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“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s the classic line in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It also applies to history at times. Consider the many legends of Block 16 in Las Vegas, including why its saloons and brothels closed. This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of when the city took the action that led to the end of the brothels of Block 16.
That happened in early in 1942. The myth or legend is this. The Las Vegas Army Air Corps Gunnery School opened in 1941. Other troops were training elsewhere in the Southwest. And they reportedly were spending too much time in Block 16. So the army supposedly said, close it or else.
Well, the army was unhappy about brothels, in Block 16 and elsewhere. But, as usual, there’s more to the story. Let’s go back to the beginning.
On May 15, 1905, the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad auctioned off the Las Vegas townsite from Stewart to Garces and from Main to Fifth, now Las Vegas Boulevard. The railroad’s operators had divided the townsite into blocks and lots.
The railroad wanted to limit alcohol sales and consumption, at least among its workers. Las Vegas was a division point, so it would have repair shops. With trains stopping here, the railroad’s owners and other businesspeople saw opportunities to profit. That combination led the railroad to limit liquor sales to Blocks 16 and 17. Block 16 was First Street between Stewart and Ogden. Block 17 was due east of it. It turned out there wasn’t really enough business to sustain Block 17 as real competition for its neighbor, so Block 16 became more famous.
With hotels opening and serving liquor across from the railroad depot, those blocks weren’t going to be the only places to look for refreshment. So, almost immediately, the bars of Block 16 began to offer other attractions. Namely, prostitution. The town had an ordinance banning brothels from operating in conjunction with a saloon. The ordinance was ignored.
So, if you went to the Star Saloon, Arcade, or Double O, you could buy some alcohol and then go to the back for, shall we say, commercial affection. The so-called Queen of Block 16, the Arizona Club, debuted in its permanent building in 1906. It started out with drinks at 15 cents each or two for a quarter, including a sloe-gin fizz (if you’re curious, sloes are little berries that the British infused in gin; the fizz comes from club soda, with lemon juice and sugar added). It included a twenty-thousand dollar mahogany bar and beveled leaded glass on the front doors. It was pretty swanky. And it had a second story where prostitutes worked. They functioned as independent contractors and lived behind the bars, accessing their quarters through an alley. Las Vegas believed in keeping prostitution and its practitioners separate from the rest of the town. But that wasn’t easy. As historian Ralph Roskey put it, “Block 16 operated in noisy, vulgar proximity to Las Vegas’ most prestigious financial institution at First and Fremont Streets—the First State Bank.” For other reasons, Block 16 met its demise. More on that next time.