Decicated June 20, 2009 (6014)
Under the truly uninspired leadership and shifty gaze of Noble Grand Humbug
Dennis "Butcher" Robinson
The red-shirted brethren of Queho Posse
Chapter 1919 of the ancient and honorable order of
E Clampus Vitus
Ably assisted by
Redshirts from many states (including denial)
Will attend to the needs of information dispensation anent the glories of
A History of Railroad Pass:
An Area whose history includes mines, housing, ladies, libations, and gaming;
Where operates the oldest casino in the land of casinos.
As related by Clamphistorian Mark Hall-Patton
On the relative occasion of the
Eighth Annual Sailing of the
Queho'st Guard, June 20, 6014 e.c.v.
This keepsake was prepared at the direction of Noble Grand Humbug
Dennis "Butcher" Robinson
And is presented under the title of
A History of Railroad Pass:
An Area whose history includes mines, housing, ladies, libations, and gaming;
Where operates the oldest casino in the land of casinos.
This keepsake has been authored, annotated, announced, addressed, admonished, appropriated, abused, abridged, by
Mark Hall-Patton, XNGH
A Scribe of St. Vitus
And rendered into print
For the education, elucidation, erudition, enjoyment, enlightenment,
and employment as needed by the assembled redshirts.
6014 e.c.v. [2009 c.e.]
The Fine Print: If for any reason, an error may be found within the exalted erudition of this prefectionistically produced history of a fascinating area, the reader may be assured that its placement was not only purposeful, but intended to make ongoing reviews necessary and proper, for, should all errors be properly understood, a deeper and more esoteric understanding of this subject , in the light of the ancient brotherhood of St. Vitus, may be found.
Nihil obit: Erectus Magnificatus, Postus Moderinus, Excitus Subiliminus.
The area known today as Railroad Pass has been an important location in the history of the Vegas valley. From the earliest mining in the Eldorado Canyon area to the era of the railroads, to the building of the great Hoover Dam, to today's important location as part of the road system of Clark County, it has been the pass used between the south east end of the valley and regions beyond.
Its importance as a pass can be seen from nearly any location with the Vegas valley. The earliest accounts of travelers from Eldorado Canyon, miners who began operating in the area in the 1860s, noted the use of the pass as the easiest way into and out of the Vegas valley.
The name arose in 1890 when a railroad was surveyed from Eldorado Canyon to Milford, Utah, where it was planned to meet with the Union Pacific which was building south from Milford at the time. Eldorado Canyon had been an important mining district, but was in decline. The production from Eldorado Canyon did not warrant the building of the railroad, and the idea was abandoned. The name, however, stuck. By the turn of the century, it was well established, and Railroad Pass was to be the name of this area.
Though the pass had been used for passage between the Eldorado Valley and the Vegas Valley for many years, it was not until 1929 that a road was actually built through the pass. This was done to facilitate travel to the Colorado River, in anticipation of the start of construction on the Hoover Dam. In 1932, the road was finally paved.
The railroad which finally did go through the pass was built by the Union Pacific from Boulder Junction, about seven miles southwest of Las Vegas on the main U.P. line nearly 23 miles to Summit, just past Railroad Pass. There it connected to the U.S. Government Railroad which went into Boulder City, and connected to the Six Companies Railroad which went down to the dam. If you traveled over the line, it would have seemed like one railroad, but it was actually three separate ones.
The Union Pacific Railroad Boulder City Branch, as it was officially known, was laid out by John Paul Elliott, who found no particular difficulties with the project. Work began on September 17, 1930, and the line was completed on February 5, 1931. Interestingly, the first freight over the line was a load of lumber for the new Railroad Pass Club which was to be built at the pass. It operated during the building of the dam. A spur off this line later was built to the Basic Magnesium Plant at Henderson. This part of the line still exists.
There are two other Railroad Passes in Nevada, one in Lander County in the Shoshone Mountains, and another between White Pine and Eureka Counties, in the north of the Diamond Range. Our Railroad Pass, however, is unique. It is the only one where a railroad was eventually built, albeit nearly four decades after the original naming.
In 1908, Professor Robert T. Hill found promising mineralization in the Railroad Pass area, mainly a mineral named alunite. It was in alunite formations that the great finds at Goldfield, Nevada, and Cripple Creek, Colorado were located. Hill thought he had a bonanza, and quickly began promoting his claim.
Talking a group of New York investors into backing the mine, Hill helped organize the Alunite Mine and the Alunite Mining District. Alunite began to be boosted immediately. A New York Times article from September 12, 1908, reported
Weary of the semi-somnolence which comes with development of its agricultural and artesian resources, Las Vegas, Nev. which acquired a taste for mining during the Greenwater boom, is now mothering a boom of its own and offers alunite to the world as a coming rival of Cripple Creek and Goldfield. The new camp is situated in a long, dry wash leading to the Colorado River, some twenty-three miles southeast of the little Nevada town. Whether or not there is anything prophetic in "23" remains to be proven. It is said that a New York company, under the management of Robert T. Hill, has been quietly developing the district for several months and is now convinced of its value. A company known as the Alunite Mining Company has been formed and the first news of the camp is now finding its way into the columns of the local press. It is said that the rush is already beginning and the prediction is made that 3000 people will be in the district before March, 1909. Inquiry at Las Vegas discloses no element of sensationalism in the atmosphere though several fortune hunters have quietly left to ascertain the facts for themselves. The district first commanded attention as Railroad Pass over twenty years ago, but nothing of great commercial value was found.
The interesting allusion to a mining rush in the 1880s is one I have not been able to track down, and I am of the opinion that it is a bit of hyperbole on the part of the author of the article. The find continued to attract attention, and an article a month later in the October 24, 1908, Las Vegas Age, under the title "An Old Prospector's View of Alunite" added this description to what was happening in the new camp,
…I visited this locality last week and spent six days prospecting and examining the formation. I visited the Alunite Mining Company's property and found that they are doing a large amount of work in various parts of this peculiar alunite formation. They have now a main shaft with double compartments each 4 ½ x 4 ½ feet, down 100 feet under a contract to sink 200 feet before drifting. I have found at several other places men sinking shafts working two shifts, that were down 10 to 20 feet all in the same character of mineralized rock or alunite. This alunite resembles hard unslacked lime rock with a rose colored streak running through. The company is making arrangements to put a large force to work as soon as the buildings now underway are completed. They are now working 35 or 40 men which shows that there must be something good in this formation. They have taken leases on several pieces of property which are now being prospected by sinking shafts - all of which show good results. I found that many locations have been made throughout an area of ten miles in extent and some of the locations are now being worked. I think there is plenty of good ground left for the prospector willing to look for it. I found Mr. Frank Crew, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Lowe who have a group of six claims in the Pass they have just begun to work on, and will remain for several
months developing their property. From some of the ore shown me and
the size of the vein they have a fine piece of property that will prove valuable. I found Mr. Wilson and party
working on claims adjoining the Alunite Mining Company on the N. E. side. They have a group of 12 good looking
claims which give samples carrying free gold and some copper…
Obviously the "Old Prospector" was looking for a way to boost the new site. By the next year, a number of buildings had been built, including bunkhouses, a blacksmith shop, tents, stables, and an office building. A number of mines were located in the new district including the Bean Pot (also known as the Blue Quartz), the Black Mountain, the Homestake, the Lucky Dutchman and the Spearhead. There was a nearby district which eventually became part of the Alunite district, which was the Vincent Mining District, named for its main mine, the Vincent .The rush ended during 1909, when the hoped-for gold did not appear. A few years later, in 1915, the Quo Vadis Mine was located and worked in the district, and some promising ore was found. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived find, and the district's mines closed soon afterwards. Except for one last try with the Quo Vadis in 1937, the district never shipped ore after this.
One other mineral was shipped during the 1915 period. Alunite was thought to be a good source of potash, and some attempts were made to use the alunite in the vicinity as a source, but after testing, it was found to be only 2 ½ % to 3 ½ % potash, not enough to be commercially viable.
Hill continued to work the area for many years, on and off, never believing he was incorrect in his assumptions. The small community hung on with no real business until the building of the dam and the depression. The depression brought into existence tent camps around many of the springs in the desert areas of the valley, including Railroad Pass.
The Coming of the Dam
With the passage of the Boulder Canyon Project Act in 1928, the area of Railroad Pass would be changed forever. The project was to build one of the great dams in the western United States, Hoover Dam, to be located in Black Canyon on the Colorado River.
Part of what would be necessary for this project to be built was the creation of a railroad to bring supplies to the dam site. Two sites were under consideration for the dam, one in Boulder Canyon and one in Black Canyon, and Railroad Pass played an interesting role in getting the final site chosen.
Since it would be necessary to build a railroad, the two sites being studied took that into account. One site would have required a 53-mile line to be built from the Moapa Junction on the Union Pacific to Boulder Canyon. The Black Canyon location for the dam required a much shorter rail line, only 23 miles long, which would reach from Boulder Junction on the Union Pacific to Boulder City, being routed through Railroad Pass.
Partially because of the savings from the shorter rail line, the Black Canyon site was chosen for the new dam. The railroad was built through the pass, and Railroad Pass finally was able to live up to its name.
With the coming of the dam project, the importance of the patented mine site of Alunite became clear to certain entrepreneurs. The existing buildings and site were the closest ones to the new federal reservation which became Boulder City.
Boulder City was created because of Elwood Mead's propensity for regulating social behavior through irrigation projects, a belief reinforced by his new boss, Secretary of the Interior Dr. Ray Lyon Wilbur. When they were planning the project, the question of housing for workers on the dam was discussed at length. Wilbur and Mead visited Las Vegas on June 21, 1929, and the city hoped to be the headquarters for workers for the new dam.
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.
Mead decided that a new community would be necessary for the workers, a community which became Boulder City. This being Mead's effort at an ideal community, no alcohol would be served within the confines of the community and no gambling would be allowed. Though thankfully the first requirement has been removed from the community, the lack of gaming sets Boulder City aside from all other communities in Nevada.
However, the site was known for being available and having structures already there. There was a gas station and general store, and various other businesses in the area, some of which were not quite legal at the time. This led to the creation of the Railroad Pass Club in 1931, the direct ancestor of today's Railroad Pass Casino.
1931 was the year the Governor Balzar signed the bill legalizing gambling in Nevada. The fourth gaming license issued was to the Railroad Pass Club, which was located on the site of the Alunite mining claim. The powers in Boulder City quickly took offense. In a front-page article in the Review-Journal for June 4, 1931, it was noted that "Dam Site Gets Gambling"
Steam shovels today began tearing up the desert soil to make way for the foundations of a monstrous gambling casino and dance hall at Railroad Pass, just one mile from the Boulder City limits. Day before yesterday the county commission which has the granting of gambling permits issued the necessary papers.
By a coincidence, the work was started while announcement was being made in Washington that the government had withdrawn twelve square miles surrounding the Boulder City and the dam site as a Federal Reservation subject solely to control of Federal officers. The reservation was created to enable the government to prevent gambling and vice in the vicinity of the dam, but it was pointed out that it cannot include lands already patented by owners, and it is on such land with in reservation that the new resort is being constructed…
The new casino grew, presenting food and gaming, and eventually receiving gaming license #4 for the state of Nevada. To this day, that is the license under which the casino operates, and it is the earliest still active.
It had a soft opening on July 25, 1931. A contemporary article about the opening noted
With 25 electric fans to keep the air in circulation and to keep the first-night patrons cool, the new Railroad Pass club will hold its preliminary opening today, opening at 5 p.m. and remaining open until late tonight.
With a five-piece orchestra to furnish music for dancing, roulette, craps, big six, twenty-one and poker, plenty of excitement is promised by Proprietor Warren and his assistants, including the cook and his staff, who will serve sandwiches and light lunches for patrons.
A bootlegging operation in the Railroad Pass area is destroyed. Courtesy Boulder City Museum.
Interestingly, this was still during prohibition. The gaming, it is said, was actually a cover for a speakeasy on the site. If you knew the password (It was "Gayety") you could get past the few table games and into the bar area behind. The casino was a thorn in the side of Boulder City authorities, who would regularly rail against "the booze business and lewd women" and threaten to shut the site. It also set the stage for the growth of Railroad Pass as a libations stop. The area was known by bootleggers, and it figured in raids by the prohi's or prohibition agents numerous times. About this same time, United States Marshall Williams of Boulder City noted a suspicious man outside of a tent in the Alunite shantytown. 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 tent the man had been standing next to and dug in the disturbed dirt on the floor. Finding a box of liquor, he arrested the bootlegger, and the area was safe for law-abiding citizens for a few more minutes, at least. By one count, there were 21 bootlegging sites between Railroad Pass and Las Vegas along the Boulder Highway about this time.
A second casino/dance hall was built on the other side of the pass by Jim Cashman, Sr., which was leased by George Mace and called Mace's Circle Bar. After Mace's death, the Circle Bar was leased to Mike Miller in 1947, who changed the name to The Star Club. This casino burned in the early 1950s, and no trace exists today.
The formal opening of the Railroad Pass Club came on August 1, 1931. In an oral history, Marion Allen remembered the club as,
Railroad Pass was one big room. The bar was against the back, and they had a dance hall in the front. That was always about the first place we'd stop to get a drink where we went to Las Vegas on an evening out. The had pretty glasses, and they'd fill them full of ice and put a very little bit of whiskey in them - whatever you drank, gin, or whatever it was. This one lady, as I remember, said, "I hate to drink all this whiskey to get to that ice."
Harry Hall remembered,
It was a small very small place. The Pass was just one room, actually. They had a three-piece orchestra. There was a little dance floor. They had a bar. I don't recall if they had any gambling - if so, very little. Railroad Pass made their own brandy. They'd buy five-gallon cans of alcohol, which was 200 proof. They'd cut it to at least 50 percent, probably more, and they'd put flavoring in. If you wanted blackberry brandy, why, they made blackberry brandy. They just put flavoring in.
The casino has changed names over the years, with different owners. The first proprietor was L. B. Settle. During the 1930s it was owned by Mrs. O. D. Johnson, who eventually sold it to Chick Fechser, Clarence Blazier, and Chick Nelson in 1942. Fechser bought out his partners, and operated the casino until his death in 1951. His widow ran it for a short time, and leased it to Phleet Martin, Lesley Jones, Wade Stevens and Bill Aikens in 1952. They sold out to Sam Presley, Jr., in 1960, who eventually lost his license over an accusation of cheating at a "21" game. This led to Clara Jane and James Leeper taking over for a couple of years, but eventually Mrs. Fechser re-exerted control over the property. Key Fechser, her son, and his wife than ran it for a number of years.
In 1971, it was operated as a gift shop without gambling by Rick Cummings for a short time, but Key Fechser and Robert Deike took over again in 1972. In 1973, a well was finally sunk for the casino, which had had to ship in water throughout its existence. The well, which went down over 1,000 feet according to newspaper articles, provided a good supply of water for the site.
Bob Verchotta, who figures large in the history of the casino, acquired the property about 1975, and began building it up. He oversaw the rebuilding of the casino, and operated it until the 1980s. The casino got its hotel tower in 1987.
The casino continues to operated today, providing food, entertainment and libations to travelers on Highway 95 through Railroad Pass.
The Railroad Pass School District
Today, Nevada State law designates each county a school district. Before this consolidation legislation was passed in 1956, small school districts existed throughout the state. One of these was the Railroad Pass School District.
It was created in 1932, with the growth of tent camps in the area, and the Railroad Pass Club and other businesses catering to the workers from the dam project. Originally, school was held in a tent, but soon a small one-room wood school was built near where the casino stands today.
A Sunday School class at the Railroad Pass School, 1933. Photo courtesy Boulder City Museum.
The district covered both sides of the railroad and highway through the pass, and took in children from tent camps on both sides of the pass and on the nearby flatlands. Its boundaries extended from the summit of the pass west along the slope along the then-undeveloped desert, and took in the area all the way to Pittman. Today Pittman is part of the City of Henderson, but at that time it was the last community along the Boulder Highway.
A. C. Klinger, who was trying to restart mine work in the area, was credited with bringing in some of the families which led to the district's founding. The Railroad Pass School District continued to function until Basic Townsite, today's Henderson, was created in late 1941. The new Henderson School District absorbed the old Railroad Pass district, but its name wasn't lost initially. The first High School in Henderson, known today as Basic High School, was originally called Railroad Pass High School, and carried that name from 1942 until 1945.
Just on the edge of Railroad Pass lies the remains of a little known ghost town in the Vegas valley. A few foundations, a fairly spectacular trash field, and some low wall fragments on the northwest side of Railroad Pass are all that remain of a small camp, probably Showalter's Camp.
Showalter's Camp was originally associated with a mine in the area, but it continued to exist well past the 1910-20 period. It was cheap housing during the dam days, as well as through World War II. There was never a post office at the site, but it was a small settlement long after the mine that had originally given rise to it had failed.
Texas Acres, Oklahoma City
The need for housing in the Vegas area has always followed a boom and bust cycle. With the great depression, the importance of public building projects like Hoover Dam brought many people to our valley to try to get jobs. Because you could not live in Boulder City unless you were employed on the dam or in a related business, tent camps, or Hoovervilles as they were known throughout the United States, grew up around springs or accessible flat land.
Texas Acres and Oklahoma City were two examples. According to U. S. Marshall Glen "Bud" Bodell, they were created by members of the International Workers of the World union, better known as the Wobblies. The IWW worked hard to unionize the dam project, but in the end they were unsuccessful. They were a radical union, and had gotten some of their most noticeable early success in the Nevada mines. Their last great effort was the dam.
The two tent camps were on the southeast side of the pass, and became better known than most of the camps mainly because of the level of violence associated with the encampments. The "residences" consisted of tents and shacks made out of any material which came to hand. In an oral history, Theodore Garrett remembered, "On the road east into Boulder, tents, cardboard lean-tos, and what have you were set up along the road at places where there was water between Railroad Pass and Las Vegas …"
Many of the dam workers lived in these encampments, as well as similar ones on the federal reservation around Boulder City and the dam site, until housing could be found in Boulder City. One family of five lived in a concrete culvert, while others would nail blankets and sheets to signs to create makeshift tents. The lack of housing which accompanied each boom in the Vegas valley would bring out this need for more housing, and when the area was significantly less inhabited, many did what they could to survive.
Texas Acres site, c. 1970. Courtesy Clark County Museum.
Texas Acres was on the west side of the road, on the Vegas valley side of the pass, with Oklahoma City on the other side. Texas Acres had a roadhouse at the site, which did have gambling. Elton Garrett, the newspaper editor in Boulder City, remembered seeing a 9th grade student in the doorway of the roadhouse playing a slot machine. He editorialized about it in his newspaper later. In an oral history, Harry Hall also remembered Texas Acres. He said,
They had another place over by Texas Acres, where the railroad track went by. They had a little music, a little dancing. It was just entertainment. They had a bar; they had girls. The only one I remember over there was Barrelhouse Betty. She was shaped like a large Coca-Cola bottle.
There were other camps in the area, including one known as Dee's Camp which was directly across the road from the casino for a short time. None survived long after the end of the 1930s, though some impermanent housing is still tried at times in the mountains surround this pass.
Railroad Pass has had a significant impact on the history of the Vegas valley. Initially a pathway for prospectors and explorers, military men and others, it became a home for some, a home away from home for others. Today, it is traversed by cars going faster than early travelers would have though possible, but it is still an important route out of and in to the Vegas valley.
It has been a home for miners, merchants, the homeless and hardworking, and the just homeless over the years. The Railroad Pass Casino is part of its rich history, and a site which has provided succor for weary workers and travelers for many years. As the holder of the earliest operational state gaming license, it is connected to the wider history of Clark County and Nevada. We thank the Casino and its staff for its help with our event today.
We honor the history of the site by the placement of a plaque at the site of the Railroad Pass Casino. The plaque, whose wording is shown below, will help future generations to know the fascinating history of this location.
What sayeth the brethren?
Railroad Pass, 1976. The Boulder City Union Pacific Depot is enroute to the site of the Clark County Museum, where it is preserved today. Courtesy Clark County Museum.
For further information, the following books are recommended:
Carlson, Helen S., Nevada Place Names; A Geographical Dictionary, 1974, University of Nevada Press
Dondero, Harvey, History of Clark County Schools, nd, Clark County School District
Dunar, Andrew and McBride, Dennis, Building Hoover Dam; An Oral History of the Great Depression, 1993, University of Nevada Press
Lincoln, Francis Church, Mining Districts and Mineral Resources of Nevada, 1923, Nevada Newsletter Publishing Company
Myrick, David F., Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California; Volume II: The Southern Roads, 1992, University of Nevada Press
Paher, Stanley, Nevada Ghost Towns and Mining Camps, 1984, Nevada Publications, Las Vegas
Stevens, Joseph E., Hoover Dam; An American Adventure, 1988, University of Oklahoma Press
The author would also like to acknowledge the assistance of Sean Holden, who graciously provided materials related to the history of Railroad Pass and the Railroad Pass Casino, which were invaluable in the production of this keepsake
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