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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Wingfield

The Mogul, the Man and the Memory
November, 2008
By John Evanoff

Many of Nevada’s early tycoons impacted the lives of everyone in the United States and certainly on the West Coast in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As notable and legendary as many of them were, more than a few lost their fortunes almost as quickly as they earned them because of the nature and cost of mining or the economic turmoil of competition and banking. Others spent their money in other states or left the US completely.

No one person exemplified the riches inherent in the characters of the early 1900’s western life in Nevada and Reno more than George Wingfield. Born in Arkansas in 1876, he worked his father’s ranch in Lakeview, Oregon and would become one of the most famous entrepreneurs of that period in American and Nevada history. Although many people grew unbelievably rich and built empires from the gold and silver strikes in Nevada like George Hearst and later his son William Randolph Hearst, George Wingfield was a self-made millionaire due to his capitalistic shrewdness and quick resolve. A tall and strong young man, he grew up driving cattle and breaking horses on ranches in Southern Oregon and on a short trip to move a herd to Winnemucca became obsessed with gambling which he became wildly good at. His intellect led him to wager and win sizable pots and even included winning an entire saloon on one hand during his early days in Winnemucca as well as later in Tonopah. As a saloon keeper and avid poker player, he later made enough money to invest in property, businesses and mining claims including some in Goldfield, Nevada. He built and maintained several commercial enterprises, banks, saloons and hotels in Goldfield and through friends learned of property and businesses for sale in Reno as well. By the ripe old age of 30 years old, George was owner of the Goldfield Consolidated Mines Company, a multi-millionaire and owner of almost every bank in the state of Nevada (an even dozen at the time). One of the banks he owned in Reno is still visible as a façade of its once proud red brick exclamation of monetary exuberance on the corner of Second and Virginia Streets. Originally, it was the Reno National Bank and in 1935 it changed ownership due to George’s losses from personal bankruptcy and government intervention. It is now owned by Harrah’s. Wingfield also owned and operated many of the hotels near the gambling district on Lake Street including the Golden Hotel which burned down in the 1960’s and was replaced by Harrah’s. It was also thought that George was a major player in the Red Light District next to Lake Street and the many gambling parlors including the legendary Bank Club later run by Reno gambling boss Jack Sullivan. If there was money in it, Wingfield had a piece of every gambling parlor in town including the Rex, the Willows, the Gay 90’s, the Wine House and the Country Club. Once the Golden Hotel got gaming going, many travelers came from all over the west to gamble there. Craps, Faro, Poker and other table games filled the gaming hall at the Golden and people flocked to Reno by train from San Francisco to gamble and visit for a few days.

Wingfield was a major figure in Reno’s growth and had many business, ranching and mining interests throughout Northern Nevada. The ranch house he bought in late 1935 from the Reno mayor was located in Spanish Springs Valley and was his favorite retreat for friends who included the likes of Governors, Senators, US Presidents, and a host of wealthy business owners from around the world. He had ponds extended for fishing and hunting, thousands of acres of ranchland for his amazing quarter horse stock and some of the nicest corrals and stables in the entire west. He also bred Labrador dogs and gave many of the highly bred offspring to friends around the world. Many of these elite friends would come to George’s ranch and hunt pheasant and grouse with their hunting dogs. Herbert Hoover was a constant visitor and hunting partner.

At one time, he was known to be so powerful in politics, that he often controlled both the democratic and republican parties in Nevada and was asked many times to run for congress or governor. But George knew he had more persuasive power as an influential mogul than as a Senator or Representative, so he often worked both party sides to gain favor for his positions and business propositions. From 1906 to 1932, he controlled most of Nevada’s banking business and through all of that period entertained the most powerful men in America often playing a hand or two of poker on occasion even though he said he hadn’t. The folks in the know in town knew better though and respected his legendary bluffs and keen sense of timing bets. He was aggressive in life and even more so in poker. His family life was much like his business, filled with ups and downs and rich with social obligations.

In 1927, Wingfield built the first large hotel in Reno to take advantage of the new divorce law which reduced residency from six months to three and then in 1930 to just six weeks. That’s when Reno was known as the Divorce Capital of the World. The Riverside Hotel was an amazing conception by his friend and noted architect and Reno resident Fredrick J. De Longchamps. The six story hotel was creative in its use of the newest technology of that era. Some of the richest women in the world came to Reno for the stay in the gallant suites at the Riverside only to eventually be granted divorce at the next door Washoe County Court House and then to toss their wedding rings into the Truckee River from the Virginia Street Bridge just a few steps away from the hotel.

George owned or had a hand in lending money for a lot of property along the Truckee River and sold many parcels to friends who then built huge beautiful homes on Reno’s mansion boulevards between California Avenue and Riverside Drive. In fact, most of the churches, schools and business offices along California Avenue and Riverside Drive and throughout downtown Reno of that period and most all the mansions on Court Street, Ridge Street, Island Avenue and Elm Court were designed by or with the help of Fredrick De Longchamps or Fredrick’s friend George Ferris or his student at the University of Nevada and son to George Ferris, Lehman Ferris. De Longchamps also designed the Post Office, the Washoe County Courthouse, the old State Building, St. Thomas Cathedral and host of office and business buildings downtown. Notables who lived in the mansions above the river and along the ridge and were socially close to Wingfield included US Senator George S. Nixon, who Wingfield had made rich in Goldfield through a short partnership; Lewis Gibbons, a powerful political mover in the US Senate; Francis Newlands, noted US Congressman between 1893 to 1903 and US Senator from 1903 to 1917 and author of the Newlands Water Reclamation Act of 1902; Prince Hawkins, a powerful West Coast banker; C. E. Clough, owner of Reno’s and then Spark’s first water and power company; George Steinmeller, Reno’s noted dentist; Frank Norcross, the legendary Reno attorney; and the noted physician Dr. Vinton Muller. The Wingfield Mansion on Court Street was by comparison not as extravagant as some of his friends and associates, but needless to say, it was the center of Reno’s social life from 1907 when he had it built until 1931 when he began a short descent into economic upheaval brought on mostly because he was unable to repay loans and bank failures caused by the great depression. Many a party and several weddings were held on the prominent one story porch that encircled almost the entire house. The house burned down in 2001 and will eventually make way for a residential building.

No one was more powerful than George Wingfield during the period of 1908 to 1930 if and when he wanted his way, which was pretty much all the time. His partnership or ownership of businesses, land and political power was so immense that many national publications gave him the moniker of “Nevada’s Napoleon.” In fact, if Wingfield made a request, Bernard M. Baruch, a Wall Street millionaire and famously close to six Presidents would drop everything and come to Reno to meet with him on financial or political dealings. Baruch was instrumental in Wingfield becoming rich a second time around through a loan and their friendship endeared for years after.

George was anything but straight laced. He supported gambling, liberalized divorce and many socially liberal ideals. Controversially, he was a political conservative when it came to business including opposition to labor unions and defeating tax propositions that were nothing more than pork barrel projects propped up by big government which he was also so very much against.

One thing he was always in favor of was Reno’s prominence as an attractive tourist capital and he constantly promoted Reno and Nevada as a tourist and gambling attraction. By 1933, many banks in America were in dire straits and by 1935, Wingfield declared personal bankruptcy. Due to his mining holdings in the early 1940’s, he again made another huge fortune, but never recovered his past glory, power and political authority. In 1959, George Wingfield died and the legend ended. Some were glad to see him go and yet equally others felt Reno and Nevada had lost a true and loyal friend. Only a few mentions of this Nevada character’s past remain in Reno including Wingfield Park and Wingfield Springs, but old time Nevadan’s know Reno would have never become the city it is today without him.

Wingfield Park is a memory I will always cherish. I learned to play tennis as a youngster at the park and remember beating the backboards with tennis balls till I couldn’t hold my racket any longer. The park was named after George Wingfield and is now divided into several parts for the pleasure of residents and visitors alike. The Whitewater Park next to the Truckee River and Arlington Bridge, the East Wingfield Park where the Amphitheatre is the entertainment venue for Artown, the West Wingfield Park which is an open area often used for events and the Barbara Bennett Park which was once Wingfield Park’s major get-together site now used for smaller events and a relaxing cool place to picnic in the summer. The park has been under water a number of times because of floods. In the 1950’s, Wingfield Park was almost washed away on a couple of occasions. Since then, the park has seen many improvements and concrete walls at the head of the island on the west side of the park have helped to keep the area from ending up in Pyramid Lake.

If George Wingfield were alive today, he would be proud of his namesake park and the many attractions and events that bring people from around the world to Reno to live and enjoy its warm and neighborly residents and beautiful surroundings. But then he would probably do whatever it took to make billions of dollars and spend it on politicians, projects and attractions to garner more business and tourist attention to Reno. That was his gambling way and yes, he was good at it.


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