Of all the major destination towns in the U.S., Las Vegas might be the most perfectly, unashamedly transparent. No other city in North America, after all — and perhaps no other city in the world — has for so long been so identified with one pursuit: namely, the heart-pounding, more-often-than-not-futile hunt for the improbable, near-mythic Big Score.
And the fact that Las Vegas resembles a gaudy neon mirage in the desert? Well, surely no more apt an image could apply to a place where dreams — of riches, and occasionally of romance — go to die.
But Las Vegas is also a place where dreams, large and small, are just as frequently born. Hotel and casino owners dream of founding (or furthering) their financial empires. Singers, dancers, comedians and magicians dream of performing night after night before rapt crowds. The unemployed from all over the U.S. dream of finding work. After all, in the first decade of the 21st century, only one or two American cities grew at a faster pace than Las Vegas. And while the foreclosure crisis of the past few years has hammered Nevada’s biggest city, the bright lights and (seemingly) endless stream of cash are still powerful lures for visitors and would-be Las Vegans alike.
In 1955, 50 years after Las Vegas was founded, LIFE magazine took a rather skeptical look at the boomtown and its prospects for growth in a cover story titled “Gambling Town Pushes Its Luck.” The Loomis Dean pictures in this gallery, meanwhile — many of which were never published in LIFE — provide some wonderful visual reminders of just how raw a place Las Vegas was in the mid-’50s, before the Rat Pack made the city its home away from home and decades before it would begin to reinvent itself as a family-friendly mecca.
Some of the pictures appeared in the June 20, 1955, issue of LIFE, in an article that described the city as “set for its biggest boom,” with some caveats:
That question, of course, has come up repeatedly over the years, as the desert city has steadily grown from a 100-acre (40 hectare) railroad town in 1905 to a sprawling metropolis of close to 2 million people today. But no matter the odds, Las Vegas always seems to have one more ace in the hole, one more trick up its sleeve to keep the lights on, the casino floors humming and the dreamers, the players and the suckers coming back over and over again.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.