IN THE WOMB of the federal system itself there lay hidden some remarkable money-making opportunities. As novel as the cattle trade which prospered on the public domain, or the oil business which drilled rocks for a flowing black mineral to light the lamps of China and bring fortunes to businessmen in Cleveland and New York, was a new competitive American business of lawmaking.
The most spectacular scene of these unpredicted opportunities was Nevada. One of the largest states in the Union (2,500 square miles larger than the combined areas of Maine, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island), for most of its history Nevada had had the smallest population of any state. As late as 1940 the United States Census gave Nevada only 110,247, and in 1970 it still had the least population density of any state but Alaska. Except for the Colorado River, which runs a hundred miles along the extreme southeastern corner, and twenty-mile-long Lake Tahoe at the southwestern corner, Nevada was marked off by no natural boundaries. It was a vast and arbitrary geometric chunk for which there appeared no reason in geography.
THE REAL EXPLANATION for the extent and dimensions of Nevada lay hidden underground. The area later to become Nevada had been acquired from Mexico in 1848, and two years later became part of the new Mormon-controlled Territory of Utah. When, in 1859, the rich Comstock Silver Lode was discovered at Virginia City at the extreme western end of Utah Territory, newly arrived miners, distrusting the Mormon government, petitioned Congress, and a separate Nevada Territory was created in 1861. Many residents of the territory did not want statehood, for they assumed it would bring increased taxes. But President Abraham Lincoln needed the support of a new state, which would add two votes in the Senate and one in the House. Anxious for the congressional votes to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln said bluntly that it was “a question of three votes or new armies.” Also in the upcoming presidential election of 1864 a new state of Nevada would add three votes (almost certainly for Lincoln) in the Electoral College. The bill making Nevada a state was signed by Lincoln on October 31, 1864, one week before Election Day. With their usual talent for euphemism, Nevadans in the latter nineteenth century christened themselves the “Battle-Born State.”
In fact, Nevada had been the creature not of freedom’s battle, nor of tradition, nor of nature, but of politics and silver. For about twenty years, while the Comstock Lode held out, the state somehow prospered. But it was not a democratic prosperity. In California, the people who arrived to seek their fortunes found gold, if they were lucky, in the streams, where a pan and some hard work gave a man his chance. In Nevada, by contrast, the silver was sequestered deep inside a mountain in the heart of a desert. Large sums of capital and expensive heavy equipment were required to extract the ore from the rock and then to transport it to where it could be refined. From the very beginning you needed giant hoisting machines, pumps, stamps, and drills.
The great drama of the Comstock Lode was not a story of mining-camp justice, of unshaven fortune seekers or reckless claim-jumpers. Nevada silver was not the hard-won reward of penniless prospectors but the loot which wealthy bankers and businessmen, mostly from San Francisco, systematically drained from Nevada mines. In the twenty years after 1859, about $500 million in silver and gold was extracted. From the time of its discovery until the mid-1880’s, the Lode was producing annually about half the silver being mined in the United States.
Then the Comstock, which had appeared like a comet, disappeared with hardly a trace. Other gold and silver deposits were found at Tonopah and elsewhere in the state, but they were nothing to compare to the Comstock. San Francisco bankers and businessmen went back to California with their Nevada profits. Between 1880 and 1903, when other mountain states were increasing their population threefold, the population of Nevada declined from 65,000 to 45,000. Nevada came to be described as a place you had to go through to get from Ogden, Utah, to California. There were some efforts to promote farming and cattle raising. The Southern Pacific Railroad, anxious to attract settlers, published cheery pamphlets (“The New Nevada: The Era of Irrigation and Opportunity”), but they persuaded very few. Eastern journalists began to call Nevada the nation’s “rotten borough.” And they asked whether a region once admitted to the Union ought not to be deprived of statehood when it ceased to have any considerable population.
But here they simply showed how little they understood of the West. The end of Nevada’s Silver Age was the beginning of a New Nevada. The fewer the people, the greater the share for each in the benefits of “sovereignty.” Nevada politics at the opening of the twentieth century, as Gilman Ostrander observes, had a kind of “town-meeting” air about it. Exploiting this advantage, Nevadans showed how enterprise and ingenuity could make a new resource out of statehood itself.
Under the federal system there was, of course, nothing new about a state that was “small” in area or in population using its “sovereignty” to exert a disproportionate power. Maryland, by staying out of the American confederation until 1781, had forced Virginia to yield to the whole nation her state’s claims to the vast northwest. And Rhode Island had stayed away from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, hoping that her hold-out position would increase her power to bargain. But in the twentieth century, being a small state yielded a different kind of advantage. Not simply a disproportionately potent voice in the councils of the nation. This new advantage required a mobile population and depended on speedy, inexpensive transportation.
THE NEVADA LEGISLATURE’S first effort to outdo the other sovereign states came in 1903 with its passage of a new law of business corporations. Businessmen were to be enticed to set up their companies in Nevada because under Nevada’s lax new rules there would be no annual tax on corporations, no troublesome supervision over the issuance of stock or the conduct of business. But other states quickly matched these advantages, and some states, such as California, tried to outlaw their competitors by making it illegal for any corporation to sell its stock within their borders unless the corporation had met their own strict requirements.
Nevada’s first real opportunity for profitable legislative competition was found in a less prosaic branch of the law—divorce. Here was an area of ancient controversy where Nevada’s other peculiar advantages would make it possible for her legislative ingenuity and enterprise to pay off.
Marriage, divorce, and celibacy had of course (long before Henry VIII!) been a battleground for competing jurisdictions. “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh,” Jesus had said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew, xix, 6). The Roman Catholic Church included marriage among the seven sacraments. Like the perpetual mystic union between Christ and his Church, a valid marriage of man and wife would never be dissolved. The Church therefore did not really recognize divorce at all. What was called divorce (divortium a vinculo) was really annulment, and in theory could be granted only for disabling causes (such as impotence or a legally existing prior marriage) which had prevented the supposed marriage from taking place at all. What the canon lawyers called divortium a mensa et thoro (divorce from bed and board) was only judicial separation, and carried no privilege of remarriage. Abuses in the Church’s handling of matters of marriage had been among the arguments for the Protestant Reformation. Marriage, according to Martin Luther, was not a sacrament, but “a secular and outward thing, having to do with wife and children, house and home, and with other matters that belong to the realm of the government, all of which have been completely subjected to reason.” Therefore the rules of marriage and divorce “should be left to the lawyers and made subject to the secular government.”
The New England Puritans took Luther’s distinction so seriously that they not only required marriages to be solemnized by a civil magistrate but in 1647 actually forbade the preaching of a wedding sermon. They feared the popish tendency to make marriage a sacrament. Before the end of the seventeenth century, the General Court of Massachusetts felt secure enough on this matter to allow ministers as well as justices of the peace to perform the marriage ceremony. During the colonial period, the New England colonies made their own laws of divorce. The Southern colonies followed English law, but this really left them without remedies, since they had no ecclesiastical courts. In the middle colonies, royal officials cracked down on attempts to pass divorce laws. While the grounds for divorce remained strict by modern American standards, they were generally much wider than those allowed in England. In the late eighteenth century, and especially in the 1770’s as part of an effort to tighten control over the colonies, the British government (for example, in their instructions to royal governors, November 24, 1773) disallowed colonial laws “for the divorce of persons joined together in Holy Marriage.” This must be counted among the minor irritations that stirred aggrieved American husbands and wives to fight for independence.
The winning of independence then, confirmed the freedom of each state to go its own way in the law of divorce. The spirit of the times, the enthusiasm for freedom, and the hatred of tyranny of all kinds which awakened in some quarters the movement to abolish Negro slavery, encouraged others to try to abolish domestic tyranny, to bring relief to those (in the phrase of one pamphleteer in 1788) “who are frequently united together in the worst of bondage to each other … relief to the miserable, hen-pecked husband, or the abused, and insulted, despised wife…. They are not only confined like a criminal to their punishment, but their confinement must last till death.”
Between the Revolution and the Civil War, most states liberalized their laws of divorce. Generally speaking, the new states formed from the Old Northwest were more liberal, and the seaboard states more strict, New York and South Carolina being strictest of all. In nearly every state the movement was to regularize and standardize divorce procedure. By 1867, thirty-three of the then thirty-seven states had outlawed legislative divorce. This was an important step toward democratizing divorce, since the “Private Act” of the state legislature had been a device by which persons of wealth and influence obtained special treatment. But there remained a wide variety of rules because under the federal system, marriage and divorce remained the province of the states.
A result of the federal system, then, from the very beginning, was the practice of “migratory” divorce. A married person who found the laws of his own state inconvenient would go temporarily to another state to secure his divorce. Before the Civil War, unhappily married Easterners were going west to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois in search of marital freedom. “We are overrun by a flock of ill-used, and ill-using, petulant, libidinous, extravagant, ill-fitting husbands and wives,” the Indiana Daily Journal reported in 1858, “as a sink is overrun with the foul water of a whole house.” Horace Greeley objected that a well-known New Yorker had gone to Indiana, secured his divorce by dinnertime “and, in the course of the evening was married to his new inamorata, who had come on for the purpose, and was staying at the same hotel with him. They soon started for home, having no more use for the State of Indiana; and, on arriving, he introduced his new wife to her astonished predecessor, whom he notified that she must pack up and go, as there was no room for her in that house any longer. So she went.” In 1873 the Indiana legislature enacted a strict new law which destroyed the state’s migratory divorce business. But Chicago remained a notoriously popular divorce center, and this business, like others, moved West with the population. Stories were told of how specially convened miners’ meetings in Idaho would oblige one of their number by ceremoniously dissolving his marriage.
Among the enticements which Western states offered were their loose definitions of the admissible grounds for divorce. Some states actually enacted an “omnibus” clause allowing any cause the court might find proper. Equally important in the competition for the migratory divorce business were their vague, almost nonexistent, residence requirements. In Western states, where nearly everybody had arrived only recently, if there were to be any voters at all recent-arrivals had to be considered legal residents. Boosters for upstart cities, anxious to attract a population, made newcomers into full-fledged “residents” in short order. Territories and states that required only brief residence for the right to vote found that requirement suitable for other purposes as well.
Dakota Territory, with a three-month residence requirement, was attracting divorce seekers from the East before 1880. North Dakota and South Dakota, both admitted as states in 1889, preserved this hospitable residence requirement, and so laid the foundation for a thriving divorce business. Hotel owners, saloon keepers and merchants, and of course lawyers, all prospered from the free-spending visitors who had come for the quickest route from misery to bliss. “The notoriety South Dakota has got,” a local lawyer boasted, “is doing us no harm. It advertises us abroad, brings thousands of dollars here, not only to pay expenses of divorce suits, but, for investment as well.” For this promising new business, there arose a lively civic competition between Sioux Falls and Yankton. Sioux Falls, which already had two colleges, had the advantage also of a thirty-three-year-old judge, of “just that ardent and susceptible age when woman’s distress appeals to man most strongly. In all the cases that Judge Aikens has heard where the fair sex has appeared in complaint, his course has been marked by the tenderest sympathy and the most delicate solicitude for their interests.” But Yankton, although it still had only one college, had the compensating advantage of a new hotel which was advertised in an elegant brochure “sent by the hundreds to society in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.”
The two Dakotas themselves were also in competition for the divorce business. When the Episcopal bishop of Sioux Falls in his New Year’s sermon on January 1, 1893, delivered a jeremiad against the “consecutive polygamy” of quick remarriage after divorce and began lobbying in the state capital for stricter divorce laws in South Dakota, a hotel owner from Fargo, North Dakota, reportedly joined his campaign, in the hope that if South Dakota laws were stricter, the North Dakota divorce business would profit. But within a few years both Dakotas raised their residence requirements to one year, and so put themselves out of the competition.
This pattern—an early period of liberal divorce laws, followed by scandals, a conservative campaign for reform, and the tightening of laws, thereby spoiling the divorce business—was repeated all over the West. In the early years of the twentieth century, in addition to the Dakotas, several other Western territories and states (including Oklahoma, Wyoming, Texas, Nebraska, Idaho, and Nevada) counted the manufacture of divorce among their first local industries.
Their loose divorce laws were only the natural federal complement to the strict divorce laws of New York and South Carolina. The Nevada divorce mills thrived on the “morality” of New York. It was easier, too, for New York to retain its hypocritical chastity (and hence more difficult to change the laws of New York) because well-to-do New Yorkers always had the Reno alternative.
IN THE STATE OF NEVADA, divorce actually became a major force in the economy. And if there, more than elsewhere, the chronicle of divorce was spiced with scandal and romance, there too it bore vivid witness to the enterprising competitive spirit of the communities who built the West.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, there were relatively few divorces granted in Nevada. For there were relatively few women residents in the state, and Nevada had not yet established its competitive advantage for migratory divorce. The first notorious Nevada divorce occurred in 1900 when Earl Russell, an English nobleman, after establishing the required six-month residence, secured his Nevada divorce, and promptly married another woman whom he took back with him to England. There his first wife, alleging that the Nevada divorce was invalid, sued for an English divorce on grounds of adultery. Earl Russell was indicted for bigamy, tried by his peers in the House of Lords, convicted, and eventually confined in the Tower of London. If this advertisement for Nevada divorces was somewhat ambiguous, it did at least publicize the brevity of the Nevada residence requirement and the laxity of its divorce laws.
The first “favorable” publicity in building this Nevada business came in 1906 when newspapers headlined the story of the unhappy Laura Corey, who secured release from her adulterous husband by a Nevada divorce. William E. Corey was a self-made steel manufacturer who had risen from being a laborer in the Braddock, Pennsylvania, mills to become, at thirty-seven, president of the United States Steel Corporation. His colleagues described him as an “icicle in business.” But outside the office he showed considerably more warmth, and in fact unceremoniously deserted his wife and family for the attractive musical-comedy singer, Mabelle Gilman. Then his wife, a poor miner’s daughter whom he had married early in life, went to Reno for a divorce. Within nine months after the divorce, Corey married Miss Gilman. The press fumed with righteous indignation against Corey, but praised the laws of Nevada as the shield of the injured innocent.
The Nevada divorce business boomed, though not always for the benefit of violated innocence. Nevada lawyers advertised in Eastern newspapers that their state’s six-month residence requirement was the shortest in the country. They described Nevada’s numerous, easy-to-prove grounds for divorce, explained the state’s convenient lack of requirement for corroborative proof of facts, and reminded readers that there was no Nevada bar to immediate remarriage. At least one lawyer was suspended briefly by the Nevada Supreme Court for such advertising. But the divorce practice grew, providing widespread financial benefits in the state. In 1910 (when Nevada divorces numbered three hundred per year), the familiar reform cycle began. Under pressure from clergymen and then from the Progressives, the state legislature in 1913 increased the residence requirement from six months to a year. But the lawyers, merchants, bartenders, hotelkeepers, and others quickly registered their protest. The Republican governor who had signed the divorce reform bill was defeated for reelection in 1914, along with some of the legislators who had supported the bill. At the very next biennial session of the state legislature in 1915, the bill was repealed and the six-month residence restored. The divorce business quickly revived, with the lucky assistance of a much-publicized visit from the movie queen Mary Pickford, who came for a Nevada divorce from her first husband so she would be free to marry Douglas Fairbanks.
Nevada still had competitors, and the legislature remained alert. In 1927, in the face of a growing threat from France and Mexico, and a rumor that Wyoming might reduce her residence requirement to three months, the Nevada legislature enacted a law requiring only three months’ residence. Then again in 1931, when there were rumors that Idaho and Arkansas were about to enact the three-month residence, the Nevada legislature hastily reduced their residence requirement to six weeks.
“REVIVAL OF GOLD RUSH DAYS PREDICTED. BEAT THIS ONE, IF YOU CAN” read the headline in the Nevada State Journal. The divorce business, as the historian Nelson Blake has pointed out, became increasingly confused with the tourist business. Instead of divorce seekers coming to establish residence to secure the desired legal result, and incidentally spending their money on entertainment, people came for fun, and incidentally found it convenient to get their divorce. It became hard to distinguish between fun-hungry vacationers and disconsolate divorce seekers. They all spent money in Nevada. In the early 1920’s, when the six-month requirement was still in effect, Nevada had granted about 1,000 divorces each year; with the residence reduced to three months, the annual figure in 1928 reached 2,500; and the new six-week law in 1931 skyrocketed the number that year to 5,260. During the depths of the Depression the market for Nevada divorces, like that for other luxuries, declined. But the prosperity years of World War II brought new highs: 11,000 Nevada divorces in 1943, and three years later, 20,500. In the 1950’s the number declined to an annual 10,000.
Nevada had also loosened its laws of marriage. In 1940, after California required a blood test and a three-day waiting period, Nevada was still offering (in Gilman Ostrander’s phrase) “instant marriage, around the clock.” This brought in a new crop of hasty honeymooners.
Tourism, too, stirred a lively new competitive spirit. Reno, which had been specially developed to accommodate divorce seekers, for several decades had almost all the divorce business. Of the 5,260 Nevada divorces in 1931, 4,745 were granted in Reno. But the day of the upstart town had not passed. Las Vegas, which was not even incorporated as a city until 1911, within twenty years had numerous neon-gleaming night clubs with a dazzling array of “chorus girls,” comedians, and high-priced celebrities of stage and screen. “Getting it is half the fun.” Divorce seekers from Los Angeles and elsewhere were soon persuaded that it was more fun to get unhitched in Las Vegas. By the late 1950’s Las Vegas was granting nearly half the state’s divorces. The divorce business and the entertainment business stimulated each other. In Nevada, in the two decades after 1950, the annual number of divorces per 1,000 of resident population was about ten times the national average, and the number of marriages about twentyfold. Nevada’s divorce rate was five times that of any of the closest competitors (Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, and Alaska); and its marriage figure was ten times that of its closest competitor (South Carolina).
DIVORCE WAS NOT the only business by-product of the federal system. Another was gambling. Here, again, an unpopulous state like Nevada was peculiarly well qualified to profit. Some historians have observed that Nevada’s whole history was nothing but one long gamble. A less metaphorical explanation lies in the working of the federal system and in the legislated prudery of Nevada’s sister states. Horse racing, for reasons of tradition, tended to be excepted from those common-law prohibitions brought over from England which made the keeping of a common gambling house indictable as a public nuisance. In 1887 New York, for example, allowed betting under special legal regulation at the race tracks. But in the early twentieth century, in some states, because of the rise of “bookies” (the first recorded use of this Americanism is 1909) and other abuses, race tracks were closed. Then, in the late ’20’s and early ’30’s, the legalized parimutuel system (facilitated by the completely electrical “totalizer” introduced in 1933), which used automatic vending machines to sell betting tickets, gave horse-race betting a new popularity. Still, legalized betting was tightly restricted: off-track betting was generally not allowed, and public gambling houses remained illegal. The states commonly outlawed gambling devices, and either regulated or prohibited pool halls, slot machines, and punch boards. The opportunities for gambling which were offered by boxing led some states to outlaw that sport, and led others to regulate it strictly under a public commission.
When the Depression hit Nevada in 1931, the divorce market lagged and there was widespread fear that other states might liberalize their divorce laws. Nevadans felt that merely reducing the divorce-residence requirement to six weeks might not be enough to insure economic recovery. The Nevada legislature in 1931, then, partly as a recovery measure, legalized gambling. But the tradition of clandestine gambling, from the days when it was illegal, was hard to overcome. Since gambling, when illegal, had been a discreetly private activity, there was no established pattern of promotion or advertising to widen the reach of the newly legalized gambling houses. Nevada’s new laws opened the door for a new brand of Go-Getter.
Raymond Smith was the pioneer. With no experience as a professional gambler, Smith, bringing his two sons, came to Reno from California during the Great Depression in search of a living. Drawing on his earlier experience as a carnival barker, he used his native flair for organization to make gambling into a popular public entertainment. While illegal gamblers had survived by keeping their operations quiet, Smith saw that the success of legalized gambling would depend on advertising. From the day when he opened his first small casino on Virginia Street in Reno, he began an advertising campaign which culminated in thousands of billboards along the highways of the country. And he made “Harolds Club” (named after Raymond Smith’s son Harold; the omitted apostrophe was part of the trademark) into a national brand. He persuaded timid and suspicious middle-class Americans all over the country that they could put the same confidence in Harolds Club that they put in other nationally advertised products and services.
In short order Raymond Smith (whose career is delightfully chronicled by Gilman Ostrander) succeeded in democratizing gambling, “as Henry Ford had democratized the automobile.” Before Smith, gambling casinos had thrived on the “high rollers” (the flamboyant sports of Mississippi river boats and of American folklore), the professional male gamblers who played for big stakes. A casino’s profit or loss might depend on the draw of a card or a throw of the dice. Raymond Smith changed all this. By lowering the stakes and so enlarging his clientele, he aimed to produce a Woolworth’s of the gambling business. Harolds Club was as different from the old gambling casino as the five-and-ten-cent store was different from the élite specialty shop.
To attract his Depression-stricken customers, Smith offered penny roulette and other stunts such as mouse roulette, in which a live mouse picked the winning number. And he set up rows of slot machines which enticed nickels, dimes, and quarters from people who did not even know the rules of poker or dice. (It was twenty years later that the slot machine acquired the American nickname of “one-armed bandit.”) To make women feel at home and attract them to the gambling tables, he employed women dealers and women shills drawn from the past or prospective customers of the quickie divorce courts. These friendly feminine dealers were instructed to play according to fixed rules set by the house so that they never matched wits against the players. Part of their job was to advise inexperienced customers how to play. Smith even provided baby-sitters so that mothers would not have to leave their children unattended in motel rooms while they enjoyed Harolds Club.
True to the booster pattern, Raymond Smith became a notable local philanthropist. He built a museum of Western Americana for his customers, and offered scholarships to needy students at the University of Nevada. To customers of Harolds Club who had not heeded Smith’s warning that they gamble no more than they could afford to lose, Smith actually lent small sums to help them get back home.
Harolds Club set the pace, and others followed. The Nevada Club prospered, and then came Harrah’s Club (named after its proprietor William Harrah, who profited from the convenient confusion of names), and many others.
NEVADA GAMBLING FLOURISHED as a border industry—just over the border from illegality and from other states. None of the Nevada gambling resorts was located near the center of the state. Reno in the west was a scant dozen miles from the California boundary. Las Vegas in the southeastern tip was close to California, Arizona, and Utah; and Lake Tahoe actually marked the state’s southwestern border with California. The Las Vegas town site, bought by the railroad back in 1903, had been headquarters for construction of the nearby Hoover Dam and was ready for the gambling boom created by the new Nevada laws in 1931. It had the advantage over Reno of being within easier driving distance from Los Angeles, San Diego, and other fast-growing centers in Southern California. After World War II, Las Vegas set a new pattern. If Reno was offering a five-and-ten for gambling customers, Las Vegas would provide grand new department stores of gambling. Just outside Las Vegas a new luxury gambling-and-entertainment development sprang up on “the Strip,” a street in a new unincorporated area which called itself by the booster name of Paradise. Within a decade there appeared a galaxy of de luxe chromium-plated hotel-motel-night-club-casinos boasting extravagantly romantic names: the Desert Inn, Sahara, Showboat, Royal Nevada, Riviera, Moulin Rouge, Stardust, Martinique, Tropicana, Vegas Plasa, Casa Blanca, San Souci. Even the more modest of these cost $5 million. Drawing on Hollywood only two hundred and fifty miles away, they competed in Big Names to draw the Big Spenders. By 1955 it was estimated that $20 million was being spent annually around Las Vegas for entertainment offered free to patrons of the gambling tables.
Then in the 1950’s came Lake Tahoe, pioneered by William Harrah from Reno, who had bought the especially desirable Nevada acreage just adjoining the California border. Casinos located there would be most inviting to Northern California gamblers. Finding that the five-hour car drive from San Francisco to his casinos was keeping customers from coming for the day, Harrah planned his own bus line. For advice he turned to the Stanford Research Institute, which, for a fee of $16,000, provided “An Investigation of Factors Influencing Bus Scheduling,” along with valuable insights into Harrah’s potential clientele. His most likely customer, the Institute predicted, was “elderly, in low occupational status, unmarried, a renter rather than a home owner, and without a car…. an unusual segment of the total population.” Harrah then aimed his advertising at these customers in the smaller cities around San Francisco. He did everything to make their trip to his casino easy, to keep them happy there, and to keep them spending. When others followed Harrah’s lead, Lake Tahoe grew into a potent competitor to Reno and Las Vegas.
After World War II, Nevada became a refuge not only for the activities, but also for the people outlawed in other states. In 1946, at a cost of $7 million, a racketeer, “Bugsy” Siegel, who controlled the local use of Al Capone’s racing wire service, built the Flamingo Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Within a year Siegel was murdered by gangster rivals, and the battles of the gangs for control of Nevada gambling had begun. Senator Estes Kefauver’s hearings on organized crime exposed a network of criminal control over the stated profitable new industry. The state tightened its laws for licensing casino owners, but Nevada laws could not keep out the gangsters.
While ex-convicts, refugees from the law and from unsavory reputations, seeped into Nevada as another by-product of the federal system, the state’s growing population created a host of new problems. At Stateline on Lake Tahoe, two of the new casinos every day produced an estimated half-million additional gallons of effluvium. At first the Nevadans tried to dispose of this surplus sewage by treating it and then spraying it on the trees, but the runoff into the lake began to turn the pure waters of Tahoe a dirty green and bred algae that spoiled the swimming. It was then found more convenient and more economical to pipe the treated effluvia directly into Tahoe. As the polluted waters of the lake flowed across state lines, the neighboring Californians were warned not to “drink, fish, swim, or wade in this water.” Californians were paying for Nevada’s federal opportunities.
IN FAR-OFF WASHINGTON, D.C., unpopulous Nevada reaped still another, more predictable, advantage of the federal system. Senators from Nevada came to play a disproportionately large role in the legislative counsels of the nation, for the Senate had organized itself in a fashion which gave states like Nevada a good deal more than equality. “Small”-state senators could be more certain of reelection back home and so they became more effective in securing what they wanted in the Senate. Since they represented fewer major economic interests, they were in a better position to trade votes to secure what their constituents really wanted. And in proportion to the population of their states, they usually had at their disposal a larger federal patronage than other senators. In Nevada after 1889, few elected senatorial incumbents were defeated for reelection. As a result of the senatorial seniority system, then, Nevada senators had a leading, and often a decisive, voice in powerful committees. Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada became, by seniority, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Senator Key Pittman of Nevada became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. These elected representatives from the least populous state were quietly altering the balance of forces in the representative system. The American people might rush to the cities, but the Constitution continued to provide new resources of wealth and power, and powerful voices, for the interests of a new West.