter the visitor’s center and you’re standing in the La Concha Motel lobby, a shell-shaped building designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects.

The motel opened in 1961 and closed in 2004; its lobby was saved from demolition in 2005 and, like most of the signs and landmarks on display, was donated to the museum. The mosaic lobby sign and a section of the museum’s road sign are original to the motel and have been refurbished.

Only seven of the signs in the Boneyard have been restored, Chrissie, our tour guide, told us. The rest will be kept from deteriorating further. More signs are at the nearby Boneyard North Gallery and in storage.

Chrissie seemed to know everything about each sign, discussing what inspired it, how it was made and how it fit into Las Vegas history.

“Neon provides a red-orange color, argon provides light blue. Painting the gas tubes provides the other colors,” she explained. “Gases are rarely used now. It’s too expensive and difficult to repair. It’s mostly LEDs now.”

The oldest sign in the collection is for the Green Shack, which opened in 1929 and closed in 1999. The museum’s sign is from 1937 — post Prohibition — and advertises a menu of cocktails, steak and chicken.

Among the signs familiar to visitors to an earlier Las Vegas and to almost anyone who watches TV or goes to the movies, are Benny Binion’s Horseshoe with its 30,000 bulbs, the Aladdin’s magic lamp, the Riviera’s iconic R and the desert-themed sign of the Sahara, a favorite hangout for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.

But perhaps the most identifiable is the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, designer Betty Jane Willis’ “gift to the city.” The original sign is on Las Vegas Boulevard South, at what many consider to be the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip.

Willis also designed the sign for the Moulin Rouge. When the hotel and casino opened in May, 1955, it was fully integrated, from owners to employees to patrons to entertainers — a first for Las Vegas. Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey, banned from gambling or staying at hotels on the Strip, performed and stayed there. George Burns, Tallulah Bankhead, Judy Garland, Jack Benny, Sophie Tucker and Frank Sinatra frequently dropped in after their shows to gamble and perform. Yet, by December 1955, it had shut its doors and declared bankruptcy.

In 1960, with Las Vegas facing a looming Civil Rights march, the still-licensed property hosted a meeting attended by Gov. Grant Sawyer, local officials, local black leaders and NAACP president, James McMillan. The resulting agreement ended segregation on the Strip.

Area 51 Exhibit

The sign marks the entrance to the Area 51: Myth or Reality exhibit. Nevada Route 375 was officially named the Extraterrestrial Highway in 1996 for the many UFO sightings reported along the road. The highway runs close to the top secret Area 51. (photo by steven w. weingart)

If a visit to Las Vegas isn’t other worldly enough, the Area 51: Myth or Reality exhibit inside the city’s National Atomic Testing Museum surely is.

Area 51, located within the Nevada Test and Training Range is a highly classified branch of Edwards Air Force Base. The government didn’t even acknowledge its existence until 2005, 50 years after it opened. The site is permanently off-limits to civilian and normal military air traffic and its current purpose is shielded from the public. All of the secrecy provides ample fodder for UFO conspiracy theorists.

Among the postulated activities are the storage, examination and reverse engineering of crashed alien space ships leading to U.S. production of aircraft based on alien technology; the study of alien space travelers, both living and dead; and joint undertakings with extraterrestrials. “Eye-witnesses” regularly report UFOs in the skies over Area 51.

The stars of the theorized Area 51 UFO collection are related to an unidentified flying object found in Roswell, N.M., in 1947. Do the remains belong to an alien spaceship or do they have a more benign explanation?

Posted near the start of the exhibit is a quote from astronomer Carl Sagan, reminding us that the proper question is not whether we believe in UFOs, but whether there is evidence of UFOs. Photos and testimonies, displayed in eerie semi-darkness, try to provide that evidence. Visitors are left to decide whether they succeed.

Photos of the Atomic Museum’s Area 51 exhibit are prohibited — except at the entrance.

The National Atomic Testing Museum, documenting more than 70 years of atomic history, also is worth a visit. Atomic testing, which Las Vegas had feared would put an end to its burgeoning tourist industry, found it attracted visitors, with organized tours of goggle-wearing patrons going out to the test site to watch. Although there are some you-are-there moments at the museum, they come without dangerous levels of radioactivity.

For more information:

Hoover Dam:

Red Rock Canyon:

National Atomic Testing Museum: //

Neon Museum:

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