See important update at end of story.
We’re all waiting today, Sunday, July 16, 2023, in Las Vegas to see if the temperature will hit or exceed the all-time any-day-of-the-year official local record high of 117 degrees Fahrenheit. That mark has been touched four times in recorded history, twice since I became New To Las Vegas in 2016. We should know by 7:00 p.m. PT. Yesterday’s high was 113.
Accompanying this vigil is lots of moaning and groaning and swearing by locals about how unbearable it is to be hereabouts during the day and even at night, when the lows still hover around 90. All this is absolutely true. But there are plenty of other places around the country–like Death Valley barely two hours away by car (if it doesn’t overheat on the ride) and even the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles–and throughout the world that are frequently hotter.
However, for some reason Las Vegas during the summer seems to have become a national proxy for hot weather. Perhaps it’s the phenomenon I previously have described in which bad stuff that happens in Las Vegas gets insane publicity even though the same things happen elsewhere. In the case of hot weather maybe it has something to do with the satisfying notion to some of Sin City burning in hell. I even confess to playing that game a bit with a running box at the top of this blog listing the current temperature, automatically updated hourly. (My data comes from private OpenWeatherMap.com and sometimes varies a bit from the National Weather Service, the official record-keeper.)
Now I don’t want to make light of genuine suffering and deaths caused by heat, which certainly happen around Las Vegas, a place that has been called the country’s fastest-warming city. But having lived in a few other toasty climates–Houston, Albuquerque, the hot Santa Clarita Valley near Los Angeles and even Cairo, Egypt–me thinks many of the locals here doth protest a little too much. As I see it, it is the extreme heat–getting all the more extreme thanks to global warming–that helped give Las Vegas a viable economy in the first place. Hear me out on this.
First things first. The civic leaders of Las Vegas ought to erect a large statue here–maybe next to the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign–to honor Willis Carrier (1876-1950). He’s the Cornell-educated New York engineer who, at age 25, invented in 1902 what is recognized as the world’s first air conditioning system, to control the climate of a sweaty Brooklyn, N.Y., printing plant. Carrier eventually formed his own company, which came to be known as Carrier Corp. It became a worldwide leader in commercial and residential heating ventilation and air conditioning.
Without Carrier, I think it fair to say, there would be no Las Vegas, at least as we know it today. Indeed, just two years before Carrier developed and installed his system at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, U.S. census-takers made a list of all the folks living in Las Vegas. All 18 of them (excluding any Native Americans, who weren’t counted). The number was so small they fit on one U.S. Census page, which you can see by clicking here.
The reason, of course, is that Las Vegas sits remotely in the Mojave Desert. Then and now, this is a region with blistering heat during the summer and on average only a few inches of rain (officially, four) the entire year, plus limited underground springs. (The springs were sufficient for John C. Frémont, the military explorer and later war criminal and politician, to write in his journal on May 3, 1844, during his one-night camping stay in Las Vegas, the waters were too warm to drink, but delightful for bathing). There wasn’t much that anyone could do besides run cattle, which didn’t take a lot of people.
Things changed overnight on May 5, 1905, a day during which the reported high temperature was 110 degrees. That’s when William A. Clark, the corrupt Montana mineral tycoon building a railroad from the port of Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and needing water (and workers) for a division point, started a two-day outdoor auction to sell 1,100 lots around the future train station. Voila! Las Vegas was born, although it remained little more than a barren desert outpost for another quarter-century. By 1930 the population of Las Vegas still was only 8,244.
Still, folks had to fight the summer heat. They did so in a number of time-tested but inefficient ways. Sleeping outdoors. Building houses with overhanging porches. Planting trees to afford shade. Soaking mattresses during the day so nighttime evaporation would provide some cooling effect. Hanging wet sheets in a doorway for the same effect. Eventually, as generated electricity expanded and became cheaper, fans were employed. Evaporative coolers, which use a fan to blow air through wetted mats, taking out some of the heat, became popular (and are still used in Las Vegas and other places today), although they add humidity to what otherwise would be a dry heat.
In much of the rest of the country, air conditioning was catching on for commercial properties (it would be several more decades before residential A/C became popular and affordable). Movie theaters, especially along the East Coast, were among the first entertainment venues to use A/C as a customer draw. Indeed, the first air conditioned building in Las Vegas was the El Portal Theater, which opened in 1928. Right below the marquee was a banner in even larger type proclaiming, “Manufactured Weather by Carrier Refrigeration System.”
Still, Las Vegas remained somewhat behind the times. But then again, there was no great influx of commerce, either.
In 1931 in an effort to jump-start the state’s mining-based economy, the Nevada Legislature legalized gambling, along with quickie marriage and quickie divorce. This created a new demand for travelers and tourists. But who would go to such a hot place in the summer? It took some time. But in 1941, California hotelier Thomas Hull opened on what would become the Las Vegas Strip the El Rancho Vegas (not to be confused with the later-built-and-now-demolished El Rancho Hotel and Casino, f/k/a the Thunderbird). It was the area’s first modern-era vacation-style hotel casino and the first one to air-condition all rooms. This was accomplished by the installation of large ice-making machines and ventilation systems.
Not exactly Willis Carrier with his condenser systems, but it worked. By the end of World War II, cooling technology improvements building on Carrier and cheap electricity from the newly built Hoover Dam put Las Vegas in a good spot. Organized crime families started pumping hundreds of millions of dollars to build more than a dozen lavish casino hotels on the Strip from which they illegally could skim earnings and pay no taxes.
The word went out: Sure, Vegas was insanely hot in the summer. But the hotel casinos were quite comfortable. Indeed, sweaters might be needed inside because the facilities were cooled into the 60s. And there were giant outdoor pools to cavort in during the day. As I read the record, visitors found the heat a tourist attraction, which they could briefly experience and then leave simply by going inside their casino hotel. Most of the economy–i.e. gambling, dining, entertainment, and God know what else–took place indoors, of course.
You doubt ridiculous heat can be a draw? Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock each summer to Death Valley, now the contiguous U.S.’s largest national park by area. It was at Furnace Creek, in the center of Death Valley, on July 10, 1913, that the thermometer reached 134 degrees, still the highest reading ever recorded on Earth. Today, tourists line up to take selfies of themselves in front of the digital thermometer at the park’s visitor center, hoping for the highest possible reading, as though they are waiting for the winning number in a lottery.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Strip has been jammed with visitors all this week. This no doubt is partly due to the NBA Summer League taking place at the highly air-conditioned 18,000-seat Thomas & Mack Center and the World Series of Poker, held in a number of air-conditioned hotel venues. But in my view, the heat is another tourist attraction, so folks can return home and declare, “I survived Las Vegas!” To me, the situation resembles the visitors who flocked here in the 1950s and 1960s to watch–some from the comfort of their air-conditioned hotel rooms–above-ground nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site 65 miles away to the northwest.
About 100 miles south of both Death Valley and Las Vegas on Interstate 15 in the tiny tourist trap of Baker, Calif., stands what is called the world’s tallest thermometer. Built as a promotion in 1992, it rises 134 feet, a height set to honor that 134 degree Death Valley reading more than a century ago. The gauge can be seen for miles. Tourists stop to gape, eat (I highly recommend the Mad Greek restaurant), buy gas, and maybe stay in a motel before moving on.
In other words, a little bit like Las Vegas, but without the casino gambling (wrong state). Stay tuned for today’s reading.