Reno’s Bank Club casino opened in the Golden Hotel basement in 1929. The property was owned by George Wingfield, Nevada’s richest man with a net worth of $50 million dollars in the early part of the 20th century due to his mining success in the towns of Goldfield and Tonopah. His exploits and Reno’s growth are detailed in The Roots of Reno.
Winfield got a cut of the profits each Wednesday, while William Graham and James McKay took care of the casino. While McKay was more reticent, Graham was a powerful man ready to let you know his opinion on sports, politics, even the stock market. When tempers flared, Graham was known to beat down any dissenters.
A Killing at the Haymarket club in Reno
Even before the Bank Cub was popular Graham added to the notches on his gun belt by shooting Blackie McCracken at the Haymarket club just down Douglas Alley from the Bank Club. There had been an argument, and after Graham broke McCraken’s nose, he struggled his way home and got a gun.
When he returned, he burst in the door and took aim at Graham. Two gunshots rang out, one hit Graham in the arm. Then Bill Graham calmly drew his revolver and took three shots while Blackie realized his gun had jammed. Graham’s third shot found its mark, killing McCracken with a bullet to the heart.
Gaming was illegal (in public view), but in 1931 with Graham’s heavy-handed help, the Nevada legislature legalized open gaming and the Bank Club happily moved their small casino from the basement to the main floor, eventually occupying 5,000 square feet for slot machines, craps, poker, chuck-a-luck, and a steady Faro game. Roulette and blackjack soon followed.
Graham and McKay also owned and operated the Cal-Neva Lodge at Lake Tahoe, and the lake’s attraction made the seasonal property as financially successful as the year-round operation of the Bank Club in Reno.
To supplement the small Reno establishment, Graham and McKay were more than happy to see the Midwest’s finest mobsters like Alvin Karpis, Doc Barker, Fred Barker, and even Ma Barker heading to town with hot loot in need of laundering. Graham charged a floating scale for bank and kidnapping cash as high as 25%.
When Doc Barker showed up with $200k from the kidnapping of St. Paul banker Edward Bremer, Graham turned him down. The money was too hot – marked by the FBI, and even at a 50-50 split Graham declined. He did forward $7,000 to Barker to share with his family for being such a steady customer.
Next up with George “Baby Face” Nelson, who worked for Tex Hall at the Cal-Neva Lodge and then ran interference for Graham and McKay before switching to bodyguard duties. He hated it. He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to do some rum running. More on his story and the Reno crime wave are found in Mob City: Reno.
Bill Graham and James McKay of Reno Bank Club Fame Jailed in 1939
In 1939, Graham and McKay were jailed for their many legal missteps, and Jack Sullivan took the reins at the Bank Club. The club did well enough for Graham to earn nearly 1.3 million while in jail! The boys were paroled in ’45.
Wingfield sold the Golden Hotel for $1.5 million in 1946, but the casino stayed open. Sullivan sold his share in 1950 for $500,000. McKay sold his shares to Graham in 1952. During that time the hotel was purchased by Thomas Hull, who owned the El Rancho Vegas, but he found the red-line district (an area local casino owners considered acceptable for clubs and kept city councilpersons from voting for expanded gaming beyond) too small for adequate expansion. He sold to Frank Hofues in 1952.
Next came Chicago-connected John Drew, who was licensed for 25-percent of the now Golden Bank Casino in 1954. Chicago Outfit boss Tony Accardo got payments in the six-figures as his cut, backed up by new hire from Chicago Lester “Killer” Kruse as a pit boss.
Later, Graham and Drew sold their interests to Bill and James Tomerlin, who ran the property as The Golden. It was a hit until the property caught fire April 3rd, 1962, and burned beyond repair. The site became Harrah’s hotel tower in 1969. Unfortunately, even Harrah’s casino is now gone from Reno.
For a more detailed accounting and many photos of the Bank Club, check out the Nevada Gaming History Bank Club YouTube Special. If you like the video, you might also like The Roots of Reno on Audible!
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