HAMILTON LIES 9 MILES SOUTH OF HIGHWAY 50, a grim stretch of pavement that for me embodies the very essence of the Silver State. Spanning the width of Nevada from Fallon to Ely, the highway crosses 9 mountain ranges and parallels the old Pony Express trail through the most barren part of the state. In it’s July, 1986 issue, Life Magazine called it the “Lonliest road in America.” The magazine quoted a AAA spokesman, who issued this warning:
“It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
Like most worthwhile things in the high desert, the attractions along Highway 50 aren’t advertised by billboards or decorated with shiny lights. State parks, historical markers, and numerous ghost towns dot the route and are easily accessed. 70 bumpy miles along that glorified pack trail from Cortez made America’s lonliest road look like the 405 in Los Angeles! We were only on Highway 50 for 110 miles or so, but the road is aptly named.
The Jeep was cramped and noisy. John had called shotgun for the return trip, so I was folded like a contortionist in the back seat. We turned north on Highway 93 as the sun set. This leg of the trip was more or less quiet. By about Eureka we had sufficiently discussed our love lives (or in my case at the time, the lack thereof) and solved the world’s problems. By about Ely we had finished postulating about the mysteries of Gold Acres, Cortez, and Hamilton. The wheels in my head had spun non-stop for two days and now the only thing keeping me awake was my concern that Tyler would fall asleep at the wheel.
Two hours or so later, we were greeted by Wendover Will, a 64 foot tall, neon-light lined mechanized cowboy. Will is the small gambling town’s unofficial mascot. For half a century (1952-2002) his wink and wave beckoned travellers to the State Line Casino. The town straddles the Utah-Nevada border and is the most convenient spot for most Utahn’s to get their casino fix. The Nugget and Montego Bay resorts sit right on the border, their parking lots on the Utah side and their first slot machines just feet across that imaginary line.
In the 1920’s, Bill Smith erected a tall light post in front of his gas station on the border that he kept lit around the clock- a constant beacon for the weary traveller. Bill’s gas station became a popular pit stop and later became the State Line Hotel and Casino. Bill’s ever-burning light was eventually replaced by Wendover Will (named for Bill Smith). The State Line was sold in 2002 and was renamed the Wendover Nugget. The new owners quickly refurbished the hotel and removed the landmark. After many of letters and donations, the beloved cowboy was deeded to the city in 2005. A newly polished Will again greets visitors to Wendover, now from a a platform in the middle of Old Highway 40.
Wendover has always been a pleasant sight for me. My parents used to take us there for quick, cheap vacations. To me, Wendover met all the requirements of a vacation- hotels, pools, bright lights, and prime rib buffets. My first trip to Wendover was to see an air show with my Grandpa. I remember the stale cigarette smoke and cheery jingles as we weaved through the maze of slot machines toward the diner at the Red Garter Casino. That’s when grandpa gave both my little brother and me a quarter and said “See that machine over there?” For all we knew it was a pinball machine, but for the life of us we couldn’t figure out what the scrolling pictures were for.
We also couldn’t figure out why those very serious looking guys in security uniforms came and had a chat with grandpa.
We didn’t get to play any more “pinball” that day, but the sights and sounds (and smells) of Wendover stayed with me. I was probably the only kid in my elementary school that played pretend casino at recess, or that would excitedly report on my latest family vacation to exotic Wendover, Nevada.
Many years later on my honeymoon in Wendover, I returned to the Red Garter and won $3.83 at the penny slots. When I cashed out, the Red Garter staff looked as unamused as they did the day I pulled that lever and lost grandpa’s quarter.
What’s interesting is that while Wendover is a gambling town, it’s something totally different to me. Except for that brief childhood obsession with casinos, I’ve never had any interest in gambling. I figure if the winnings were as easy as they’re advertised, more people would probably win. I’ve met many people who’ve lost big, but never anybody that ever won big. Let’s just say Wendover Will isn’t grinning for nothing.
The real treasure in Wendover is its landscape and history- from the unspoiled miles of its World War II era airfield to its ancient Indian caves. Look for future articles here about the Wendover area, for there is much to tell. For a good look into Wendover’s soul, check out my friend Richard Menzies’ book Passing Through.
In recent years Wendover has seen a slight boom- at least on the Nevada side. But it was still pretty quaint when Tyler, John and I passed through on that quiet night. The lights of the town meant we had reached an oasis of civilization. It also meant our trip was coming to an end. Normally we would have stopped at the Rainbow Casino to get our fill of meat and cheesecake, but we were out of time and cash, so we made do with a tray of truck stop nachos. From there it would be another two hour trip over the earth’s curvature back to the Salt Lake Valley.
I often think about that first ghost town trip. Since then I’ve visited most ghost towns in Utah, and several others in the greater Southwest- each of which I will detail in this space. I also did my homework on Gold Acres, Cortez, and Hamilton and I’ve learned a lot about them. Next week’s article will be a follow-up on those ghost towns and a conclusion of this series.
Click here for the conclusion of this story.
American Heritage Magazine article on Wendover Will
-Wendover Will photo by Doug Pappas.