The influx of new workers at Hoover Dam and the continued publicity of the dam and Nevada’s new open casinos had a major impact on Las Vegas. The city and the State of Nevada also offered the quickest and easiest divorce laws in the country, and while casinos dotted the downtown Las Vegas area, dude ranches and divorcee havens opened and thrived.
When open gaming became law in 1931, Las Vegas had a population of just over 5,000 people. A decade later it had grown to 8,500, and by 1950 the number tripled to nearly 25,000. Still, it wasn’t the number of residents that was remarkable; it was the number of tourists. Gambling was hot!
Downtown offered hotels and gaming, and many of the casinos like Golden Nugget, Las Vegas Club, Golden Gate and El Cortez are still open to this day. Other early casinos included the Boulder Club, which opened at 118 E. Fremont Street on April Fool’s day, 1931. Owners included Joe and Jack Murphy, Clyde Hatch, Walt Watson, “Pros” Goumond and A. B. Witche.
The clubs were small by today’s standards, often with less than 5,000 square feet of space for tables and slots. Prohibition was still in effect, so no bar service. None of the original casinos in early 1930s downtown had restaurants. Craps was offered on a small table with a single dealer. Faro and roulette were favorite games. Some casinos had a Big 6 Wheel; others offered Chuck-a-Luck. Nickle slot machines offered a top payout of $7.50 for a jackpot, quarter slots paid up to $37.50, and there were very few dollar slot machines in the city. Craps and roulette could be played for 5-cents.
Records from the Sheriff’s Department show that the Northern Club was licensed to Morgan and Stocker on March 20, 1931. Joining it on Fremont Street was the Las Vegas Club a week later, and then on 1st street, the Exchange Club has joined the fray.
Beyond Downtown Las Vegas
Although the major casinos on the Los Angeles Highway, which become known as the Las Vegas Strip, didn’t appear until the 1940s, there were a few early casinos away from the downtown corridor. The Meadows opened in Meadow Acres on May 2, 1931, and strangely enough, right on Highway 91, the Pair-O-Dice opened on the Fourth of July of that first year of legalized gaming.
The Meadows was opened by bootleggers Tony and Louis Cornero near the intersection of Fremont Street and Charleston Boulevard. The Las Vegas Age carried a 10-page supplement as it opened, which read:
“Potent in its charm, mysterious in its fascination, the Meadows, America’s most luxurious casino, will open its doors tonight and formally embark upon a career which all liberal-minded persons in the West will watch closely.”
The Cornero brothers offered a real step-up from the clubs downtown. They didn’t have prostitution, which was relegated to Block 16, but they did have high-quality liquor imported (smuggled) from Canada and a restaurant. What a delight for the Las Vegas elite.
Persons in the West did watch the opening of the club, and so did the Mob in the East. “Lucky” Luciano had helped bankroll Cornero’s bootlegging operations and none-to-happy with Tony Cornero opening shop and not sharing the profits. Meyer Lansky took reports and then came to see the club in person. It was beautiful, he said later,
“With carpeting, polished tile, and a nice little casino with roulette tables, craps, faro, chuck-a-luck, and slot machines.”
The money was good.
Lansky met with Tony Cornero and told him that Luciano expected 25 percent off the top. Cornero refused and sent Meyer on his way. A week later a fire burned down the casino. Cornero and his brother burned a hole in the highway back to California and stayed away for 15 years, and the message sent kept development off Highway 91 for a decade.
The Mob’s first profits in downtown Las Vegas came from the Northern Club, where Moe Sedway had wheedled his way into a part-ownership. He and “Bugsy” Siegel then muscled their way into other clubs, and even the FBI knew they owned the Las Vegas Club and the El Cortez. How? By tapping the phone in what became known as “the boiler room,” at the Las Vegas Club. They listened, they took notes, and they did nothing to stop the spread of the Mob into other casinos.
The Los Angeles Highway
Nothing was more important to the ongoing growth of Las Vegas than the Los Angeles Highway and the tourists who traveled it. Although Los Angeles had horseracing and plenty of illegal casinos, many of the city’s 1.5 million residents had vehicles, and Las Vegas was just a few hours away. Vegas offered reasonable prices and cheap gambling, not like many of the joints in Los Angeles, and you didn’t have to know someone to get into the casinos.
In 1940, James Cashman convinced Thomas Hull, the owner of the El Rancho Hotel chain that Las Vegas could support one of his properties. Nothing from the original blueprints to the final design indicated that Hull was expecting to make much money from a casino. Instead, Hull looked at Las Vegas as a growing town which needed a new hotel. The land was cheap on the highway, and besides, there was no space left downtown. The land he purchased came from Mrs. Jessie Hunt, who owned the 33-acre site. They settled on $150 an acre. Her husband had paid $10.
Built on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara, the club opened on April 3, 1941, with 110 rooms. Weary travelers from places like Barstow, California booked rooms. So did new casino employees from places like Steubenville, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky.
The El Rancho wasn’t fancy with its western-style cowboy theme, not by Hollywood standards, but still ran a hefty $500,000 to build. Extra water was pumped in so grass would grow, and a large swimming pool was quite inviting. Inside, the Opera House Theater brought locals and visitors alike a classy show each night.
The casino was almost an afterthought, with just two 21 tables, one roulette table, one crap game, and 70 slot machines. The gaming concession was leased out to a couple of fellows with ties to the Cleveland and New York families who offered to take care of the tedious task of counting the money. Nobody bitched. And, the El Rancho ushered in the first real resort in Las Vegas, right there on what was soon to become the Las Vegas Strip.