Carson City entered the 20th century as a small town with plenty of tradition to build upon. It had already been home to the inventor of the Ferris Wheel and Mark Twain’s brother (and Twain himself for extended visits). Named for Kit Carson, it had hosted Nevada’s first heavyweight championship fight. It was the capital of the Silver State, but it was the smallest state capital in America.
The 20th century brought seismic changes to this town at the southeast corner of a tight geographic triangle that included Reno to the north and Lake Tahoe to the west. The famed Lincoln Highway linked Carson with the eastern United States and crossed the Sierra to San Francisco. Federal highways (U.S. 50 and 395) replaced dirt roads, and an interstate eventually bypassed Carson to the east.
The Stewart Indian School won state athletic championships as it evolved from an oppressive vehicle for forced assimilation into a place of pride for Native Americans. Legislators in the state Capitol solved their financial woes during the Depression by making the state a destination for legal gambling and quickie divorces.
Casinos sprang up, went bust, and were replaced by newer casinos. Nevada State Prison even had one.
From athletic champions to retail milestones, from city leaders to entertainers, this series provides a panoramic overview of vibrant, growing cities as they came into their own.
A former editor, reporter and columnist with more than 30 years of experience at daily newspapers, Stephen H. Provost is the author of more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction, including 10 books in his Century Cities series and three more in his America’s Historic Highways series.
Excerpts from Carson City Century (Century Cities/Dragon Crown, 2022):
1932: A prison casino
The legalization of gambling in Nevada didn’t just affect law-abiding citizens. Inmates at Nevada State Prison got into the act, too.
After gambling became legal, correctional officers decided it would be a good way to keep inmates occupied, so they set up blackjack, poker, and craps tables in the prison dining hall. Sports betting was also allowed. Later, the casino was housed in a room just off the prison yard, through a short door and down a long, stone hallway.
As many as 100 inmates could gamble at once in what was known as the “Bullpen,” the only prison gambling hall in the country.
Brass coins that were used as currency for food or laundry at the prison were wagered at the gambling tables, which were run by the inmates themselves. Denominations ranged from a nickel to $5, and there was even a cashier’s cage. The prisoners were afraid the games might be shut down if cheating was discovered, so it wasn’t tolerated. A percentage of the take went to an inmate welfare fund.
“These guys are experts,” warden Art Bernard said in 1957, referring to the inmates who ran the casino. “You can be sure they allow no cheating whatever.”
Inmates who gambled at the Bullpen included Joe Conforte, owner of the Starlight Ranch brothel in Mound House and the more famous Mustang Ranch, who was photographed playing craps there in the early 1960s. Conforte even ran some of the games when he was an inmate in 1962, adding horse racing and college athletics to the list of things inmates could wager on.
The Bullpen continued to operate until 1967. One legislator, Howard McKissick of Reno, even justified it by arguing that gambling prevented “homosexual problems.”
But there was a riot at the prison that year, and several lawmakers got behind a bill to shut down the casino. It didn’t pass, but new warden Carl Hocker closed the Bullpen after deciding that activities such as bridge, chess, table tennis, shuffleboard, and crafting would be better distractions for inmates.
“I think gambling in prison is a degradation, and it’s certainly not constructive,” he said. “We’re trying to replace it with constructive, wholesome activities that will contribute to a decent, healthful state of mind.”
1972: Rise and fall of the Ormsby
Paul Laxalt finished out a single term as governor in 1971 and stayed in Carson City, where he opened the Ormsby House a year later. It wasn’t the original Ormsby House, a hotel and saloon built by Major William Ormsby in 1860 that became known as the Park Hotel in the early 1900s.
That hotel, touted as “headquarters for tourists and commercial travelers,” faced competition from the newer St. Charles Hotel and, at some point, became a flophouse before going dark in 1919. That’s where the Laxalt family came in, purchasing the property in 1932 and having it torn down not long afterward.
But that wasn’t the end of the Ormsby House name or the Laxalt family’s involvement.
In 1972, the former governor applied the storied name to a new hotel and casino in the heart of Carson City: the tallest building in town at 600 South Carson Street. Boasting 220 hotel rooms, the hotel was sold to Hawthorne gaming operator Woody Loftin in 1976, and Loftin’s son Truett took over upon his death in the mid-eighties.
The Ormsby House did decent business until the advent of tribal casinos in California started draining business, and it closed in 1993 amid bankruptcy proceedings.
1945: Basketball greats
Earl Dunn became the first player in Nevada history to score at least 40 points in a game, pouring in 42 in Stewart Indian School’s 64-29 win over Fallon. He later added a
40-point showing against Yerington, as Stewart rolled to an
By the time the season was about to wrap up, Dunn had scored 327 points with two games left, almost twice as many as the second-best scorer in the Western Nevada League.
The fact that Dunn played center but stood just 5-foot-10 made his exploits all the more impressive.
The following season, Dunn scored 29 points against Reno High, considered the top team in northern Nevada, outscoring the Huskies all by himself as Stewart romped 49-28. His exploits that January night led Reno High coach Herb Foster to label his effort “the greatest individual performance I have ever seen by a high school player.”
Just five days later, Dunn outscored the entire Sparks team, racking up 28 points to his opponents’ 24. Then, on February 1, he broke his own state record with 46 points in a 69-35 demolition of Fallon. As of 2020, it was still the ninth-best total all-time in Nevada’s Division 1A.
Dunn earned first-team all-state honors in 1946 after being a second-team choice a year earlier. He also excelled as a wide receiver in football, where he earned all-state honors and was labeled a “pass-catching wizard” in the press.
He competed as a pitcher in baseball, and as a boxer, he advanced to the finals of the 1944 Golden Gloves AAU tournament.
Excerpted from Carson City Century: Nevada’s Capital by Stephen H. Provost. Published by Century Cities/Dragon Crown Books. © Stephen H. Provost. Reprinted with permission.