When you take Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and southern California, you’re following a route that has been incredibly important to our history. The Los Angeles to Salt Lake Railroad gave rise to the town of Las Vegas in 1905, but even before that it was part of the Old Spanish Trail. A lot of pioneers traveled it, so it’s appropriate that southern California had something to do with the Pioneer Club, which opened seventy-five years ago.
The Pioneer Club gambling hall made its debut in April 1942 at 25 East Fremont, at First and Fremont. That’s where Will Beckley had had his men’s clothing store. But gambling was beginning to boom in southern Nevada. And some southern Californians saw an opportunity. They hired attorney Cliff Jones to handle the licensing. They did something pretty common at the time: in lieu of legal fees, he got a percentage of the place.
The operators of the Pioneer were veteran gambling bosses: Tutor Scherer, Farmer Page, Bill Kurland, and Chuck Addison. They had been active in everything from gambling to bootlegging to bookmaking. In the late 1930s, Californians elected a pair of reformers: state attorney general Earl Warren and Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron. They ran off a bunch of illegal gambling operators. Many of them came to southern Nevada and became pillars of the industry.
The Pioneer Club opened during a building boom. The El Rancho Vegas and El Cortez had opened the year before. The Hotel Last Frontier soon followed. It covered a large chunk of a city block, and it was quite a success. So were its owners. Jones went on to be lieutenant governor and co-owner of several properties. Scherer moved to the Strip for a time as president of the El Rancho Vegas. He also invested in land way, way out of town along Bond Road. Today that’s Tropicana Avenue.
The Pioneer Club also grew. It added the Elwell Hotel in 1955, and later another club next door. It went through a few different owners, including Margaret Elardi, who owned the Pioneer hotel and gambling hall in Laughlin as well as the Frontier Hotel on the Strip. Gold Strike Resorts also owned it. Gold Strike included several executives from the Circus Circus, including Mike Ensign, the father of John Ensign, my successor in the U.S. Senate.
And the Pioneer Club was best known for someone who never set foot in it. In the 1940s, a cowboy served as a marketing symbol for Las Vegas. In 1951, Young Electric Sign Company, YESCO, which did a lot of neon signs, put the forty-foot cowboy above the Pioneer Club as Vegas Vic. He announced, howdy ponder, to passersby for years. The story is that Lee Marvin was in town to film The Professionals and got tired of hearing him talk, and demanded silence. But whatever happened, Vic didn’t talk for many years. He still stands above the Pioneer Club, now a souvenir store, still part of the downtown scene after three quarters of a century.
Nevada Yesterdays is written by UNLV history professor, Michael Green, and is funded by the Nevada Humanities.