Queho Posse Chapter
E Clampus Vitus
Prohibition and the River
Queho'st Gaurd, Lake MeadJune 11, 2005
Prohibition and the River-
A Las Vegas Centennial
E Clampus Vitus SextiMillenial
(Because what happened in Vegas, stays in Vegas!)
A Keepsake issued in honour of the Fourth sailing of the Queho'st Gaurd, of the Ancient and Honourable Order of E Clampus Vitus Queho Posse Chapter 1919, as ordained by NGH Wanderin' Jim Crow, to occur on June 11, 6010, and created for the further educational activities of the brethren by Clamphistorian Mark Hall-Patton, XNGH, DS3
A Las Vegas Centennial/E Clampus Vitus SextiMillenial Effort to bring forth information necessary to the understanding and uncovering of the dubious, demented, but documented, history of
Prohibition and the River
A failed social engineering experiment,
and some who helped with that failure
Keepsake created, crafted, confronted, confounded, and confused by Clamphistorian
Mark Hall-Patton, XNGH, DS3
An Obfuscationist Press Imprint
Prohibition and the River
n 1919, the efforts of a large number of people, social engineers of the most intrusive sort, caused the largest publicly enforced effort to change the morals and activities of the American population. This was the year Prohibition became the law of the land, with the passage of the 18th amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment was the culmination of a long drive to change the habits of many in America.
Prohibition first reared its ugly, governmental form head in 1823, when Maine passed the first "local option" law in the United States. It allowed each county to decide whether to be wet" or "dry" (or as Clampers might say it, "sane" or "insane"). Through the efforts of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and various other religious and secular groups, the United States entered into an experiment tried by only one other country during the era, Finland. It was an experiment which was to lead to a change in the drinking habits of an entire country, provide for the rise of organized crime, and allow for the creation of more speakeasies than all of the saloons in the country before the experiment started.
In Southern Nevada, its success was, as might well be expected, limited, much to the joy of Clampers and others.
In late 1918, the State of Nevada, in a stunning display of misunderstanding of the needs and wishes of its citizens, passed a law in the State Legislature which outlawed alcoholic beverages. In Las Vegas, a community only 14 years old at the time, some, but not all, local authorities began enforcing the new law. Many local residents were caught in its snares.
Judge Lillis, the municipal judge at the time, while being known as a drinker, became known for his enthusiasm, and ability to inflict pain on all who imbibed. Prominent citizens, such as Charles C. Corkhill (Clark County's first Sheriff), were picked up in raids, and the Judge would dutifully pour out the results of the raid into the gutter on Fremont Street, in full view of citizens who could have much more effectively disposed of the contraband. In one well remembered incident, 48 half pints of whiskey and 10 quarts of other alcohol were destroyed in this manner in January 1919.
Our Sheriff at the time was Sam Gay, Corkhill's successor. Gay was known for never carrying a gun. He was a large man, over 250 pounds and six feet tall, certainly not within current police guidelines for fitness. However, he had gained experience as a bouncer at the Arizona Club after arrived in Las Vegas in 1905. He was known for using his fists and his boots as effective law enforcement tools. In fact, Gay would often not book misdemeanor vagrancy offenders, preferring instead to literally kick the offenders out of town, with a warning to not return.
He had also been known to enjoy occasional libations of the alcoholic type, and found the new law burdensome and foolish. He had already been forced to share his office with the town Librarian starting in 1914, a less than sanguine arrangement. Gay, noted for his colorful language, would often sing rather bawdy songs for his personal amusement (apparently the Librarian was not consulted for her choice of melodies) after having been drinking, an activity not relegated to merely evenings. As an officer of the law, he was quite willing to overlook most activities related to the partaking of such libations, making Las Vegas wide open for drinkers.
Gay, himself, had basically stopped drinking after 1915, when he, as Sheriff, was arrested for shooting out the new electric lights on Fremont Street while in a drunken state. He vowed to never drink again as Sheriff as part of his plea. He apparently kept his word, though he saw no reason why others should be so enjoined.
His laissez-faire attitude was tested in early 1920, when the Volstead Act became the law of the land. The 18th Amendment made the sale of any drink with over .5% alcohol content illegal. This led to an era of rampant flouting of the law, interesting times for the dusty desert town of Las Vegas.
With the passage of the 18th Amendment, Las Vegas' District Attorney Stebenne ordered that all signs advertising liquor or alcohol of any nature, be taken down. Of course this was nearly a year after Nevada had officially gone dry, but why hurry? In his zeal, he even ordered that signs for Tonic be taken down. Apparently, he was worried about the mixers as well.
1920 also saw the visit of Alabama Congressman Richard Hobson and others, who lectured on the evils of alcohol According to local accounts, Hobson's reception was not altogether positive.
Las Vegas Constable Lake was more willing to enforce the law than Sheriff Gay. He began arresting locals who were found drinking. One of those arrested was William Letter, surely a man to be remembered fondly by Clampers today. Letter was arrested because he was so incensed by the new law that he began giving out free drinks to anyone who wanted one, even though he was not a drinker himself.
DA Stebenne's adherence to enforcement of the law also waned by the next election, in late 1920. He chose to begin overlooking the unpopular law when Harley A. Harmon, the elder of three local men who have held the name (each, though with different middle initials) ran against Stebenne for the position. Stebenne's enlightened position regarding prohibitions came too late though, and he was defeated by Harmon, who then became an enforcer of the new law, much to the dismay of local residents.
During this period, Block 15 joined Blocks 16 and 17, as havens for the liquor trade in Las Vegas. Block 16 had been designated as the home of gambling, drinking and whoreing in the early days of Las Vegas, with Block 17 designated to play the same role for "colored" citizens, witch included Blacks, Mexicans and Chinese at the time. New establishments grew up to serve the tastes of local residents. Perhaps the most famous on Block 15 was the Golden Camel, to which "nice" girls could be taken, if properly escorted. Other bars and clubs were founded further out of town, such as the Black Cat and Red Windmill, which were located at was then the East end of Charleston Boulevard, and many others out on the Los Angeles Highway and the road to Searchlight, today's Boulder Highway.
It was also during this period that the original Four Mile area came into being. A successor club is still in extant on Boulder Highway, near Sahara. Formyle, as it was later called in the 1940s and 1950s, was named for its distance from downtown. It would grow to become synonymous with drinking and prostitution, becoming notorious in the 1950s, when it would bring down Sheriff Glen Jones' tenure.
Four Mile, along with a number of other locations outside of Las Vegas, regularly supplied needed refreshments to local residents. Much of the alcohol consumed was made locally, in stills located in the desert around the city. In addition, the Colorado River supplied the water for many stills along its shore. Eldorado Canyon was quite popular with bootleggers, though it was by no means alone in that popularity. Searchlight, which was badly impacted by prohibition when most of the downtown businesses, which happened to be bars, had to be closed, became one of the hotbeds for stills and illegal booze production. This was in no small measure due to the proximity of the rive to the community.
Even the Mormon area of St. Thomas, one of the drowned towns of Lake Mead, was used by bootleggers. Many local moonshiners would bring their product either overland or down the river to the area near St. Thomas, where it would be stored along the Muddy River in the arrowweeds until needed by the local market. While not encouraged or approved of by local Mormon residents, there were sufficient local non-Mormons to provide a ready market.
Much of the booze in that area of the county actually came in from the nearby Arizona Strip, a relative no-man's land outside of Arizona's law enforcement reach because of the Grand Canyon, and outside of Nevada's and Utah's by reason of state boundaries. Local use of the brew was recalled by Merle Frehner in an article written by Dennis McBride. He noted,
"If they needed it, they'd go back and get more to peddle. There were people who drank [in St. Thomas]. - particularly at dances. Some of those young guys wouldn't have nerve enough to go into a dance hall and ask a girl to dance. They'd have to fortify themselves."
By 1923, Nevada passed a Repeal Act, petitioning for a repeal of prohibition. For some unknown reason, or perhaps as a portend of how the State's wishes would be handled by the Federal Government in the future, Washington did not go along with the petitioned action. We would have Prohibition, and perennially dry Clampers, for years to come.
1926 saw one of the great raids on the liquor traffic in Las Vegas. The "prohi's", as they were called, conducted a raid in June, which netted more than 1,000 gallons of contraband. After the raid, a less tasty substitute called bee wine, or "bug wine", was widely available for a few weeks, as was an alcoholic rendition of much of the melon crop of the community.
In cases like these, booze could and was brought in from outside, mainly over the Colorado River, by such stalwart individuals as Murl Emery. Emery had come to Southern Nevada with his family, and they eventually settled at Cottonwood Cove, where his father ran the Arivada Ferry. Many years later Emery recalled,
"Sheriff Sam Gay had Clark County so wet that moonshine sold for only a dollar a gallon…Over in Arizona Sheriff Bill Mahoney had Mohave County so dry that good squeezings were $50 a gallon. Our ferry was the Arizona connection."
With the advent of the Boulder Canyon Project in the late 1920s, prohibition and other attempts to regulate social behavior became a part of the community. A visit to Las Vegas by Secretary of the Interior Dr. Ray Lyon Wilbur and Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Elwood Mead came on June 21, 1929. The city hoped to be the headquarters for workers for the new Hoover Dam which would be built in nearby Black Canyon.
Las Vegas Chief of Police Percy Nash ordered an all-out effort to not only shut down, but also disguise the saloons in town. Block 16 was to go dark for the first time in 24 years, to impress Mead and Wilbur with the squeaky clean new Las Vegas.
As with most plans, however, reality intervened. Shortly before their visit, the largest prohibition raid in the history of Southern Nevada to that time occurred. Federal agents found nine stills and four breweries, and confiscated 3,650 gallons of mash, 228 gallons of whiskey, 571 cases of beer, and 470 gallons of other alcoholic beverages.
Though local and state dignitaries thought they might still pull the bacon out of the fire, Mead did not decide to use Las Vegas for worker housing. An unfortunate incident occurred during the visit, when several newspapermen led one of Mead's party to the notorious Arizona Club, which was happy to serve him a couple of drinks. When he returned to the train to rejoin the party, he regaled Mead, Wilbur, and the rest of the party with tales of the hospitality of Las Vegas, much to Mead's and Wilbur's horror.
Wilbur was again reminded that perhaps Las Vegas was not the best location for the dam workers when he returned the next year to drive the symbolic last spike in the UP railroad line to the site of what would become Boulder City. After consistently missing the silver spike, he finally announced the start of Hoover Dam, a name greeted with some derision by locals who wondered if the new community would be called Wilbur City. And if this reaction was not problem enough, Wilbur had his pocket picked during his stay in Las Vegas for the ceremony.
Las Vegas continued to be an open town. Clubs, such as the Blue Heaven, El Desierto, and Hideaway, were well known. Anti-prohibition forces were heard from in the municipal elections, though Sam Gay finally decided to not run for another term. W. G. Walker, the local administrator for prohibition, complained that her could get no cooperation from any city, county or state authorities. A positive statement for the people of Nevada, one could say.
Boulder City became a true experiment in federally enforced blue laws. The community was a federal reservation, which meant it was covered by its own laws. The new community was formed with a "buffer zone" around it to keep out bad influences. The land was withdrawn from public use in 1931, and Boulder City was begun. Under the federal rules of the town, gambling, the sale of liquor, and any other practices which could be held to impair worker productivity were outlawed.
A decidedly difficult and self-righteous individual named Sims Ely was put in charge of the community. He arrived in October 1931, and began his uphill, but determined effort to keep all vice out of his community, somewhat similar to our own organization. For as we know, there is no Vice in Clamperdom.
Word had gone out that gambling, drinking, and all other forms of vice would not be tolerated in the new, "model" community many months before. The dam job was to be a "Dry" job, with no exceptions. The initial major clash between the government parties involved with the dam and bootleggers occurred on March 24, 1931. A major raid was planned by Prohibition authorities on a shack near the dam site which was believed to be the headquarters of a ring of moonshiners. Unfortunately, when the raid occurred, nothing was found, except twenty cases of flat beer.
Marshall Claude Williams then took over the efforts. Being smarter than the previous agents, he began by plotting tips from informers on topographic maps, and then patiently watching the sites from long distance by binocular, to look for smoke coming from the various caves and abandoned mines. He eventually led a series of raids in April and May of 1931, which successfully cleared the bootleggers off the 144 square mile federal reservation.
Another raid in '31, that of Colonel George Seavers and 50 "prohi's" on the community of Midway, later known as Whitney, on the Boulder Highway, came on May 18. By dark, the men had raided every known bootlegger, speakeasy, or other liquor related business in an eight mile area. In all, twenty-five speakeasies, five breweries, and three stills were located and raided. Over ninety people were arrested in the effort.
It should be noted that the bootleggers themselves were not necessarily predisposed to a nurturing or pleasant attitude, especially when their unwritten rules were violated. A bootlegger named Bill broke three, eventually paying the ultimate price. He was taking care of a still in the Ash Meadows area, and began to drink the proceeds. Mistake one! To keep up production, he watered down the product, giving the still's owner a bad name with his customers. Mistake two!
The still owner fired Bill, and blacklisted him with all the local bootleggers. Bill retaliated in the worst possible way, by telling the prohi's where they could find the next truck-full of whiskey. Absolute and final mistake three! Not long afterward, Bill's body was found in a mesquite thicket, where he had hanged by his arms being impaled on the long thorns of the mesquite bushes, and then stabbed a couple of times and shot. His executioners did not intend for him to die easily, for none of the wounds immediately killed him. From the evidence of the body, he had struggled with the thorns for a long time before finally dying.
A coroner's jury was convened, which happened to include the two men who had killed poor Bill. The jury found that Bill, who had been on his way to Las Vegas, had committed suicide. The Tonopah sheriff was so notified. He was buried where he had died, without a coffin, and life went on.
The big raids of 1931 made headlines at the beginning of the Boulder Canyon Project, but they only temporarily interrupted the flow of liquor in the valley. Most later raids were rather smaller, such as the find at Railroad Pass. Marshall Williams noted a suspicious man outside of a tent in the shanty town which had grown up on the site of Alunite, where the Railroad Pass Casino is today. He noticed the man's right shoe was worn through in a straight line on the sole, and figured he had been doing some digging. Williams went into the shack and dug in the disturbed dirt on the floor. He found a box of liquor, and arrest the bootlegger.
Also in 1931, a gate was put up on Boulder Highway at the edge of the federal reservation, near where the road to Searchlight turns off of Highway 93 today. Manned by Federal Marshals, they intercepted anyone coming into the new town and construction area. They were able to interdict quite a bit of booze, though trails through the river mountains behind the town did allow for some to make it through.
Ely was unwilling to allow any booze in his town. When Frank Crowe's Assistant Superintendent of Construction, and right hand man, Woody Williams was caught with a flask at a dance in Boulder City, he was banished from project for 30 days, without pay. If you were a mere worker, and showed up intoxicated at the gate, you would be held there until you sobered up for the first offense. A second offence led to your firing, and banishment from the job site, which included Boulder City. If banished, your family was brought out to you at the gate, and you were sent on your way.
In Las Vegas, federal agents finally decided to try their hand at a "sting" operation. They set up their own speakeasy, called "Liberty's Last Stand". The name was chosen by the government agents because they thought it would look good in later press accounts. The club was started by local real estate agent Ralph Kelley, with money from the government. A Dictaphone for recording incriminating conversations was set up. Kelley sold the speakeasy in early May, telling the locals that he would be reopening in an old roadhouse called the Bungalow.
On May 18, 1931, a raid by out-of-state "prohi's" netted over 200 local bootleggers, residents, policemen, and the aforementioned administrator for prohibition, W. G. Walker. 223 gallons of whiskey, 15 of Gin (perhaps in prescience of our current Las Vegas Mayor), and 15 gallons of beer were seized. The bootleggers received the heaviest sentences of those convicted - a year and a day in jail. Walker resigned his position. Kelley and his family had to be taken out of the area secretly, just before the raids started. He never received the money promised him for his role, and failed the civil service exam when he tried to become prohibition agent.
With the 1932 presidential election, Prohibition seemed to be on its last legs. With the election of Franklin Roosevelt, Prohibition was repealed, and alcoholic libations again became legal, on top of being widely available. By 1933, even Boulder City had four establishments where beer was sold, but nothing more
Our long experiment with social engineering was over, and Clampers heaved a sigh of relief. It is to be noted the E Clampus Vitus Redivivus was actually founded during the dying years of Prohibition, and we can be sure that those early visionaries, Carl Wheat, G. Ezra Dane and Leon Whitsell, among others, lifted a glass to celebrate its repeal.
What sayeth the Brethren?
And so recorded.
For this keepsake, the following sources were consulted.
Lewis, Georgia, Las Vegas, The Way It Was, 1979, Las Vegas Sun
McBride, Dennis, The Mormon Atlantis, in Nevada Magazine, Nov./Dec. 1993
Moehring, Eugene, Resort City in the Sunbelt, 2000, Univ. of Nevada Press
Pahor, Stanley, Nevada Towns and Tales, Vol.2, South, 1982, Nevada Publications
Reid, Harry, Searchlight; The Camp That Didn't Fail, 1998, Univ. of Nevada Press
Roske, Ralph, Las Vegas: A Desert Paradise, 1986, Continental Heritage Press
Stevens, Joseph, Hoover Dam; An American Adventure, 1988, Univ. of Oklahoma Press
All other facts, suppositions, intimations, ovations, and presentations were created out of the Clampfertile mind of the creator, with appropriate recourse to the unwritten words of St. Vitus.
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