Nevada History
by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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The Birth, Life and Death of Gaming in Reno

February, 2009
By John Evanoff

Casino Gaming came to Reno and especially Northern Nevada in legal form in 1931 to offset job losses from the depression and help the economy, but it was only in the late 1940’s through the 1950’s that changed the west’s outlook on this previous to sinful behavior and gambling was accepted as a form of entertainment. Prior to 1931, the back parlors of saloons and hotels were full of gamblers playing the games of chance of the day like poker, roulette, craps and faro. Mind you, for a period of almost thirty years, Nevada and especially Reno played with the moral values of the nation by changing the period for granting divorce on several occasions until it was eventually whittled down to a few weeks of stay before a judge could sign and award the separation. Much of the responsibility for these laws being enacted fell to a few flamboyant entrepreneurs and political authorities who typically advocated the relaxation of freedoms not to curtail civilization but to attract visitors. Reno wasn’t much of a town without the railroad and in order to influence folks to visit our little high desert getaway, something had to be different to make people come. Business was business and much of the talk of legal purism from the newspapers and government officials west of the Missouri was quieted by our own highly influential senators and governors of the time. Throughout the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, a who’s who of American celebrity and wealth whiled away their time waiting for divorce for up to six months and then down to six weeks in Reno hotels, dude ranches and guest houses. Reno got a reputation for its great night life including gambling casinos, fine hotels and theaters, among other things. A dozen small divorce lodges built along Virginia Street and another dozen along the old Lincoln Highway (West 4th Street) heading west out of town were constructed specifically for the divorce trade. Many of them had all the luxuries of the downtown hotels but with guest quarters built like small cottages so the crying of the lonely women didn’t wake up the rest of the guests. Many of the men waiting for divorce stayed in male guest houses along North Center Street, University Terrace, Ralston Avenue and Nevada Street overlooking the skyline of Reno. They often spent time at the many saloons on Commercial Way and in the back betting parlors of the hotels relaxing to the sounds of a piano player and nightclub singer. There were many female guest houses as well and it was perfectly fine for them to enjoy the same pleasures men did in these same night spots. Reno moneymen and political power, including our grandiose Mayor Edwin Ewing Roberts during a period of two and a half decades, created a place the world saw more as a playground, a place where blue law was chastised and where contentment was the only priority. Contentment could also be found along Lake Street and near the Truckee River on Second Street where brothel hotels and cribs lit their red lanterns throughout the evenings to the merriment of the male gender. Prostitution was a going concern in Reno although most of the citizenry looked the other way on that form of business. Several of the small hotel-bordellos had as many as fifty women working shifts over twenty four hours a day and a small Chinese accommodation right next to the river had two dozen tightly bunched rooms with nothing more than beds and bedpans in them. All of this went on and word got out to the world that Reno was the Sin City of the West. To make matters worse according to the easterners, in 1931, Reno and Nevada was on its way to make gambling legal and reduce the stay for divorces from six months to six weeks.

Gambling was common however hidden in most big cities in back bars and lounges but also at men’s clubs and plush hotels wherever men bet on just about anything. In fact, throughout the late 1800’s and well into the depression and during prohibition San Francisco was the birthplace for many slot manufacturers and thousands of slot machines were installed at cigar stands, speakeasies and restaurants. The machines included everything from poker machines to Charley Fey’s Liberty Bell that was the first to include symbols on three reels. It wasn’t until the end of prohibition and reform took down most of the mobsters and slot machines throughout the United States that Nevada suddenly blossomed as the only place to sell slot machines. Companies began to move their gaming devices and “talent” to Reno and then to Las Vegas. If you want to know more about the advent of the slot machine in American history and lore, you must visit the Nevada State Museum, which has a large Fey contribution of the earliest slot machines to be used in Reno.

In 1931 though, no one in America could believe any state would allow gambling to come out in the open and become legal. The influence of the towns incredibly wealthy and politically powerful few guaranteed Reno would become the legal capital of gambling in the United States. To the outrage of much of congress, to the point some were calling for statehood to be yanked away from Nevada, our then Govenor Fred Balzar signed the bill and validated what had been going on in Reno and most of the rest of the West for more than seventy years. All of this was done with meticulous planning by a powerful group of men including: Banker George Wingfield; US Senator Tasker Lowndes Oddie; Chairman of the Democratic Party Walter S. Baring Jr.; US Attorney for Nevada Harry Hunt Atkinson; Lieutenant Governor Morley Isaac Griswold; US Senator Key Pittman; and a few lawyers to write the language of the bills like Bill Woodburn and George Thatcher. There were, of course, quite a few more men and lawyers and in fact it was said Reno had more lawyers practicing than Sacramento. These men knew how to make money, or better yet, how to keep it flowing. It was especially Wingfield’s compelling insistence to measure a town by its growth-by-any-means philosophy that led to the birth of a new era in Northern Nevada.

Quicker divorces and legitimized gambling were not the only thing that Reno had to offer though. By a quirk of legislation in California in 1927 making marriage a wait of three days to fend off inebriated nuptials, Reno suddenly became the place to drive from California to get married within minutes. In fact, Reno began three decades of five to one more marriages than divorce and the Washoe County Courthouse instituted a special license department and hitching judge just to handle the huge influx of weddings. After long years of long days, the judges decided to ease their part in the department and as a result the many wedding chapels became a regular Reno fixture all around downtown.

Legalized gambling had arrived, but the country was busy trying to repair itself from the rigors of depression and had little use for conversation about the Sodom of the west. A few casinos flourished in the short term, but money was short all over the country. Banks were hit hard and many had closed. Wingfield himself had lost most of his fortune, but wound up expanding on hotels he owned including the Riverside in anticipation of one day doing better. In the meantime, World War II had begun and the war economy surged. Barracks were built in two spots in Reno including just north of the present fairgrounds and at Stead Air Field. The military moved tens of thousands of military men through Reno on buses and trains to forts on the west coast to fight in the Pacific. Others were being trained here for the European front. When the war was over and by the end of 1945 hundreds of thousands of military men came back to their homes in the west, happy to be alive and looking for work. Many of them remembered Reno and came to live and work here. During the war, men with gaming experience were hard to find and it was Harold Pappy Smith who decided to begin the practice of hiring women dealers that changed how America looked at gambling. Harold’s Club was famous for the “Harold’s Club or Bust” signs along American roadways from Canada to Mexico and all points between. More importantly, a new game had been picked up by our boys coming back from Europe and more evident in England that enticed casino owners to bring the simple game to their own casino floors. Blackjack not only brought more people to the casinos, but also was instrumental in bringing women across the threshold in higher numbers, both behind the table and playing the game. Reno’s population exploded in the 1950’s as a result of the quick growth of this form of entertainment called casino gambling. In less than a decade, downtown Reno grew from a dozen small casinos to the legal gaming capital of the world. Bill Harrah embarked on building an empire and along the way created the largest collection of classic automobiles anywhere in the world. The Smiths grew Harold’s Club into a world wide phenomenon with the first ever escalator moving visitors from the first floor to the famous Harold’s Club Gun Collection in the Roaring Camp display on the second floor. Seven giant carbon arc searchlights atop Harold’s Club’s roof showed bright the way to Reno from every direction every night. Harold’s seventh floor dining room overlooked the entire city and became the highest room to have casino games and slots installed. Charlie Mapes built the most splendid entertainment hotel ever conceived of for its day and entertained famous guests in the Sky Room overlooking the Truckee River and the city. Lincoln Fitzgerald opened the Nevada Club reputedly bought with funds from the notorious Purple Gang and sold the best pie a la mode in town on the second floor restaurant. Bill Fong opened the New China Club to anyone of any color and brought entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr to the forefront of casino cabarets. Keno exploded as a game to be played in hotel restaurants, bars and even in the hotel rooms. The casino buffet was created. By 1960, Reno and gambling were synonymous.

In the meantime, in the southern Nevada desert, a giant was to awake to seize the thunder from Reno. In 1950 and then again in 1955 floods made a mess of downtown Reno. The Las Vegas skyline was flooding as well, only with high rise casino resorts. Within fifteen years, from 1955 to 1970, the strip grew from a few tumbleweeds to more than a dozen well known resort hotel casinos and more were well on the way. Not to be outdone, Reno prospered through the sixty’s trying to nurture big events including helping to bring the Winter Olympics to Squaw Valley just west of Reno in California in 1960, the first National Championship Air Races in 1964, and of course, every summer’s Reno Rodeo, a Pro Rodeo Circuit prerequisite for rodeo enthusiasts. In 1978, the MGM, the largest casino hotel in the world opened. Nothing like it had ever been built and Reno was looking like it could take on Las Vegas for glitz and glamour. Then, Atlantic City legalized gaming and Resorts International opened its doors to 30 million people in its backyard. Abruptly, Reno’s shallow years hit consisting of politicians who began a building moratorium and citizens bent on reversing the growth trend to turn the asphalt back to sagebrush. Pot holes reigned supreme and the wave of tourist enthusiasm went in a decided southerly direction to Las Vegas.
Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, Reno had a few good years but nothing like Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Even remote places like Laughlin were doing better than Reno. With a few exceptions, corporations had taken over casino gaming and left few lone entrepreneurs enough of the pie to call themselves lucky to stay alive. By now, you know the rest of the story. California Indian Gaming took the last strands of big time casino gaming away from Reno with the opening of Thunder Valley near Sacramento and Cache Creek north of Oakland. Tribal Casinos all over America opened and just recently, the final nail in the coffin came with the building of Red Hawk Casino near Placerville, further depleting the number of gaming tourists coming to Reno.

Things change and you never know what might happen, but the sponsors of Reno’s heyday in gaming history are long gone. Some say those days will never return and Reno could become a dusty lonely valley again. Time will tell though. Maybe Reno has a future in senior living and high rise condominium’s close to hospitals.


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