Gambling, quickie divorces rescued Nevada’s economy

Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.


Penniless Winnemucca cowboy Phil Tobin, former Las Vegas real estate man Thomas Carroll and Reno political czar George Wingfield helped rustic Nevada become glittering Nevada.

Without the efforts of the these three men in 1931, Nevada might not have 323,000 people working in the resort industry today. Instead the state would be more like Wyoming, best known for its cattle and pockets of mining.

It was the pragmatic Tobin who introduced the bill that legalized “wide-open” gambling, as opposed to the in-the-backroom-gambling that flourished everywhere in Nevada. The slender 29-year-old cowboy, worried about the state’s economic plight during the Depression, made 91,000-resident Nevada something more than a forgotten sagebrush exurb of California.

His legislation spawned what is now Nevada’s $20 billion tourism industry and made Las Vegas one of the top tourism destinations in the world.

Since Tobin’s death at age 75 in 1976, gaming has blazed across America, and yet until recently there was not even a street named for him in his hometown of Winnemucca.

Tobin, Carroll and Wingfield don’t even merit a footnote in official gaming history. Hollywood has decided Bugsy Siegel invented Las Vegas.

But long before Siegel and his opening of the Flamingo in 1947, Carroll envisioned gaming as a potential gold mine for Nevada. In May 1930, he placed a series of newspaper advertisements touting gaming as the key to making Las Vegas a tourism mecca.

Then just a town of 5,000, Las Vegas would become the “playground of the United States” if gambling were legal, Carroll insisted.

“We can make wide-open gambling the biggest industry in the state, so that it, with horse racing and tourist traffic, will bring more millions of dollars into Nevada than any other industry we have now,” he said.

Nostradamus could not have done better.

Twice before, the Nevada Legislature debated legalizing gambling. A pro-gaming bill passed the Assembly 22-12 in 1925, but failed in the Senate on a 9-8 vote.

Although Carroll’s pronouncements received favorable responses, he carried little political clout, nor did other Southern Nevada legislators in a Northern Nevada-dominated Legislature.

Wingfield was the state’s pre-eminent political and banking figure. He owned the Riverside and Golden hotels in Reno, ran banks and mines, and influenced top politicians. He also worked behind the scenes with two disreputable figures, Bill Graham and Jim McKay, the gangsters of Reno.

Like gaming magnates of today, his campaign contributions backed both Republican and Democrats and Gov. Fred Balzar owed him his support.

And Wingfield saw legal gaming — and the passage of a six-week residency requirement for divorce — as economic stimuli for the state at the 1931 legislative session.

Just as the Legislature went into session that January, the Winnemucca Chamber of Commerce polled its members. Of 69 merchants, only one refused to sign a petition favoring legal gaming.

That was enough for freshman Assemblyman Tobin, a Republican from Humboldt County. He introduced the legal gaming bill the following month. It was quickly approved by both houses and signed into law by Balzar on March 19. The same day Balzar approved the six-week residency law that kept Reno as the divorce capital of America.

“Yes I signed them both,” was all Balzar told reporters.

That gaming would be legalized was a done deal that winter. During the weeks before Balzar’s signing, the Nevada State Journal reported “hammers, saws and cement mixers were industriously at work” rushing toward enlarging and renovating the Bank Club.

The night the gaming bill was signed, the Reno newspaper reported: “Crowds of men flocked to the city’s largest gambling resort and dice and card games did a flourishing business on the inaugural eve of legal standing.”

Las Vegas, the newspaper also reported, was being eyed for a large race track and gambling establishment financed by the Agua Caliente racetrack and gaming resort hotel in Tijuana, Mexico.

Reno historian Eric Moody said just a few days after gaming was legalized, almost every store, including candy stores and soda fountains, had slot machines. Most didn’t last. At the time county sheriffs regulated gaming.

Forty years later, Tobin explained his reasons.

“First illegal gaming was prevalent. Everyone had a blanket and a deck of cards or dice and it was getting out of hand. Some of these tinhorn cops were collecting 50 bucks for allowing it.”

“Secondly,” he added, “the state needed revenue. This way we could pick up money from the license fees for the games.”

There was no mention of the roles of Carroll and Wingfield in the debates in 1931. But Moody, then curator of manuscripts at the Nevada Historical Society, rediscovered their roles during research in the 1990s.

“Tobin obviously didn’t come up with the bill on his own,” Moody said in a 1998 interview. “As the years went on, he took more credit for the bill. Why they went to him, I don’t know.”

Moody, now retired from the state and editing Nevada in the West magazine, said recently that if Tobin had refused to introduce the bill, Carroll and Wingfield would have found someone else.

“I know of three others who turned it down,” he said. “But it came down to the fact that what Wingfield wanted, Wingfield usually got.”

From humble beginnings, Wingfield became a buckaroo and a faro dealer as a young man and by age 30 a millionaire off his mining claims in Tonopah and Goldfield. He lost his fortune during the Depression, and died at age 83 in 1959.

Carroll was hailed as the “father of legalized gaming” in obituaries after he died in 1951. He served in the Legislature in 1933, two years after the gaming bill was signed and again in the 1939 session, but never made a dime off gaming.

Although he brought prosperity for thousands of Nevadans, Tobin also received nothing from gaming. He was once given three bottles of scotch as a gift that he promptly gave away.

He never gambled. In 1940, Tobin visited Las Vegas for the first and only time, a year before El Rancho Vegas became the first hotel on the Strip.

He served a term in the state Senate and then faded back to ranch life. He and his twin brother, Frank, later would lose their ranch outside of Winnemucca.

But the cow life was ingrained in Tobin. He became a regular cowhand, a buckaroo at the Paiute Meadows Ranch, 113 miles — all by dirt road — north of Winnemucca.

Los Angeles Times reporter Charles Hillinger found him living in a tiny bunkhouse in 1971. A frayed mattress lay on his old iron bed. There was no telephone or television. Girlie pictures were taped on the wall.

Friends interviewed 15 years ago by the Review-Journal remember Tobin as a polite man who opened doors for ladies and never bragged about his gaming bill.

The 9,775-foot Mount Tobin and the Tobin Range in Pershing County were named in his honor.

“I’ve never been ashamed (of what I did),” Tobin said. “The state was practically broke. Nevada would be a place today where people only passed through if the bill had not passed.”