When the government tried to enforce Prohibition in Southern Nevada, it went down as smoothly as a slug of bootlegger’s bug wine.
Revelers walking along Fremont Street with yard-long beers, Strip patio bars where tourists can watch the passing scene while indulging in a cocktail, bars and nightclubs featuring alcohol-fueled music and dancing until dawn. Today, we take for granted the ability to drink what we want — and the state’s main industry has come to rely on it as part of the Sin City experience.
However, this was not always the case in Nevada, nor in the United States. By the early years of the 20th century, there was an active temperance movement brewing in Southern Nevada. Early on, speakers railing against alcohol visited us. The Las Vegas Age, our local newspaper, pushed a temperance agenda, emphasizing the horrors of dreaded booze (a term often used at the time). Suicides and criminal activity that could be laid at the doorstep of the evil dram were often reported and trumpeted on the pages of the paper.
When Clark’s Las Vegas Townsite was created, alcohol was actually considered in the early planning. Two blocks, 16 and 17, were set aside for all saloons, gaming establishments and other forms of adult entertainment. While today these blocks are the parking lots between Main Street and Casino Center Boulevard, north of Stewart Avenue, in their heyday they were quite the place for libations. New saloons being built there were regularly announced in the newspaper, and one, the Arizona Club, was touted as fancier than anything in Los Angeles.
Opposition to alcohol, however, was always present. Throughout the United States, from the early 19th century on, the efforts to end the “blight” of alcohol were widespread and consistent, and Nevada was no exception. Successes were localized to begin with, but quickly made their way onto the national stage. Prohibition first reared its 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.” Through the efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and various other religious and secular groups, the United States was pushed to enter into a governmentally enforced social engineering experiment. 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.
Closer to home, it would shape the destiny of the several growing communities of Southern Nevada, two in particular: Las Vegas and Boulder City.
The voices clamoring against the evils of alcohol were shrill and solitary at first, but they soon became a chorus. In 1908, a Mrs. Whittemore spoke at the Masonic Temple at First and Fremont streets, promoting the efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. By 1911, temperance efforts began to have an effect at the state level. In that year, the Nevada Legislature passed a variation on local option. Covering rural areas in the state, it provided that if a local saloon was considered a problem, a petition signed by 10 percent of local residents could shut it down. In 1915, a Grand Temperance Rally was held at the Methodist Church at Third Street and Bridger Avenue. Over the next couple of years, local and statewide women’s clubs, including the state Federation of Women’s Clubs, submitted petitions to the Legislature calling for prohibition to be the law of the land in Nevada.
Though the bill was rejected by the state assembly in 1917, by late 1918 the Nevada state Legislature changed its mind and acted on these petitions and others, passing a ban on alcoholic beverages. Nevada was now a dry state — a year before the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution made Prohibition the law throughout the United States. In Las Vegas, a community only 13 years old at the time, some, but not all, local authorities began enforcing the new law. The new law was not without its opponents, and there were unsuccessful lawsuits that sought to overturn it. However, even with the new law, the alcohol still flowed. Enforcement depended on the attitude of the authorities, which varied greatly. Many local residents were caught in its snares — with some surprising names among them.
Las Vegas’ municipal judge, Henry M. Lillis, though well-known as a partaker of the dreaded booze, also became quite well-known for his enthusiasm for the new law. He readily inflicted pain on all who imbibed. Prominent citizens, such as Charles C. Corkhill, who had served as Clark County’s first sheriff, were picked up in raids. Disposal of the contraband often took the form of the judge pouring out the illegal substances 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. However, by November of that year, Clark County was offering a $100 reward to anyone who would inform on those individuals who were not in conformance with the Prohibition law.
Looking the other way
Our sheriff at the time was Sam Gay, Corkhill’s successor. Gay was known for never carrying a gun — but then again, he didn’t need to. He was a big, burly man, more than 260 pounds and 6 feet tall, probably not within current Metro guidelines. However, he had gained experience as a bouncer at a number of saloons, including the Arizona Club, after arriving in Las Vegas in 1905. He was known for using his fists and his boots as effective law enforcement tools. In fact, Gay was noted for often not bothering to book misdemeanor vagrancy offenders, preferring instead to literally kick the offenders out of town — with a warning to not return.
But Sheriff Gay had also been known to enjoy the occasional drink, 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 on the 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 notably open for drinkers. Gay stopped drinking after 1915, when he, as sheriff, was arrested for shooting out the new electric lights on Fremont Street while drunk. As part of his plea, he vowed to never drink again. He apparently kept his word, though he saw no reason why others should be so enjoined.
The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 moved the rest of the country into Nevada’s column. The new law was to take effect in 1920. In Las Vegas, of course, it was already the law. District Attorney A.J. Stebenne, who apparently thought active prosecution of Prohibition offenses was what the public wanted, decided that all the saloons still operating on Blocks 16 and 17 should take down their advertising signage. In December of 1919, he issued a notice, dutifully covered by the Las Vegas Age newspaper, that all signs offering alcohol for sale must be taken down by Dec. 15.
Of course, since the law had been in effect since 1918, this might have seemed a bit late to some. But Stebenne was determined to make it stick. Any signs still up after the 15th would result in fines between $100 and $1,000. As the United States had caught up to Nevada in the effort to change the habits of many in America, Stebenne had caught up to state law. In his zeal, he even ordered that signs for tonic be taken down. Apparently, he was worried about the mixers as well.
The feds crash the party
Gay’s laissez-faire attitude toward statewide Prohibition was tested in early 1920, when federal prohibition took effect. Since the state Prohibition law had led to an era of rampant flouting of the law, these were interesting times for the dusty desert town of Las Vegas. When necessary, Gay would have to enforce the new law — whether he wanted to or not.
In January 1920, a J. M. Trapler was convicted of having whiskey in his possession. The Age noted that he had “about one-third of a quart of a villainous mixture composed of alcohol and fruit juice …” He ended up with a $100 fine and two months in the county jail. The Age noted in an editorial on January 3, 1920: “The sale of whiskey in this city in violation of the law has been carried on steadily and systematically ever since the state prohibition law went into effect. The matter has been common knowledge. Those who were bringing in the whiskey and distributing it were well-known. Drunks boasted of their ability to get liquor. Yet during the entire years the whiskey sellers have waxed rich and have pursued their calling with impunity.”
The editorial went on to praise District Attorney Stebenne, who had “gotten the goods” on Lon Groesbeck, noting it was the “… first real, earnest attempt to enforce the law that we have seen.” Stebenne eventually convicted Groesbeck, who was sentenced to a fine of $400 and jail time. Judge Lillis suspended the jail time, with the proviso that the desperate criminal leave the city, county, and state, never to return. Unfortunately, this was appealed to District Court, which reversed Lillis, and Groesbeck had to serve his time. Groesbeck, in all of this, merely escaped in his auto, having paid his fine. Apparently, the fine was less than he would have paid in license fees before the law changed.
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. Local residents were not quite happy with the new laws. Possible relief came late in 1920, when the new 1919 Pharmacopoeia was released. Previous editions did not list alcohol in any of its forms as a medicine, which meant it could not be provided by a pharmacy with a doctor’s prescription. By late 1920, it could, though this did mean going to a doctor and talking him or her into a prescription.
In local law enforcement, Las Vegas Constable R. E. Lake was more willing to enforce the law than Sheriff Gay. He began arresting any locals caught drinking. One was William Letter, who 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.
D. A. Stebenne’s commitment to enforcing 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 Prohibition came too late though, and he was defeated by Harmon, who then became an active 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 prostitution in the early days of Las Vegas, with Block 17 designated to play the same role for “colored” citizens, as the railroad company’s records noted, which included blacks, Mexicans and Chinese at the time. New hotspots popped 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 (today’s Las Vegas Boulevard) and the road to Searchlight, today’s Boulder Highway.
Much of the alcohol consumed was made locally, in stills located in the desert around the city. 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. 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 river to the community.
Further out in the county, Indian Springs had an active moonshine operation. Anton Martelli went to jail in 1921 for operating a still 16 miles outside of Indian Springs. Even the Mormon area of St. Thomas, one of the drowned towns under Lake Mead today, saw active bootlegging operations. 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 arrowweed 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 a 1993 article: “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.”
A change of mood, sip by sip
Whether or not you were in favor of Prohibition, if you were the law, eventually you had to enforce it at times. Sheriff Sam Gay ended up arresting three men in 1921 for selling what was called “jackass brandy.” While the makeup of this version of whiskey is not related by the newspaper at the time, it was apparently being sold in the Star Saloon, which was still operating in Las Vegas. Another man was arrested for selling intoxicants at the Rainier Saloon. In the subsequent court case, witnesses noted that the drink ran $7 a bottle, a stiff price at the time. While not described, as was often the case during prohibition, the “jackass brandy” was apparently not made with USDA approval. Case in point: A couple of months later, Jesse Miller, a house painter from Kingman, Arizona, died from drinking the stuff.
The mood of the state quickly turned against Prohibition. By 1923, the state legislature passed a Repeal Act, petitioning for a repeal of the ban on drinking. It may come as a shock today, but — in perhaps what was a portent of how the state’s wishes would be handled by the federal government in the future — Washington chose not to go along with the petitioned action.
In Clark County, 1926 was a banner year for liquor raids. Outside federal agents, called “prohis,” conducted a raid in June that netted more than 1,000 gallons of contraband alcohol. After the raid, a less tasty substitute called bee wine, or “bug wine,” was widely available for a few weeks, as was an alcoholic version of much of the melon crop of the community. As with “jackass brandy,” the newspapers of the day do not explain what “bug wine” is, but it was no doubt some version of the various ways that sugar, yeast, fruit juice and other liquids can be combined to create an alcoholic, though perhaps not particularly potable, drink.
When the large raids happened, supply wasn’t short for long. Booze could be and was brought in from outside, mainly over the Colorado River, by such stalwart individuals as Murl Emery and his father. The senior Emery had come to Southern Nevada with his family, and they eventually settled at Cottonwood Cove. Emery’s father created and ran the Arivada Ferry between the road to Searchlight and the road to Kingman. Many years later, Murl 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.”
Now that’s a dam good party
The Boulder Canyon Project’s approval in the late 1920s caused Prohibition — and other attempts to regulate social behavior — to again draw the attention of politicians. The question arose: Where would workers for the new multimillion-dollar dam live? Even though Las Vegas had a reputation for being a bit fast and loose with Prohibition (Blocks 15 through 17 were still operating nearly openly), Secretary of the Interior Dr. Ray Lyon Wilbur and Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Elwood Mead decided to visit the community and see for themselves. The visit was planned for June 21, 1929, and city fathers knew they had to show Las Vegas to its best advantage. After all, the city hoped to be the headquarters for workers for the new federal construction project.
At the City Council’s direction, Las Vegas Chief of Police Percy Nash ordered an all-out effort to not only shut down, but also disguise the saloons in town. All signs were ordered to be removed from the saloons and businesses in Blocks 15 to 17. Front doors were to be barricaded, windows covered, and businesses closed. The famed blocks were to go dark for the first time in 24 years, to impress Mead and Wilbur with a squeaky clean new Las Vegas.
Nice plans, but reality intervened. Shortly before Wilbur and Mead’s visit, the largest Prohibition raid yet in the history of Southern Nevada occurred. Federal agents, acting without the help of the county sheriff, located and destroyed 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.
Undeterred, local and state dignitaries still thought they could pull the bacon out of the fire, and showed Las Vegas to its best. They rolled out meals, speeches, tours, and endless glad-handing meet-and-greets to show Wilbur and Mead the wonders of Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, an incident during the tours undercut any possibility of Las Vegas being the home for dam workers. Several local newspapermen led one of Mead’s party to the notorious Arizona Club, which, of course, had its sign down, front door barred and windows covered. The bartender, however, was inside. Slipping in through a side entrance, the newspapermen and their guest from Washington D.C. proceeded to drink the afternoon away. When he returned to the train to rejoin the party, the bureaucrat 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.
Their decision to build a community where such evils as alcohol and gambling could be controlled — even though gambling was illegal at the time, it continued on the blocks in question — led to the creation of a new community, Boulder City. A short time later, when Wilbur returned to drive the symbolic last spike in the Union Pacific railroad line to the site of what would become Boulder City, he must have been reminded of why the new community was being built. After missing the silver spike several times, 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.
This was not the only problem, however. During his stay in Las Vegas for the ceremony, Wilbur also had his pocket picked.
The sting of a good raid
Las Vegas continued to be an open town. Clubs, such as the Blue Heaven, El Desierto and the 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. He noted that he was tired of having to enforce laws he did not agree with, though some questioned the level of his enforcement efforts, especially W. G. Walker, the local administrator for Prohibition, who often complained that he could get no cooperation from any city, county or state authorities in his enforcement efforts.
Meanwhile, Boulder City became an experiment in federally enforced blue laws. After a fight on the federal level as to whether Boulder City would be subject to state or federal laws, the community was declared 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. Land for the town was withdrawn from public use in 1931, and Boulder City was begun. The federal rules of the town outlawed gambling, the sale of liquor and any other practices that could be considered to impair worker productivity.
A decidedly difficult and self-righteous individual, 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. Word had gone out months before building commenced that gambling, drinking, and all other forms of vice would not be tolerated in the “model” community. The dam job was to be a “dry” job, with no exceptions. As early as March 24, 1931, a major clash between the government parties involved with the dam and bootleggers happened. Prohibition authorities staged an elaborately planned raid on a shack near the dam site that was believed to be the headquarters of a ring of moonshiners. Unfortunately, their plan had not been as secret as they thought. The raiding prohis turned up nothing, except 20 cases of flat beer.
United States Marshall Claude Williams then took over the efforts. He was a smart and patient law enforcement officer. He began by plotting tips from informers on topographic maps, and then patiently watching the locations from a distance, to look for smoke coming from various caves and abandoned mines. He led a series of successful raids in April and May of 1931 on the locations he had noted, and successfully cleared bootleggers off the 144 square-mile federal reservation.
Not to be outdone, Prohibition agents in Las Vegas decided to try their hand at a “sting” operation. Using a front man, local resident Ralph Kelley, the federal agents set up their own speakeasy, which they called “Liberty’s Last Stand.” Even the name was carefully considered, since the agents thought it would look good in later press accounts. The club was bugged, using a Dictaphone for recording any incriminating conversations. Kelley sold the speakeasy in early May, telling the locals that he would be reopening in an old roadhouse called the Bungalow. With the evidence they had gathered, the federal agents planned a series of raids.
They converged on May 18, 1931, when out-of-state prohis arrested more than 200 local bootleggers, residents, policemen — and the aforementioned administrator for prohibition, W. G. Walker. They seized 223 gallons of whiskey, 15 gallons of gin and 15 gallons of beer. The bootleggers received the heaviest sentences of those convicted — a year and a day in jail. Walker resigned his position. In exchange for acting as the front man, Kelley had been promised money and a position as a Prohibition agent, but that promise was dry: Kelley never received the money, and he failed the civil service exam required to become a Prohibition agent.
On the same day as the great Liberty’s Last Stand raid, Colonel George Seavers and 50 prohis descended on the community of Midway, later known as Pittman, on the Boulder Highway. By dark, the prohis had raided every known bootlegger, speakeasy and other liquor-related business in an eight-mile area. In all, they found and raided 25 speakeasies, five breweries, and three stills. They arrested more than 90 people. May 18, 1931, was not a good day to be a bootlegger in Clark County.
Not just victims
It must be said, however, that bootleggers themselves were not predisposed to a nurturing or pleasant attitude in many cases — especially if their unwritten rules were violated. A good example is when a bootlegger named Bill broke three of said rules, eventually paying the ultimate price.
He was employed in taking care of a still in the Ash Meadows area. He began to become fond of the still’s production, drinking the product without permission — mistake one. Knowing he did not have a good explanation for the missing liquor, he watered down the product, giving the still’s owner a bad name with his customers — mistake two.
At this point, the still owner found out and fired Bill, blacklisting him for similar employment. Bill, angered by the loss of his livelihood — and perhaps the ready access to his preferred drink — retaliated in the worst possible way. He informed on his former boss, telling the prohis where they could find the next truckful of whiskey. This became his absolute and final mistake. Not long afterward, Bill’s body was found in a mesquite thicket, where he had been hanged by his arms, 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.
To deal with the death, a coroner’s jury convened. In later accounts, the jury is said to have included the two men who had killed poor Bill. The jury, surprisingly, found that Bill, who had been on his way to Las Vegas, had committed suicide. Since Ash Meadows is in Nye County, the sheriff in Tonopah was so notified. Bill was buried without a coffin at the base of the mesquite bush where he had died.
You can’t stop the flow
While the big raids of 1931 made headlines, they only temporarily interrupted the flow of liquor in the valley. 1931 also saw a gate put up on Boulder Highway at the edge of the federal reservation, near where the road to Searchlight turns off of Highway 93 today. It was manned by United States Marshals, who stopped anyone coming into the new town and construction area. Since it was a federal reservation, you had to have a reason, or a pass, to enter the town and dam site. The Marshals were also able to stop quite a bit of booze, though by no means all.
Near this gate, in the Railroad Pass area, a new series of clubs sprung up, one of which still stands. Railroad Pass Casino was originally built with the first load of lumber to pass over the new railroad line from Arden to the dam site. The club was built as a speakeasy, the closest to the new town. Though billed as a casino, dance and dinner club, it was the closest place to town that residents could find a drink. With the right password (it was “gaiety”), you could receive brandy in any flavor you wanted. Of course, it was not quite the brandy of today. In this case, it was straight grain alcohol, with different fruit flavors added as requested. Railroad Pass Casino today is a throwback to this earlier time. It still functions under casino license #4.
And Boulder City? Well, when Railroad Pass opened, federal officials were not pleased. Between it and other nearby casinos like Mace’s Circle Bar, which was later known as the Star, there were many statements of outrage from Boulder City officials. All of this was to be relatively short-lived, however.
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. By December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, was approved and Prohibition was no longer the law of the land. In Southern Nevada, the bars, saloons, speakeasies continued to operate. The great experiment was over. Even Boulder City relaxed a little, allowing 3.2 beer in four different drinking establishments.
Sources: The Las Vegas Age newspaper; Building Hoover Dam, by Andrew Dunar and Dennis McBride; Las Vegas, The Way It Was, by Georgia Lewis; Nevada Magazine; Resort City in the Sunbelt, by Eugene Moerhing; Nevada Towns and Tales Vol. 2, ed. by Stanley Paher; Las Vegas: A Desert Paradise, by Ralph Roske; Hoover Dam: An American Adventure, by Joseph Stevens.