Downtown Las Vegas sits in the center of the Las Vegas Valley. The former “Glitter Gulch,” made famous by miles of neon lights winking and blinking through the night, has been pictured on millions of postcards mailed from Sin City to places across the globe.
Over the years those postcards have depicted casinos, lights, big jackpots, a giant Plexiglas horseshoe holding $1 million dollars in cash, and “Vegas Vic,” a forty-foot high neon cowboy pointing at the Pioneer Casino and greeting visitors with a ubiquitous “Howdy Partner.”
The Las Vegas Strip may garner most of the attention Vegas gets these days, but Fremont Street and the Downtown area is where everything started. A hundred years ago, Las Vegas wasn’t even a town, just a tiny whistle-stop along the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad Company lines.
The depot, a dark, brooding Spanish Mission style monstrosity was built in 1905, the same year the railroad company sold lots in the tiny desert stopover.
The largest of the land buyers, the Las Vegas Trading Company, was headed by C.P. “Pop” Squires, a recent Los Angeles transplant. He managed the group’s $25,000 bankroll and spearheaded their purchase of more than 100 parcels of land including the entire block of Fremont Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets.
Over the next few years, the business group organized the Southwest Power and Telephone Company, the Las Vegas Artesian Water Company, and purchased the Las Vegas Age newspaper. The town had a population of just 800 people, but once trains began arriving each day at the depot, things changed for the better.
New businesses included a bank, jewelry store, clothing store, and several hotels and restaurants. They sprouted like an oasis in the desert and bloomed for the tiny city’s residents.
Gaming in Downtown Las Vegas
After a stunted start, Las Vegas grew with the passage of open gaming and the coming construction of Boulder Dam in 1931. The dam project brought a paid workforce of more than 5,000 workers to within just 25-miles of the town, and open gaming meant visitors using the railroad line would stop and give their luck a try.
Fremont Street offered sturdy, if not fancy hotels, including the Apache, which boasted refrigerated air, a popular amenity during the summer months when a relentless sun brought triple-digit days in a never-ending procession of heat.
Downtown also offered a Red-Light District where prostitutes charged three dollars for an intimate meeting. And, while Prohibition was still in effect across the US, there were plenty of places to get a good, stiff drink.
As for gambling, partners Morgan and Stocker were the first to be licensed, and their Northern Club opened for business on March 20, 1931. The Las Vegas Club got their approval on the 31st, and the Exchange Club got a license the following day for a tiny place at 123 S. 1st Street.
On April Fool’s Day, the Boulder Club (which had originally opened in 1928) offered games of chance at 118 E Fremont. The club’s six partners, Joe and Jack Murphy, Clyde Hatch, Walt Watson, Pros Goumond, and A.B. Witcher, rode the wave of popularity for two decades. Witcher, a banker from Ely, Nevada, ran the club and also gave away “one last drink” to thousands of players over the years. The drinkers repaid the favor by returning time and again to wrestle the one-armed-bandits and buck-the-tiger, a euphemism for playing Faro Bank.
Casinos opened and changed names and owners regularly, but the earliest gaming halls included the Boulder Club, 21 Club, Sal Sagev Hotel, Las Vegas Club, Northern Club, Kiva Club, Barrel House, Apache Casino, Frontier Club, Bank Club, and Mission Club.
Most casinos offered a dozen slot machines and a few table games. Unlike today’s casinos that regularly have more than 100,000 square feet of gaming space; the clubs on Fremont Street were rarely more than 5,000 square feet total. Few offered gift shops, bars or restaurants. A casino with ten table games was considered huge. Table games included Chuck-a-luck, Faro Bank, 21, roulette, and craps. Poker games were also found in some clubs.
Gambling wasn’t an expensive proposition either since bets were allowed for as little as five cents. Most games topped out at $25 bets, although an occasional player might be extended higher limits with permission from the acting manager on duty. Sports wagering wasn’t allowed, but wagering on the ponies was.
In fact, it was the popularity of horseracing that helped the Mafia push its way into Las Vegas casinos, and may have contributed to the murder of Bugsy Siegel. Meyer Lansky came to the town in 1931, followed by Moe Sedway, who Lansky appointed to keep an eye on Las Vegas.
By that time, Moses Annenberg had parlayed a circulation job with the New York Daily Mirror into the first race wire service in the country. He did that by hiring Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky to make sure the Daily Mirror was seen prominently in newsstands across New York, and parlaying his connections with the growing New York Mafia into the Nationwide News Service in 1934.
The news service provided horses, jockeys, past performances and daily odds for racetracks across the country as well as payoffs and race results via telephone and teletype. After that, bookies across the nation used the service, often at the behest of organized crime figures who insisted that they pay a special fee each month. The fee had to be collected, and both Moe Sedway and Bugsy Siegel excelled in convincing bookies to pay, in advance.
The race wire gave the Mafia an “in” at the casinos on Fremont Street, and allowed both Sedway and Siegel to take over several casinos, sometimes at the request of the casino owners, sometimes at the request of Meyer Lansky.
Downtown’s Boom of 1945
Las Vegas’s population reached nearly 10,000 residents by the start of the new decade, and many of the new residents worked in the growing casinos of Downtown. New owners, like Jim Young, thrived in Glitter Gulch.
Young worked his way up the ladder from dealer to pit boss to point holder, eventually taking a piece of several clubs including the Silver Club, Saddle Club, Zanzibar, Boulder Club, and Northern Club. That’s the way Vegas could work for people. Or, you could bring some savvy and juice with you and buy whatever you wanted.
When Wilbur Clark arrived from Reno, he acquired the Northern Club (Turf Club) from Jim Young. How he financed the purchase and renovation is uncertain, but he constructed a European style salon and changed the club’s name to Monte Carlo. By that time the minimum bet at the table games was 10-cents.
Moe Sedway and Bugsy Siegel weren’t interested in 10-cent wagers, and after attaching themselves to several clubs via their race wire connections, they set up an office in the Las Vegas Club and upped their Trans-American race wire fees from $50 to $100. The downtown owners weren’t happy, but they paid.
Shortly after that, the partners purchased the El Cortez Hotel Casino, which had been built in 1941 at the eastern end of Freemont Street at Sixth Street. The purchase was arranged with Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, and Dave Berman, a trusted Minneapolis, Minnesota casino owner. Berman put up $160,000 front money with Lansky, and the new owners were Berman, Lansky, Willie “Ice Pick” Alderman, Charles “Chickie” Berman, Moe Sedway, Gus Greenbaum, and Ben Siegel. The gaming license showed no changes before or after the purchase.
Ben had first invested in the Northern Club, but his group took pieces of the Frontier Turf Club, the Las Vegas Club, and the El Dorado. Berman was involved in each, with the blessing of his East Coast associates, as long as 25 percent of everything went to Meyer Lansky to be laundered. Later, the amount of money taken as skim climbed as high as 75% of certain clubs gross gaming revenues
The year of 1945 also brought the transition of the Apache Cafe into the S.S. Rex Casino. Tony Cornero, who had opened the Meadows Casino beyond the downtown area in 1931 was the owner, but licensing issues and squabbling with the City Council killed his club this time. The building was purchased by new Los Angeles transplant Guy McAfee, who announced plans to build and open the Golden Nugget.
McAfee, a former Vice-Squad detective from Los Angeles, arrived in 1938 after selling his interest in illegal casinos and a brothel his wife ran. It is estimated that he held more than $1 million dollars in assets in California when he left.
He purchased the Pair-O-Dice Club on Highway 91 and renamed it the 91 Club, then sold it to R.E. Griffith who rebuilt and opened the Las Frontier in 1942. McAfee, meanwhile, bought a two-story office building at 113 Fremont and a pool hall at 125 Fremont. The next year he purchased the Pioneer Club and later opened the Golden Nugget. It was the largest casino downtown and featured nineteenth-century Barbary Coast décor. McAfee managed the Golden Nugget until his death in 1960.
As the 1940s wound down, Benny Binion left his home in Dallas, Texas at the request of the Sherriff’s office. He arrived in Las Vegas in 1947, angry, dragging his wife, five children, and a ton of cash. He bought a house and tried to fit in by purchasing a piece of the Las Vegas Club.
He wanted to raise the game limits, but his partners weren’t big on taking a risk, even if they were in the gambling business, so Binion moved on to the Western Club and then finally the Eldorado Club and the Apache Hotel, which he opened as Binion’s Horseshoe Club.
As soon as he was licensed, he raised the limits from the usual Glitter Gulch fare of $50 to $500. His competitors said he would be broke in a month. Instead, Binion’s Horseshoe at 128 E. Fremont Street became known as the place to go for big bets.
The blocks of Downtown Las Vegas offered most everything locals and visitors could want, not just gambling. There were grocery stores, restaurants, drug stores, ice cream shops, hardware and lumber, and the Indian Trading Post. Even chain stores like J.C. Penney’s and Sears took up residence around Fremont Street, sandwiched in-between the Police Department, US Post Office and the Las Vegas Municipal Court.
As more loans became available through E. Parry Thomas, President of the Bank of Las Vegas, and the Teamsters Union, Fremont Street sprouted high-rise hotels like the Mint, Fremont, Four Queens, and Union Plaza. The hotels went vertical, and the gaming area downstairs stayed relatively small compared to the new properties built on The Strip. By the 1950s The Strip was easily out-earning Downtown in gaming revenue, and still more casinos would be opening along Las Vegas Boulevard.
Casino owners on Fremont Street had to be more imaginative, bringing new ideas to their properties. They fought for relevance with Hollywood Stars, cheap meal deals, and low-cost rooms. In 1954, Joe W. Brown, who was running Binion’s Horseshoe while Benny spent time in jail for tax-evasion, unveiled a huge horseshoe made of wood and Plexiglas. Inside the horseshoe were 100, $10,000 gold certificate bills, a total of $1 million dollars.
The club offered free photographs, and the display became one of the most photographed Las Vegas icons of all time. Brown sold the display in 1959, unhappy that he had to return the casino’s ownership to Binion. A new horseshoe and display was designed in 1964 after the Binion family had complete control of the casino again. Their million-dollar display stayed up until Benny’s daughter Becky Behnen sold it in 2000.
Binion’s was also the home of the World Series of Poker; an event started in 1970 that grew to be huge business annually for the casino and brought the world’s best poker players to town. Big name players like Amarillo Slim, Doyle Brunson, and Stu Ungar made their mark at the WSOP; a tournament covered as a sporting event by CBS before ESPN took over coverage.
In 1976, Moe Dalitz, one-time owner of the Desert Inn, announced plans to open a new casino in the Downtown area called Sundance. Dalitz owned the land, but the Nevada Gaming Commission opinioned that as an organized crime figure, he should not be licensed to run the casino. The Commission instead allowed his associates, Al Sachs and Herb Tobman to run the property.
At the time, Sachs and Tobman also owned the Stardust and Fremont casinos. As time would tell, both properties had a long history of Mob involvement, skim and other issues, and the partner’s company, Trans-Sterling was shut down amid a $3 million dollar fine by the Gaming Control Board and loss of their gaming licenses for a skim of profits theft used at the Stardust.
The Sundance was the last new high-rise casino property built in the Downtown area, although the Golden Nugget has added three towers. In 1987, Lincoln Management purchased the Sundance and renamed the property Fitzgerald’s, after their property on Virginia Street in Reno.
In 2011, Fitzgerald’s was sold to brothers Derek and Greg Stevens, owners of the Golden Gate Casino. A $22 million renovation was finished with a rebranding of the property to become the D Las Vegas. The brothers insist the D stands for “downtown.”
Other Big Events in Downtown Las Vegas
The expansion of the Golden Nugget Hotel Casino kept Downtown relevant and exciting for more than a decade when the area desperately needed a shot in the arm. Steve Wynn gained control of the property in 1973, purchasing a large interest from Jackie Gaughan, who owned the Union Plaza and El Cortez at the time.
Wynn renovated and expanded the Golden Nugget with mentorship from Gaughan and attracted new, upscale players to his casino. In 1977, Wynn opened the Golden Nugget’s first hotel tower and signed stars like Frank Sinatra to play in the hotel’s showroom.
Steve Wynn has moved on to other great properties like the Mirage and Wynn on The Strip, but the Golden Nugget is still a popular Downtown landmark. Now owned by Houston, Texas-based Landry’s, Inc., the property boasts three towers, 2,400 rooms and 38,000 square-feet of gaming space. One of the favorite non-gaming amenities is the Golden Nugget pool, a $30 million, 200,000-gallon shark tank where guests can swim up-close and personal with sharks and other exotic fish.
Through the middle of the tank runs a three-story enclosed slide that takes drenched swimmers through the middle of the shark tank. What more could you ask for in Vegas?
The other Big Event in Downtown Las Vegas is the Fremont Street Experience. To compete with The Strip casinos, the properties on Fremont Street banded together and built the EFS, a sort of headbangers ball held outside.
Today’s EFS was built in 1994 when the street was closed to traffic. It covers the westernmost five blocks of Fremont Street and the canopy and has 50 times more lighting space than the world’s largest electric sign. There are more than 12 million LED lamps housed in the overhead canopy which portrays an amazing assortment of moving pictures, images and colors.
The canopy also houses 220 speakers with 550,000 watts of amplification. A central control room uses ten computers to run each light and sound show. On the ground level, vendors sell party paraphernalia, hats, sunglasses, huge margarita glasses, and fun. Bands play on three large stages, and party-minded locals and visitors wander about enjoying the show, often dressed in what can only be described as questionable attire.
Also found along the FSE is the world’s largest Keno Board outside the D, and SlotZilla, a 12-story, slot machine-inspired zip line attraction. The upper Zoomline is 114 feet high, and riders travel the entire 1,750 feet of the mall traveling over giant video reels, dice, flamingos and two 37-foot-tall showgirls. Downtown is truly a Fremont Street Experience!