Updated August 1, 2021 - 12:55 pm
Railroad Pass casino sits on the outskirts of Henderson, not far from Boulder City, the only incorporated Nevada town where gambling is illegal.
It’s a small, unassuming property — nothing like the swanky, upscale resorts that line the Las Vegas Strip. But it’s proved resilient, carving its place in history and holding on tight.
The state’s oldest operating casino turned 90 on Sunday. It’s a milestone worth celebrating, historians say, given its origins and role in the earliest days of Nevada gaming.
And while mindful of the hotel-casino’s venerable benchmark in Silver State history, owner Joe DeSimone is also making improvements with an eye toward the future.
He is pumping money into renovations and new projects, including an additional hotel tower he hopes to complete within a year. His message is clear: “We’re not going anywhere.”
Some of Railroad Pass’ biggest changes in its 90 years have come in the last six.
DeSimone bought Railroad Pass from MGM Resorts International in 2015. In his time as owner, he has removed the museum and hung its black-and-white photos throughout the casino, added 150 new slot machines, developed a Chevron gas station travel center to entice truckers, updated the hotel rooms, extended the casino bar and modernized the property.
“We’ve done millions and millions of dollars of improvements, and each one of them makes the place better and better,” DeSimone said Monday.
More upgrades on horizon
The changes continue as the property enters its 10th decade.
Construction crews broke ground last month on a new hotel tower project that is expected to cost about $15 million when complete. The tower will sit just northeast of the original tower and add 127 new hotel rooms to the property’s total of 120, DeSimone said.
The new tower will be branded as a Holiday Inn Express to help attract Holiday Inn rewards members. DeSimone said Railroad Pass will supplement the new hotel’s occupancy with its own customers, marketing plans and business relationships.
The Holiday Inn Express tower will resemble a modernized version of the existing hotel and its burnt orange facade. When finished, the four-floor tower will feature a new pool to replace the current one, pet-friendly rooms with vinyl flooring, a laundromat and gym, DeSimone said.
A players club connecting Railroad Pass and DeSimone’s other property, The Pass in Henderson’s Water Street District, went live this week. The hotel-casino is holding a birthday party on Aug. 10 with free drinks and food, live entertainment and drawings.
Also, DeSimone, who is a real estate developer, said he has applied to annex 12 acres of unincorporated land on Railroad Pass Casino Road across Interstate 11 into Henderson. He hopes to acquire the land and develop it into another travel center similar to the one on the property.
DeSimone said the property finished developing a helipad last year on a mountain overlook just to the north of the hotel. He’s looking to bring in a commercial helicopter tour operator to work out of the helipad.
“We’re not too anxious, but we want to create an atmosphere where both the casino-hotel and the new tower are working with the operator of the heliport to coordinate and help each other business-wise and experience-wise for the customer,” he said.
When DeSimone took over the property, he said, the roof “leaked like a sieve” when it rained — so often that employees knew where to place garbage cans to catch dripping water. DeSimone said a manager would tell him employees under previous ownership used to fear the place would close.
DeSimone’s team fixed the roof, replaced the air conditioning system, adjusted the slot operating system and repainted the property.
“It made a big deal to the employees to send a message that we’re going to be around here for a while, and someone owns it that really is going to apply themselves to the property,” DeSimone said.
A place in history
Railroad Pass wasn’t the state’s first licensed casino, but it’s the oldest.
The property holds Nevada gaming license No. 4 and has since opening in 1931. That was the year Nevada became the first state to legalize gambling, and as the oldest licensed casino in the first legalized state, Railroad Pass claims it’s also the country’s oldest. The state never issued the first two gaming licenses, and No. 3 closed down, the Review-Journal has previously reported.
The hotel-casino earned its name for the eponymous area it occupied. The area known as Railroad Pass was named in the 1880s for a railroad track that was supposed to run through the town of Pioche and continue south into the Las Vegas Valley, but never made it past Pioche when the town declined in the decade, according to historian Mark Hall-Patton, who recently retired as administrator for the Clark County Museum.
A mining community called Alunite occupied the pass before the railroad. A schoolhouse sat on a hill that today overlooks the travel center, he said. Its Railroad Pass school district would later expand and become Henderson School District.
Railroad Pass finally got its railroad a half-century later in 1931. It was a spur designed to carry supplies to build the Boulder Dam, its location chosen because it was the shortest distance to the Colorado River, Hall-Patton said. In that way the spur essentially defined where the government would build the dam, now known as Hoover Dam.
The railroad’s first load, however, carried supplies to build the casino just outside of the Boulder federal reservation land — which later became Boulder City — where gambling and drinking were illegal.
Hall-Patton isn’t sure how someone could’ve missed that the load included items for a bar.
“They didn’t know it was going to be a speakeasy,” Hall-Patton said.
Single-digit slot machines and a table game provided cover for a speakeasy in the back, where workers building the dam would sneak off for after-work drinks until Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
The property was built on a failed patented mine, which gave the casino protections from government closures that would claim other nearby casinos, Hall-Patton said.
Whisper the password “gaiety” at a door in the back of the casino and a worker could imbibe from a 55-gallon drum of brandy, which would be split down to roughly 25 percent alcohol and mixed with their choice of flavor, Hall-Patton said.
“It wasn’t supposed to taste very good, but it was alcohol,” he said.
Workers kept coming to the Railroad Pass casino after prohibition was lifted. Alcohol in Boulder City couldn’t be stronger than 3.2 percent beer, and the casino offered it, as well as another vice — prostitution.
“For years my claim has been that if you trip on the Boulder City city limits and fall, you’ll hit your head on a slot machine in Railroad Pass,” UNLV associate professor of history Michael Green said.
The Railroad Pass location was, and is, part of the appeal, he said. The casino is a stop for travelers on their way to and from Arizona and for Boulder City residents looking for a place to legally gamble. Green said it was a neighborhood casino before the term existed.
“Railroad Pass appears to do the little things well, and that has helped them,” Green said. “They’re not going to have Garth Brooks do a residency or Celine (Dion) or any of the others.”
Customers looking for that type of entertainment can find it elsewhere, he said. “Railroad Pass, that’s not their market. And they really seem to know who they are.”
Time marches on
The original arched roof structure remains. One can see where the walls once encompassed the entire casino floor — today, an area where glowing LED slot machines meet the bar. There’s the chandelier still hanging from the rafters, roughly 15 feet above a false ceiling that enclosed the original high ceiling.
Kingman, Arizona, resident Mary James misses the old days of pulling a slot handle at the property. She said she has been stopping by Railroad Pass on her way to or from Las Vegas for 40 years.
The property still has penny slots, but table games cost more than the quarter or two they used to cost, said James, 72.
“We used to love to come early in the morning and have their special breakfast and stuff for 99 cents, which is a thing of the past,” she said with a chuckle. It came with pancakes, bacon and hash browns.
On Monday, James, her adult son, and his children sat at a booth for brunch at the Iron Rail Cafe. They were visiting her from Texas and all took a trip to Las Vegas. She’s glad Railroad Pass has stuck around so long.
“I would miss it,” James said.
And there is the casino’s original safe for employee payroll, which may or may not still contain anything. DeSimone doesn’t know the passcodes to open them, and he doesn’t believe any owner has opened it since 1975, at latest, when Bob Verchota bought the place.
Before Verchota, the property changed hands several times from 1936 to 1975 and “came very close to being closed under a couple of owners,” the Boulder City Review has previously reported.
Verchota sold Railroad Pass in 1985 to gaming executive Michael Ensign and his Gold Strike Resorts, which added the casino’s hotel. Gold Strike would merge with Circus Circus Enterprises in the mid-1990s, which would become Mandalay Resort Group in 1999, which itself would be bought out by MGM Resorts in 2004.
“It’s part of that corporatization that we really saw get big here in the ’90s,” Green said.
DeSimone said he wishes he knew more about the previous owners and who made which changes, such as the dropped ceiling. Having changed plenty on his own, DeSimone hopes to keep Railroad Pass chugging along as it has for nine decades.
“It’s a long-term business that I want to be in for a long time. I enjoy it, and I appreciate it. But I realize it’s bigger than me,” he said. “And when I’m gone, there’ll be someone else here to carry the weight and take care of it.”