Nick Abelman – A Gambling Man
Nathan “Nick” Abelman was an early pioneer of the Nevada casino and gambling industry and is best known as the owner of the Riverside casino in Reno. He is shown to the far left in this photo from the 1930s with Heavyweight Boxing Champ Max Baer dealing some blackjack.
Abelman operated casinos for 44 years before passing away on December 15, 1951. He also owned the Waldorf and Ship and Bottle casinos in Reno, the Christmas Tree casino on Mount Rose, and the Tahoe Village and Stateline Country Club (which became Harrah’s Tahoe) at South Lake Tahoe.
Abelman’s Early Life
Abelman’s family arrived in Chicago from Kovno, Lithuania, and found what most immigrant families found: hard work in the stockyards, corruption, saloons, and gambling. To escape the harsh conditions, his parents, Harrison and Lena, moved Mary, Philip, Joseph, and Nick to Bessemer, Michigan, in 1890 to join older son Abraham. Ironically enough, at the age of twenty, Nick took what little he had saved and invested in a saloon with his friend, Clarence McLean. The partnership lasted two years and the club offered poker tables and bar-top gaming devices like the Clawson three-pocket jackpot slot and a nickel- operated roulette machine
After the partner’s lease ended, Abelman moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he again invested in saloons, but the corruption and violence of the town left him frustrated and longing for a new start, which he found 2,300 miles away in the mining towns of Nevada.
Arrival in Goldfield, Nevada
Abelman arrived in Goldfield, Nevada, in 1904 and found a dry, dusty town where his automobile was a rare commodity. He immediately began a jitney service and drove local mine owners like George Wingfield about town and out to mining sites. The friendship would be profitable for both men, Abelman becoming successful while Wingfield became the richest, most powerful man in the state.
Over the next twenty years, Abelman opened successful gambling houses in every Northern Nevada boomtown. Towns like Tolicha, Rawhide, Bullfrog, Weepah, and Manhattan, came and went, but Goldfield and the saloons in Tonopah remained a steady source of income until the 1920s. Clubs like the Cobwebs, Bon-Ton Club, The Big Casino, and Tonopah Club were favorites of miners and townsfolk. Abelman ran each casino, but real-estate magnate Wingfield owned the buildings and took a cut of the profits.
Wingfield also asked Abelman to put two of his bodyguards, Jim McKay and Bill Graham, to work at the clubs. Both were capable, loyal, and ruthless. They moved to Reno, Nevada, when Wingfield did, to open saloons and gambling halls, even though prohibition was still in force and gambling was illegal in the town of Reno. Prostitution was legal, and the three men profited greatly from their ownership of the local red-light district, The Stockades.
Reuniting with George Wingfield in Reno
In 1927, Wingfield asked Abelman to move to Reno. As chronicled in Mob City: Reno, Abelman brought along his partners, Bert Riddick and Steve Pavlovich, and together they opened Reno first plush casino, the Ship and Bottle, complete with the prow of a boat facing the Center Street traffic. The club attracted Hollywood starlets and boxing champs like Jack Dempsey and Max Baer.
In 1932, the partners moved into the Wingfield-owned Riverside hotel and took over the small casino, the Riverside Buffet. The Riverside would become one of the most famous and successful casinos of the 1930s and 1940s. Abelman sold his interest in the Riverside casino to Mert Wertheimer in 1949.
Abelman hated the telephone, not wanting the local operators to hear his discussions, so trusted associates like Fran Pettite often relaid messages. Fran was the nephew of June Pettite, Nick’s second wife, and later worked as a pit boss at the Waldorf Club and the Mapes as well as other casinos in Reno.
For several years, Nick owned and operated a club on Plumas Street called the Willow Club, as well as casinos in California towns. He also owned clubs at Lake Tahoe, including the Christmas Tree Lodge on Mount Rose Highway (1940’s), the Tahoe Village (1940’s), and the Stateline Country Club, purchased from Cal Custer in 1931.
The Stateline Country Club grew into a very popular casino that ran during the summer season each year at Lake Tahoe. According to the book, The Roots of Reno, Abelman sold his interest in the casino after 15 years to Nick and Eddie Sahati for $400,000. The brothers changed the name to Sahati’s Stateline Club, and Bill Harrah purchased the casino five years later and built Harrah’s Tahoe on the site.
During his time in Reno, Abelman continued to invest in mining claims in Northern Nevada, grubstaked miners, and partnered with many local casino owners. Chips from his casinos are now classics of the chip collecting hobby. He was still a gaming license holder at the Waldorf Club when he passed away in 1951.