once upon a time, fremont street was the las vegas experience.

Fremont Street, Las Vegas today.

Fremont Street today. This is the Fremont Street you have probably never seen.

I took a drive down old Fremont Street yesterday, between work-related errands. It felt like any other tired, past-its-prime former “main drag” you’d encounter in any city in America, really. You know what I mean. Wherever you live right now—or wherever you grew up—you know which main road used to be the place for all the businesses, restaurants, shopping and traffic.

Fremont Street, Las Vegas, circa 1952.

Fremont Street, Las Vegas, circa 1952.

Back in the day, Fremont Street was the place to be in Las Vegas. It was swanky. It had style. Men wore suits and drank martinis at the craps table while the ladies wore cocktail dresses and played the slot machines.

Today? With the exception of The Fremont Street Experience and up-and-coming Fremont East District, the rest of the street is lined by dilapidated, boarded-up storefronts and rickety, old motels; some boarded up, others serving as housing for transients. The pavement is pocked with potholes and cracks and whatever businesses remain are barely getting by.

Explorer, politician and Civil War era military man John C. Frémont, the namesake of Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

Explorer, politician and Civil War era military man John C. Frémont, the namesake of Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

I would bet most locals aren’t even aware of Fremont Street’s history. In terms of Nevada gaming, travel and tourism, Fremont Street is Ground Zero. Sure, most people today understand The Fremont Street Experience—the canopied three blocks of casino resorts—is widely regarded as “old Las Vegas,” but I wonder if people truly know how historically significant Fremont Street is to Nevada. Simply put, this is where it all started.

The first hotel, first paved street, first telephone and first Nevada gaming license all happened on Fremont Street, which is named after explorer and the Republican Party’s first anti-slavery presidential candidate, John C. Frémont. It was during his second expedition in 1843 that Frémont, with frontiersman Kit Carson in tow, first explored the region that would become modern-day Las Vegas.

Fremont Street today.

Fremont Street today.

Before Arrowhead Highway would give way to “The Strip,” Fremont Street was the tourist destination. Before Bugsy Siegel opened a hotel out in the middle of nowhere called The Flamingo in 1946, Fremont Street was the tourist destination. Back then, what we now know as The Strip had only a handful of casinos along a dusty, desolate highway. Most of those that were standing at the time are now buried in the desert along with Bugsy’s associates. Unlike The Strip, Fremont Street’s history remains largely intact.

Fremont Street motel that has seen better days.

Fremont Street motel that has seen better days.

As I drove, I couldn’t help imagine what it must’ve looked like in the 1950s: American-made automobiles as big as boats, with tail fins coming off the back end, driven by men dressed like Don Draper cruising down the street, eager to reach his destination; the roadside motels and diners burgeoning with out-of-towner activity; swanky neon signs glowing in the distance as you draw nearer and nearer until you can finally make them out—El Cortez, The Golden Nugget, Las Vegas Club.

How times have changed, sadly, I thought. Once upon a time, this was the main artery into Las Vegas. Today? No significant traffic at all; least of all a caravan of tourists trekking through the Nevada desert, eager to test their luck at the dice tables and roulette wheels. Today, it was mostly people waiting at bus stops.

The Fremont East District. An effort to revitalize downtown and convert dilapidated properties into a destination for locals.

The Fremont East District. An effort to revitalize downtown and convert dilapidated properties into a destination for locals and tourists alike.

It’s a sad change of fortune for what was once the hottest destination in Nevada. Fremont Street’s place in local history is nearly forgotten, swallowed up by time, change and shifting demands in the marketplace. That’s understandable. It happens everywhere. But we shouldn’t forget the cultural significance that took place here over most of the 20th century.

(I used Wikipedia to source many of these details because they are well-annotated.)

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