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Golden Nugget

Golden Nugget, Las Vegas circa 1972-1977
National Archives and Records Administration
Golden Nugget, Las Vegas circa 1972-1977

A Las Vegas hotel-casino recently celebrated its diamond jubilee. The Golden Nugget is seventy-five.

The old sign above the property had 1905 on it. That signified that it was part of the railroad townsite auctioned off that year. But the casino didn’t open then. That would come in 1946, thanks to a former Los Angeles vice cop turned syndicate operative, Guy McAfee. You heard that right—he went from the right side of the law to the wrong side.

McAfee had done well in Los Angeles, but a new mayor took office in 1938. Fletcher Bowron had committed to getting rid of McAfee and his friends. McAfee headed up Highway 91 to Las Vegas. He would have quite an impact. He started out by buying a club on the highway and calling it the 91 Club. He sold it to the builders of the Hotel Last Frontier. He moved downtown and bought a couple of casinos. He also planned something bigger.

In 1945, McAfee announced plans for a new casino on the southwest corner of Second and Fremont. He had several investors with him, but it was mostly his baby. When it opened on August 30, it was modeled on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast during the Gold Rush, and a bar called the Golden Nugget. He insisted on Victorian era fixtures and wood, along with Italian marble. It became known for no-limit gambling and its enormous neon sign, complete with a shining nugget. It also was known for expanding to include other casinos west of it along Fremont Street. That was largely the work of McAfee’s successor, Buck Blaine, who had worked at the Golden Nugget from day one after originally coming to southern Nevada to work on Hoover Dam construction. Blaine retired in 1972.

That led to a new era. A young entrepreneur, Steve Wynn, bought up a majority interest in the Golden Nugget and began retooling it. He opened its first hotel tower. He got the city to let him expand across Carson Street—he put a restaurant called Carson Street Café, for obvious reasons. And the Golden Nugget became the foundation of his empire. He expanded into Atlantic City, which enabled him to bring big-name entertainment to the original property. Frank Sinatra moved to his company and performed downtown. Wynn went on to add other towers and attractions until MGM Resorts took over the Golden Nugget and Wynn’s other hotels in 2000.

It was a measure of the Golden Nugget’s success that when MGM decided to sell it, the Poster Financial Group—Tim Poster and Tom Breitling—bought it for two hundred and fifteen million. They soon sold to Landry’s, headed by Tillman Fertitta, a relative of another prominent Las Vegas family in the gaming industry. The Golden Nugget’s growth has continued with expansion to the west, more restaurants, entertainment, and attractions. These include a display of the world’s largest gold nugget and a thirty-million-dollar, three story attraction called The Tank that includes 300 animals—among them, five shark species. Seventy-five years later, Guy McAfee just might be a bit surprised.