The Columbus of Highway 91

How Thomas Hull pitched camp outside city limits, built the El Rancho and invented the Las Vegas Strip

It was 1918. The Great War was still raging in Europe, but no one thought it would last forever. The southwestern United States in general and Southern California in particular were booming, thanks to some of the earliest national marketing campaigns pitching the region as a great place to live, work and play. But there wasn’t much happening in Las Vegas yet; it was still just a division point on the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, a town on par with Lynndyl, Utah, and Yermo, Calif.

Yet there were some who saw promise in the place. In January of that year, St. Louis resident and frequent Vegas visitor K.C. Fisher wrote a letter to the Las Vegas Age newspaper. If they wanted to taste greatness, he argued, Las Vegans needed to grease the wheels of hotel development.

The natural advantages of Las Vegas, Fisher said, would make it “the metropolis of Nevada,” but only if properly pushed: “If a good hotel man could be taken to Las Vegas and introduced to the wonderful winter weather, I believe that he could be interested in building a resort hotel that would put the little desert town on the map.”

More than 20 years would pass before that man—Thomas Hull—would arrive and change the place forever. This is his story.

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As the Roaring ’20s began, Las Vegas was hardly roaring: Fisher’s vision notwithstanding, most city fathers were fixated on drawing farmers to the Las Vegas Valley or promoting industrial development.

So it wasn’t really that surprising that no one stepped up to build such a hotel. But, as the years went on, business interests, led by the Union Pacific Railroad (which acquired the LASL in 1922), tried with increasing seriousness to lure a hotel man to Las Vegas. In 1926, they got serious enough that Gov. James Scrugham announced that Santa Barbara hotelier A.L. Richmond would build a $500,000 hotel on 100 acres donated by the Union Pacific. But even with that land, Richmond didn’t deliver.

The advent of loose divorce laws and wide-open gambling in 1931 gave boosters new arrows in their quiver: a flood of divorcees, sportsmen looking to bet legally, and Midwesterners taking a break from winter would fill rooms, without a doubt. So in that year, when the Talbott-Richmond Hotel Corp., a Los Angeles-based group not related to A.L. Richmond, planned to include Las Vegas in an ambitious Southwest building program, locals were again cheered. But once again, Las Vegas was left at the altar; the Las Vegas Talbott-Richmond was abandoned before groundbreaking.

Through the rest of the 1930s, the Chamber of Commerce, which had picked up the banner of promoting Las Vegas from the railroad, continued to dream of building a “first-class hotel.” A hotel, they knew, would draw more overnight visitors, who would spend more money in existing Fremont Street businesses. That meant more jobs, which would boost all of the town’s merchants. And it was possible that some enterprising overnighters might be so entranced by the city that they’d be convinced to stay, bringing in sorely needed money and manpower. In the short term, that would mean more and wealthier tourists in town; in the long term, it would mean growth and prosperity. A quality hotel was in everyone’s best interest.

And, as always, opportunists arose to play on this need. At least once a season, a promoter would materialize with plans to build—provided the good citizens of Las Vegas could give him a piece of land, buy stock in his company and float him a small loan. After a few years of that roller-coaster ride, you couldn’t blame Chamber members for getting tired of it all. Proposals that were once greeted with hosannas were now met with a grimace. Yet, Las Vegas continued to hope that someone, anyone, would find the will—and the cash—to build a hotel.

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Thomas Everett Hull could have been sent from central casting to turn Las Vegas around. He was of average height and inclined to stoutness, but his center-parted, slicked-back black hair and pencil mustache gave him the look of a Hollywood producer or a leading man safely on the other side of his swashbuckling days.

He’d had the kind of up-and-down career that defined most Las Vegas entrepreneurs of the day: not remotely shady enough to be checkered, but not exactly straight or narrow. He studied mining in college before seeking his fortunes as a miner in Mexico. A confrontation with Pancho Villa’s army forced him to walk, he later said, 600 miles to safety north of the Rio Grande. He then ran a movie theater—at the time a cutting-edge media operation—and trained pilots for the Army during World War I. After briefly running a theater operation in Austin, Texas, Hull moved to San Francisco, where he worked with his father in the hotel business.

By the mid-1930s, Hull owned or managed a string of California hotels that included the Mayfair, Hollywood Plaza and Hollywood Roosevelt in Los Angeles; the Hotel Californian in Fresno; the Hotel Mayfair in Sacramento; and the Arrowhead Hot Springs Hotel. He also had built two auto-oriented projects that were somewhere between auto courts and hotels; since the word “motel” hadn’t been coined yet, no one knew quite what to call these low-slung, auto-accessible structures. Hull called them both “El Rancho.” They were successful, and soon he was looking to expand.

In 1938, San Diego businessman Jack Barkley convinced Hull that Las Vegas would make a fine location for the next El Rancho. With Barkley’s money behind him, Hull figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to build the project; as a seasoned hospitality veteran, he knew how to get a hotel built and fill its rooms.

So Hull was a little taken aback at the reception he received in Las Vegas. After announcing his intentions to build in town, he received an invitation to attend a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce. When asked about his hotel, Hull told them everything: the hotels already in the Hull empire in California, how many rooms he wanted to build, how he would advertise it.

This should have been the answer to everyone’s prayers, but the Chamber members couldn’t shake the feeling Hull was leaving something out. Finally, a member raised his hand.

“What do you want from us?”

Around the room, men narrowed their eyes. What was the catch?

“Nothing but your goodwill,” Hull answered. The members thought it would take more than that—they’d been down this path too many times over the previous decade. But goodwill didn’t cost anything, so they gave that to Hull and waited to see what good it did him.

Even if Las Vegas wasn’t sold on Hull, he was sold on the city. And he was able to convince two of the Chamber’s most influential members, “Big” Jim Cashman (for whom Cashman Field is named) and Dr. Roy Martin (long a proponent of building a first-class hotel) that he was the real deal. That was the kind of goodwill, he thought, that could really help.

Hull then set about scouting a location for his hotel, which he insisted would be “one of the outstanding resorts of its kind on the North American continent.”

That location would change Las Vegas forever.

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Some say it was an auto mishap that created the Las Vegas Strip. There are a few versions of the story floating around. In one that you might have heard, it’s Bugsy Siegel whose car trouble leads to the Flamingo. But the story Las Vegans told as early as the 1950s had a different hero: Tommy Hull.

He and an associate were driving to Las Vegas via the Los Angeles Highway—Highway 91—for yet another meeting with local power brokers. One of their tires went flat. The associate walked to town to get help; Hull stayed behind, counting the cars driving by to pass the time. Eventually, he stopped counting and decided that this was where he’d build his hotel.

The hotel Las Vegas had been waiting for would be outside city limits, strategically poised to capitalize on Angelenos driving up, not travelers alighting at the Union Pacific depot at Fremont and Main.

That flat tire, if the story can be believed (and it does sound too good to be true), ultimately placed the resort hotel Las Vegas had been long seeking outside of Las Vegas. Hull settled on a spot just beyond city limits, south of San Francisco Avenue (today’s Sahara Avenue). It was an unlikely place to build a hotel: Three miles from Fremont Street, surrounded by sagebrush and not much else, the site evoked more desolation than destination.

After some negotiating, Hull bought about 33 acres from Jessie Hunt for $150 an acre. It was a great deal for both sides: Mrs. Hunt disposed of a plot of “worthless” land that she’d been trying to give away for years, and Hull got room to dream.

He turned to a practiced hand to help him will a hotel out of the desert sand, hiring architect Wayne McAllister, who had first worked with him on a renovation of the Hollywood Roosevelt. The notion of a motor-oriented hotel was still novel, but McAllister had designed both the Sacramento and the Fresno El Ranchos, and Hull knew he had the right man.

Significantly, McAllister had also built what was, for a time, the most popular and profitable casino in North America, Tijuana’s Agua Caliente. Born in 1907 in San Diego, McAllister went into architecture before he graduated high school, without the benefit of a college degree but with plenty of determination. Baron Long, a major figure in Southern California’s nightclub, hotel and gambling scene, took the architect under his wing, awarding him the contract to design Agua Caliente in 1927. The complex—featuring a racetrack, casino, 400-room hotel and spa—was a sensation from its 1928 opening until the 1935 prohibition of gambling in Mexico.

Hull wanted Agua Caliente on a smaller scale—a California mission-inspired complex filled with shops, restaurants and a large casino. With outdoor porches under an arched colonnade, this truly was “the Caliente of Nevada,” as early promotional materials claimed.

Now, all he needed was the money, which proved harder to come by than he’d anticipated. Both Jim Cashman and the Union Pacific railroad agreed to support him, but he was unable to sell the $245,000 in stock needed to underwrite construction. His partner Barkley bailed in late 1938, and the initial financing collapsed.

Now Hull was just a man with 33 acres of worthless land and a set of blueprints. The Chamber members who’d been leery of him snorted in satisfaction. Hull could have written off his losses and concentrated on California, where everything he touched seemed to turn to gold, but he thought there was potential in the desert.

He never stopped hustling up money, and by 1940 he had a loan. It wasn’t quite enough to realize McAllister’s original vision, so the architect sketched out something a bit less lavish: a design that would become the template for the first generation of Strip casinos, low to the ground and sprawling.

He laid out 63 red-tiled bungalows along leafy access roads; they ringed a central building topped by a 50-foot pink-and-white neon-illuminated windmill. Inside, the Round-Up Room dinner theater presented headline entertainment—a Las Vegas first— with such stars as Joe E. Lewis, Rudy Vallee and Lili St. Cyr gracing the stage over the years. A cocktail lounge, steak house and the pioneering Chuck Wagon buffet complemented the main room. But the most important part of the building was the casino, which had two blackjack tables, one roulette wheel, one craps table and a few dozen slot machines.

In front of the casino building would be a gigantic swimming pool. All the more reason, Hull thought, for weary travelers to “stop at the sign of the windmill.” It was a hotel perfectly adapted to the highway.

It wasn’t easy getting El Rancho Vegas built, even with the scaled-down plans. Some said that Hull incorporated used lumber into many of the buildings. But, nearly three years after he first got the idea, Hull got his Las Vegas hotel completed.

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Hull opened El Rancho Vegas on Thursday, April 3, 1941. Two days earlier, a crowd of 300, including Highway 91 businessmen from St. George to Barstow, had enjoyed the “stag” preview, with a buffet-style dinner in the Round-Up Room, followed by a cowboy sing-along led by “Colonel” Bob Russell.

The grand opening was more formal, with a sit-down dinner and entertainment from the resident El Rancho Orchestra, Pierre Carta and his Desert Caballeros, singer Lorraine de Wood, dancer Hoctor, and Petite Chiquita, who specialized in “dances from South of the Border.”

The real star, though, might have been the roast-beef cart: The two inches of rock salt that coated the beef was touted as bringing out its true flavor, and the charcoal smoldering underneath gave the festivities the aroma of a real cowboy cookout.

The guests were anything but country, though. They included a series of bankers, businessmen, and luminaries from California and Nevada. The husband-and-wife film legends Rex Bell (the cowboy) and Clara Bow (the It Girl) had ridden out from the Walking Box Ranch. The former All-American USC quarterback Marshall Duffield made an appearance.

The hotel didn’t take long to find its feet. Later in the year, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the hotel “combines the charm and open-handed hospitality of the Old West with the convenience of today,” and enthused that “informal dress is always in season, with cowboy and cowgirl outfits, blue jeans, yachting clothes, riding habits, Stetsons and bandanas all in high favor.”

It was of Las Vegas, but definitely not in Las Vegas. That same Times article recommended that those seeking recreation beyond the Rancho’s own casino and pool try bathing and aquaplaning at Lake Mead, skiing at Mount Charleston, and, tellingly, “sight-seeing in the rip-roarin’ town of Las Vegas close by.” You could almost smell the sawdust from the rough downtown joints, but there was no danger of any of it blowing into the pool. El Rancho was an immediate success, drawing a mix of gamblers, divorce-seekers waiting out their six-week residency, honeymooners, and the simply curious.

And then something even better happened, at least for the occupancy rate: A war broke out. The United States’ December 1941 entry into World War II meant business for Las Vegas, with federal dollars—and a stream of visitors—flowing toward the Las Vegas Army Airfield (the forerunner of Nellis Air Force Base) and Basic Magnesium, the Henderson factory that produced the wartime-critical metal. So 1942 and 1943 were dark years for Allied forces in Europe and the Pacific, but they were positively happy ones for El Rancho Vegas.

Still, Thomas Hull found the hotel hard to manage. He’d expanded his California operations rapidly, and was usually directing his empire from Los Angeles. Hull found keeping tabs on his Las Vegas outpost harder than he’d imagined. In 1942, despite full rooms, he sold the hotel to Joe Drown, the first of many owners and operators the property would see over the next several years.

Meanwhile, the Strip was growing to the south. R.E. Griffith and his nephew, Bill Moore, opened the Hotel Last Frontier in 1942. Four years later, Los Angeles nightlife impresario Billy Wilkerson started construction on the Hotel Flamingo—a job finished under the iron rule of Ben Siegel, who needs no introduction. The Thunderbird and Desert Inn—opening in 1948 and 1950, respectively—confirmed it: Highway 91 was the future. And by the mid-1950s—after the opening of the Royal Nevada, Dunes and Riviera—it was the unquestioned center of the action. At decade’s end, the Los Angeles Highway had become such an integral part of Las Vegas that the county renamed the roadway Las Vegas Boulevard. For a while already, locals and tourists alike had been calling it “the Strip.”

Hull’s sale of El Rancho Vegas didn’t sour him on Las Vegas; he continued to visit the town and even had a small stake in the Flamingo hotel for a time. He got the star treatment here until his 1964 death. It would take a few more decades, and the gradual inflation of the legend of Bugsy Siegel, for Hull to fade from popular memory.

After the sale, El Rancho Vegas thrived on the Strip—for a while at least. Under owner Beldon Katleman, who assumed control in 1947, the property found its feet and got a thorough renovation (the Strip’s first), swapping out cowboy rustic for frontier French provincial.

But soon—even after it expanded to 220 rooms—the property began having trouble competing with the newer, bigger resorts. The hotel that started a revolution had fallen hopelessly behind. On June 17, 1960, a fire reduced the central building to charred sticks. Katleman announced plans to rebuild, bigger and better, but his insurance company thought the fire was a bit suspicious and never paid off on his policy. When Howard Hughes started buying up pieces of Las Vegas in 1967, Katleman agreed to sell the remaining buildings, which he’d been running as a motel, but then changed his mind. The two wrangled in court until 1970, when Hughes finally took ownership. But soon even the motel operation shut down. The Hughes organization used the structures for warehouse space, and they slowly decayed in the desert sun.

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And yet Las Vegas still bears Thomas Hull’s imprint. For its first four decades, Las Vegas had been a city always on the cusp of something bigger, always searching for an identity. With El Rancho Vegas, Hull showed Las Vegas the future: self-contained pleasure palaces that combined gambling, entertainment and sunny vacations. And all of it far from Fremont Street.

The irony was that for years, downtown power brokers had been clamoring for a first-class hotel as the one thing they’d need to pull Fremont Street together; when they finally got it, it pushed downtown into the background. Had Thomas Hull been a little less daring in his siting of El Rancho Vegas, or a little less determined to build it, it’s possible that the next 70 years would have turned out quite differently.

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