Historic Gambling Clubs and Casinos

Although long associated with images of the 19th century old West, gambling was not legal in Nevada upon its admission into statehood in 1864--but it didn't take long. The state's legislature formally enabled the practice in 1869, and took on a limited role in its operations, which were licensed and (loosely) regulated by local jurisdictions. By February of 1902, Reno supported 48 saloons and sixteen licensed gambling games, concentrated primarily on the south side of the railroad tracks along Commercial Row. The stretch of establishments, which included the Palace, the Oberon, the Louvre, and the Wine House, was widely known by the moniker of "Gambler's Row."

The national tides of Progressive reform, and the administration of the nearby University of Nevada, began to exert pressure to abolish the practice in the early 20th century, and aided by a new "Anti-Gambling League," successfully persuaded the legislature to outlaw gambling in 1909, with the prohibition scheduled to go into effect in October 1910. As the date arrived, a San Francisco reporter wrote, "With the closing of the gambling houses in Nevada, one of the worst remaining relics of the 'wild and wooly' west has passed out...."

However, the story was not over. The state's gambling interests had not gone away, and little by little, they expanded the range of permissible games of chance, with the legalization of social games like whist and bridge, "nickel-in-the-slot" machines that paid out in cigars, drinks, or sums less than $2, and in 1915, perimutuel betting at the racetrack. Throughout the 1920s, gambling flourished at speakeasies and clubs like The Willows, where upscale patrons played roulette and faro. Downtown, card games were available at a variety of clubs, many operated by partners William J. "Curly Bill" Graham and James C. "Jimmy the Cinch" McKay. Reno mayor Edwin E. Roberts, elected in 1923, dedicated himself to bolstering Reno's economy by licensing all forms of poker games, advocating for shortened residency requirements for quick divorces, and formally authorizing the operation of brothels within city limits.

The push to formally legalize unrestricted gambling statewide succeeded in March of 1931, when Nevada became the only state to allow full-scale, public, casino gambling. Effective immediately, legal games included roulette, keno, faro, monte, blackjack, twenty-one, craps, draw poker, and more. Within days, 21 Reno clubs applied for gaming licenses. Among the earliest were the Owl Club, the Bank Club, the Rex Club, and the Waldorf Club. Douglas Alley, located between Commercial Row and Second Street, became an early center of gambling in the city.

From 1931 through the 1960s, Reno and Las Vegas flourished as the nation's gambling capitals. Reno's clubs and casinos gradually expanded, adding stages for entertainment, and eventually hotel towers to keep patrons close. Hollywood and the popular press, combined with the efforts of pioneering gaming proprietors Bill Harrah and Harolds Club's Smith family, helped to enhance gambling's respectability as a socially acceptable form of entertainment. Beginning in 1945, any new gambling operation required licensing through the State Tax Commission, which removed regulatory power from the hands of local officials and helped reduce the influence of organized crime, which had begun to infiltrate the gambling scene in Las Vegas.

Reno's gaming establishments were not immune from racial prejudice. As the industry flourished, most of Reno's clubs prohibited entry to any patrons of color. More welcoming but far lesser-funded clubs opened on Reno's east side, particularly along Lake Street, Commercial Row, and East Douglas Alley. They included Club Harlem, the Cosmo Club, and the New China Club. Reno's casinos would not be fully integrated until compelled to by the passage of the National Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The enforcement of a "red line" that confined gambling operations to a limited section of downtown Reno began to give way in the 1960s and 1970s, as the central district became increasingly dedicated to casinos, particularly along Virginia and Center Streets. Business and regulation intensified with the formation of a state Gaming Control Board in 1955, a state Gaming Commission in 1959, and in 1969 with the Corporate Gaming Act, which permitted corporations to invest in gaming operations.

Competition for Nevada's domination of the national gaming market began in the mid-1970s with the legalization of casinos in Atlantic City and intensified in subsequent decades with the legalization of tribal and riverboat casinos throughout the country. Gradually, Reno's smaller casino operators began to close, prompting calls for the revitalization of a downtown that no longer offered a steady stream of glittery casinos or filled the role of a central business or retail district. Today, gaming operations are found throughout Reno, from the slot machines in the airport, drug stores, and bars, to the large casino resorts not only in downtown but to its east, west, and south. It has truly been a story of innovation, transformation, and adaptation--one that will no doubt continue to shift and surprise as the 21st century unfolds.

This tour offers a look at a selection of Reno's historic clubs and gambling establishments and will continue to be updated and expanded over time.