Harvey’s Wagon Wheel and the Bombing of 1980

Nothing was more shocking in my gaming career than the bombing of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino at South Shore Lake Tahoe in 1980. To be accurate, I wasn’t working there. I was spending the end of summer playing blackjack for a living. As a part-time member of Ken Uston’s blackjack team, I made good money. As an independent player, I had a small bankroll (usually about two grand), and my bets varied from $2 to $20 or $5 to $50.

Based on those limits, I made about $10 an hour, which wasn’t bad since a room at the Green Lantern motel was $19, a meal at Monk’s pizza was $6, and my car was paid for. Later I stayed at South Shore with my buddy Pat Berry off Stateline on Sunrise. Back then our rent was $200 each per month!

As for Harvey’s, the casino opened back in 1946 after Harvey and Llewellyn Gross built a small bankroll from their small market at the South Lake Tahoe state line. It grew in leaps and bounds, trying to stay ahead of the competition, which by the 1950s mainly was Harrah’s, which had a property to Harvey’s east (previously George’s Gateway Club – as well as Tony’s Club and Dopey Norman’s), and the newish Harrah’s Tahoe, which was a conglomeration of the Main Entrance, Beecher’s Nevada Club, and the Stateline Country Club.  

Harvey and Llewellyn saved their cash and built the first high-rise at the lake in 1962. It still looked the same from this side of the property when I started playing there. Summers were great, but snowfall often made travel almost impossible during winter. Harvey’s employees got rooms at $8 a night when the roads closed, and they were often generous to tipping blackjack players like me (the dealers, not the casino).

I was at the Lake when Harvey’s was bombed by John Birges, his sons, two accomplices, and his girlfriend. Birges lost $800,000 at Harvey’s and wanted cash – not revenge, just money to gamble with. So, he built a crazy bomb with his son John and then delivered the 1,000-pound device filled with dynamite he and his sons stole from the Helms power plant.

While Harvey’s personnel and later the Douglas County Bomb Squad and FBI were unable to defuse the bomb, they negotiated for instructions to keep the resort unscathed. Birges wanted $3 million, and an FBI agent flew a helicopter to Ice House road near Placerville but couldn’t find the extortionists to deliver the cash.

In reality, the FBI was patrolling nearby, and the cash was three satchels of cut paper with a few $100 bills stuck to the tops. Regardless, the ransom wasn’t delivered, and the bomb squad tried to disable the bomb with a carefully placed shape charge.

Instead of stopping the bombing, the charge shook a mercury switch that detonated it. The results were horrendous.

Later, the FBI found Birges Sr. in the white van he and Willis Brown, and Terry Hall used to deliver the bomb. Eventually, sons John and Jim pleaded out, gave up the suspects (including the father’s girlfriend Joan Williams), and were released. Everyone else got jail time. Dad died in prison in 1996 at the age of 74.

Harvey’s, on the other hand, was rebuilt to new splendor. In 1985, Harvey’s built an 18-story hotel tower with an additional 500 rooms. Harvey’s was purchased by Harrah’s – Caesar’s Entertainment in 2001.

As for my favorite memories, other than turning small stacks of chips into more giant stacks and snowy winter nights stock at the property, I went for breakfast one morning in the early ‘80s and found an entire wall covered by casino chips.

The enclosed display was huge – hundreds of amazing Nevada gaming chips curated by Howdy Herz – a consummate gaming historian. The display prompted me to collect more chips, find more gaming stories, and even write some books. Thanks, Howdy!

If you want more pictures and a YouTube video on the bombing, check me out.

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