NevadaGram #74 – Laughlin, Tonopah

What They’re saying About Us

The New York Times takes a cruise on the Desert Princess.
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Like every other sane person in this crazy world, I try to get to Laughlin four or five times a year.

Photo by Max Winthrop

Laughlin, as seen from Arizona’s west coast.

It provides just the right balance between Monaco and Mayberry. It’s a gambling resort with fishing privileges, a calm, friendly and undemanding place and every time I come I feel the urgency drain out of me and a sweet and tender lassitude take its place.

If there can be anything like a small town with 11 large casino resorts, this is it. Back in August, for example, the Aquarius Casino Resort collected four boxes of school supplies for Diamondback Elementary School across the river in Bullhead City.

Photo by Max Winthrop

At the Tropicana Express a choo-choo train chugs around the grounds.

At Halloween the Edgewater and Colorado Belle held a community-wide Safe Street Trick-or-Treat party on the River Walk between the two hotels, complete with a haunted house , a 900-lb carved pumpkin and candy for the kids. In the fall the River Palms sponsored a food drive with employees and the public encouraged to donate canned food and other non-perishables to benefit the area’s families in need. Next I expect that the Tropicana Express will be holding a Bake Sale for the Senior Citizens.

Photo by Max Winthrop

The Colorado River is still the defining element in Laughlin, and the River Walk its promenade.

There are a lot of seniors in Laughlin on any given day, although the demographic has been skewing somewhat younger over the last few years, and the hotels are gradually renovating and upgrading their rooms.

There was a time when Laughlin seemed destined to rival Las Vegas for splash and excitement. Don Laughlin’s little bar and motel had grown into Don Laughlin’s Riverside Hotel Casino. The Colorado Hotel (now the Pioneer Club), the Regency and the Colorado Belle were built. The Edgewater Hotel went up in 1979.

Photo by Max Winthrop

Shorty likes Laughlin too.

Twenty years ago Circus Circus made the Colorado Belle the most photogenic casino on the river. With the addition of the Ramada Express (now the Tropicana Express), Harrah’s and Flamingo Hilton, the buoyant municipal mood was predicting a newer, younger, brighter and bigger Las Vegas taking shape along the Colorado.

It didn’t happen. The existing properties have multiplied their their rooms with new towers, and occasionally a new resort was built, but growth has been sedate in comparison with the magnificent madness of Las Vegas. By 1996, when the Fort Mohave Indian tribe built the Avi Casino Resort a few miles south of town for a total of eleven, talk of overtaking Las Vegas had ended.

Photo courtesy of Rialto Studios for Clark County

Laughlin returns to its roots: fishing from the bank of the river.

The resorts here have been changing hands — the old Flamingo is now the new Aquarius and the Ramada Express is now the Tropicana Express — and gently renovating and upgrading in the process. But now there is no thought of outshining Las Vegas; in fact Laughlin presents itself as a serene alternative to Las Vegas overload. The River Walk has now been extended upriver with a trail from the new bridge all the way to Davis Dam, and one of the recent improvements was the addition of a fishing platform. Does that say it all?

Not quite. The outlet mall that opened ten years ago has new owners who have added three new stores and are bringing 28 new stores, more high-end than before.

Photo by Max Winthrop

Laughlin is the southernmost city in Clark County — and in the state, for that matter. This is the county government facility.

Laughlin had to wait for nearly 20 years after Don Laughlin’s arrival before there were 100 residents — most of the early community development took place on the Arizona side of the river. There are more than 10,000 residents in Laughlin now (a 22% growth rate since 2000, most of it around the corner and out of sight from Casino Drive), and growth is expected to increase another 16% over the next five years.

Bullhead City has grown even faster and larger, and now there’s a comet’s tail of suburban sprawl on the Arizona side extending all the way to Needles, with a Target store, a Kohl’s, a Bed, Bath & Beyond and other national chain stores. “We’re part of the big world now,” a local resident told me happily.

Photo by Max Winthrop

The River Run attracts beaucoup bikes each spring.

There are some big events in Laughlin each year. Laughlin Winter Break is an elder version of the college students’ Spring Break coming January 4 – 10 2008, and the Laughlin Desert Challenge is scheduled for January 24-28 in ’08. The Laughlin River Run is an ear-shaking motorcycle rendezvous held each spring, scheduled next for April 23-27 2008. Rockets Over the River just after dusk on July 4th, is a 20-minute fireworks display that brings spectators viewing along the River Walk.

Oh, and Laughlin’s first brief flirtation with Hollywood is over; “Viva Laughlin!” has been cancelled. The first episode aired on October 18, the second on October 22 and it was cancelled the next day. The idea behind this CBS television show was that an entrepreneur is building a casino in Laughlin and having money trouble, family trouble and then murder trouble. Mercifully, his troubles are at an end.

Photo by Max Winthrop

You can traverse the striking desert landscapes of Christmas Tree Pass in the family sedan.

Photo by Max Winthrop

The country here has an exotic beauty all its own.

There’s an inviting detour I recommend to anyone making the drive from Laughlin to Las Vegas. As you make the climb up from the river west toward US 95 you’ll see a marked road on the right: Christmas Tree Pass. Take it for a pleasant 16-mile meander (maybe an hour’s drive if you’ve brought your camera, more if you’re wearing your hiking boots) that’s easy enough for the family car. You’ll climb as you follow the Travel Nevada, Nevada Magazinegraded gravel road north into highly picturesque landscapes and over the spine of the ridge and back down west again to US 95.

Photo Gold Hill NEWS archive

Tonopah was a bright and busy city in 1906.

Meanwhile, Tonopah is dying. “I think Tonopah is in the worst shape of any town in Nevada,” a local man told me when I visited in early October and I think he’s right. It’s painful to see the gaunt old city slowly starving, especially since it was once among the leading cities in the state. The silver strike made there in May, 1900, prompted the mining booms not only at Tonopah, but also at Goldfield, Rhyolite, Rawhide and a hundred other camps, most of them bursting up bright and noisy and then slowly or rapidly fading away to nothing.

Photo by Max Winthrop

The emblematic structure of the mid-20th century is now gone.

For me the emblem of Tonopah’s decline, even more than the dark and padlocked Mizpah Hotel, is the empty lot where once stood the office of the Silver Queen Motel. When it, and other motel structures including the long-lived Jerry’s restaurant, were scraped away, announcements were made of a new restaurant to come.

Not only has the new restaurant not materialized, all but two of the others have closed. You can still dine 24 hours a day at Tonopah Station on the south side of town, and at El Marques, an excellent Mexican restaurant at the center of town. The locals pray daily that the Scolari’s at the top of town will stay open — no-one wants to return to the dismal days of the 120-mile drive to Bishop for grub every two weeks.

Not that Tonopah has turned its toes up yet. Strenuous efforts are being made to entice visitors, and beginning to show some result.

Photo by Max Winthrop

The Tonopah Mining Park is a unique and rewarding place to explore.

First and simplest, there’s now direct road access to the Mining Park via the Mizpah parking lot. Also there’s a highly visible “murals and monuments” program underway to plant public art where it can be seen by highway travelers to entice them to park their cars and have a look.

The effort that pleases me most is the way Tonopah is promotiong itself as the “Stargazing Capital of America”. While Paris glows in the sobriquet “The City of Light”, Tonopah is bragging about how dark it gets when the sun goes down. Around the world observing the night sky is increasingly difficult; many young people have never seen the Milky Way. Well, you can see it bright above you in Tonopah.

Photo by Max Winthrop

The Great Race of 1908 came through Tonopah, and a cenennial re-enactment is scheduled for next year. The mural is on the Mizpah Annex, Main Street.

Did you ever wonder how many stars twinkle in the night sky? In Tonopah they can tell you: “Experienced observers with good eyes can see stars as faint as visual magnitude +7.0 at an extraordinarily dark site. About 14,000 stars are brighter than magnitude +7.0. Since observers can see about half the sky, they see about 7,000 stars. Observers in Tonopah can see stars of magnitude +6.5 or +7.0.” Count them yourself if you don’t believe it. The Tonopah Astronomical Society is hosting a Star Party tentatively scheduled for May 1-4, 2008 at Monte Cristo’s Castle.

Photo by Max Winthrop

The new Visitor Information Center beside the truck stop at the top of the hill on the south end of town is powered by sun and wind energy, and offers information about activities and attractions up and down US 95.

Astronomy aficionados are getting the news about Tonopah, but the average traveler on US 95 doesn’t carry a telescope in the trunk (some of them don’t have jacks or spare tires either), so the Jim Butler Inn & Suites keeps a loaner behind the front desk for guests to use. And special efforts are being made to bring astronomy clubs to town for Stargazing getaways.

Tonopah’s big event of the year is Jim Butler Days, held over Memorial Day weekend and featuring the State Mining Championships at the Mining Park. Events include double- and single-jack drilling, individual and team mucking, spike driving, timber toss, timber sawing and the hilarious blindfolded wheelbarrow obstacle race. See you there (unless I’m blindfolded).

Here’s a nice website with some terrific Tonopah photographs.

Quick notes from beyond the mountains: Tears are stinging my eyes as I type the news: The Las Vegas Gladiators are moving to Cleveland. The Arena Football League team finished the 2007 season 2-14, losing their final game to the playoff-bound San Jose Sabercats 73-46 as 5,027 fans sat quietly watching in the Orleans Arena. Dang . . .

Photo courtesy Mme Tussaud

Aaron and Amanda Richardson with live minister and waxen witnesses.

Amanda Reece and Aaron Richardson flew cross country from Wilmington NC to become the first couple to tie the knot on the Las Vegas Strip at the “In Your Dreams” wedding chapel at Madame Tussaud’s in The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. The newlyweds were the winners of a national contest to select the first couple to be married among the wax figures. To accommodate the ceremony, George Clooney was put in a broom closet and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley were wheeled in as witnesses. “When Madame Tussauds called, I thought it was a dream,” the bride said. Dreamy, but not a dream

Photo courtesy New Frontier Casino

Destined for oblivion.

. . .Ely has a splendid selection of lodgings, and a bright new website highlights five of its finest . . . the New Frontier Hotel & Casino, which opened in 1942 as The Last Frontier and closed in July after 65 years, is to be imploded at 2:30 am Tuesday, Nov. 13. Ronald Reagan performed here in 1954, Elvis Presley (the real one) made his Las Vegas debut here in 1956, Wayne Newton performed here in the 1960s, and Siegfried & Roy in the 1980s. A multi-billion dollar Hotel Casino will be built in the crater by the New York City Plaza Hotel to open in 2011, and Donald Trump has bought 3½ acres of the 38½-acre property for a condominium tower. . .

Photo Courtesy Little Legends

How small can the Legends be?

Two of northwest Nevada’s most beloved historic buildings have been restored to life. The 1863 Odeon Hall in Dayton is now Chuck’s Old West Grill, a highly-regarded dinner house and bar, and home venue for the Misfits Theatre Group; and the 1862 St. Charles Hotel in Carson City, previously housing Joe Garlic’s and the Cafe Del Rio (now operating in Virginia City) is the new home for The Firkin and Fox, a franchised “English-style pub” . . . More architectural news: The old Post Office in downtown Ely, closed a few years ago and then remodeled and re-opened as the Postal Palace, a venue for meetings, conventions, weddings, wakes and other momentous events, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places . . . Little Legends Performing Nightly at the Harmon Theater Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. Little people star as Mini-Britney Spears, Mini-Elvis, Mini-Madonna, Mini-Tina Turner, Mini-Vanilli and Mini-Sonny and Mini-Cher, among mini others. For more information e-mail info@littlelegends.com or call 702-836-0836 . . . .

Overheard at the Paiute Tribe Cultural Center at Pyramid Lake: “Nevada is a great place to get away from gambling.”

Happy Highways,


David W. Toll

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