Golden Bank Casino /
Golden Hotel
219 North Center Street
1935 - 1966
Golden Bank Casino/Golden Hotel
Photo from the Mark Englebretson Collection

James Campiglia
Grade 4

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Doug Deems
Grade 2

Paul J. Gregory
Grade 2

The Golden Hotel was built in 1906 by Frank Golden Sr., a Tonopah banking and mining man, as competition for the Riverside Hotel. The Wingfield bank chain was the lending company for the Golden Hotel, and when Frank Golden died in 1914, the Wingfield family took over ownership and operation of the Golden Hotel and thereby went into competition with themselves as owners of Reno's only other major hotel, the Riverside.

The Golden Hotel did not have a casino of its own until 1947. Prior to that date, certain areas of the hotel were leased out for gambling, and gamblers such as Virgil Smith, Bill Williams, Wayne Martin, and others operated table games and slot machines in the hotel's Golden Bar area in the middle and late 1930s. The bar was operated by Vic Patroni, and Del Hammond was licensed for gambling from June 26, 1935, to July 1, 1947.

In 1946 the Wingfield family decided to sell the Golden Hotel in order to finance the remodeling of the Riverside. The purchasers of the Golden Hotel, who paid $1.5 million in October 1946, were Norman Biltz, James Lloyd Sr., John Mueller, and Henry Bennett. In November 1946 Lloyd was named managing director of the Golden. His group was in charge of the hotel rooms only, because the first floor of the building was leased to the Brunswick Club and the Bank Club.

Early in 1947, Lloyd bought out the lease of the Brunswick Club, and in June he opened the Golden Gulch Casino at that location. It featured a bingo parlor, forty-seven slot machines, a keno game, a roulette table, a horse race book, and showroom entertainment.

In June 1948 the Golden Hotel was sold to Thomas Hull, a widely known hotel man, who in turn leased it to his own organization, the El Rancho Reno. Hull began an extensive remodeling program in July. In October the Golden Hotel opened its Golden Club Theater Restaurant, which featured red-and-white checkered tablecloths and a stage surrounded with old-time gilt-framed pictures and red plush curtains. The cost of the remodeling exceeded $300,000. By January 1949 Hull was gone from the Golden Hotel and the Lloyd group was back in control. In February 1949 the Hull Hotel Corporation declared bankruptcy, but to Hull's credit he paid off all the creditors.

The Lloyd group continued to operate the Golden Hotel and to manage the showroom for the next three years. Some of the entertainers who appeared there included Hilo Hattie in January 1949, Liberace in December 1949, and Max Baer, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Guy Mitchell, and Cab Calloway in 1950 and 1951.

In February 1952 the Golden Hotel closed, and in March 1952 the Golden Hotel and the Bank Club were sold to Frank Hofues for "between five and six million dollars." Bill Graham, no longer in partnership with Jim McKay, negotiated a twenty-year lease with Frank Hofues for the newly created Golden Bank Casino. Graham and David High applied for the gaming license; Graham was okayed in April 1952, but High was deferred and later denied a gaming license. The sale of the Golden Bank was completed on May 3. Hofues paid $6 million, on terms that provided for $1.5 million down; promissory notes to Bill Graham and Jim McKay totaling $3.5 million; and promissory notes of $500,000 each to James Lloyd Sr. and David High.

On May 26, 1952, Bill Graham was licensed at the Bank Club for 272 slot machines, nine craps tables, four roulette wheels, eighteen 21 games, two faro games, one keno game, one pan game, and one cabaret. This licensing was slightly different from his original application in April 1952.

Hofues had spent $350,000 remodeling the Golden during the eleven weeks the hotel was closed. The entire appearance of the hotel was changed, and the Bank Club was refurbished and expanded to make it the largest casino in the world at that time, so far as floor space-40,000 square feet-on one level was concerned. Harolds Club had more total floor space, but it was on three floors. The Golden Bank Hotel-Casino had four hundred employees and the largest payroll in downtown Reno.

Opening the showroom on May 27, 1952, was well-known band leader Cab Calloway. In January 1953 David High, who had never been granted a gaming license, withdrew from any association with the Golden Hotel.

In June 1953 John Drew applied for 25 percent of the Golden Bank for an investment of $100,000. He was said to have been an associate of Al Capone. After extensive questioning, he withdrew his application in September 1953. He reapplied in January 1954, and on April 2, 1954, he was licensed for 25 percent of the Golden Bank.

On February 6, 1954, Frank Hofues sold the Golden Hotel to James and William Tomerlin for $3.5 million. He had paid $6 million for the hotel only two years earlier. The sale had no effect on the gambling lease held by Bill Graham.

On June 28, 1954, the Golden Bank was licensed for twenty-nine table games (including two of the five faro games then operating in the state) and 360 slot machines-an increase of almost 100 slot machines from the original licensing two years earlier.

In December 1954 the state held hearings to look into reports that the Al Capone mob had taken control of the Golden Bank Club. Crime expert Virgil Peterson said that Lester Kruse, a former Al Capone mobster, was brought to the Golden Bank Club by John Drew and was employed there as a pit boss. However, the investigation was inconclusive and no further action was taken.

On December 1, 1955, William and James Tomerlin were granted a gaming license. They had bought the remaining seventeen years on the gaming lease from Bill Graham and John Drew for $425,000. This transaction effectively ended Graham's long Reno gaming career. The Tomerlins, along with twenty-five limited partners, were licensed for four bars, 289 slot machines, two craps games, one roulette game, six 21 games, one poker game, and two pan games. George Smilanick, longtime Reno gambler, was licensed as casino manager, and his pit floor managers included Dick Mackinaw, Ed Hughes, Ed "Swede" Oleson, Dom Stillian, Jack Hoge, Andy Desimone, Sam Goodman, and Doc Ledford. Joe Munley was keno manager, and Percy Kelly was slot manager. During the change of ownership, the property was closed for seven days, from December 1 to December 7. It reopened with 250 employees.

One year later, on December 12, 1956, Dom Stillian was licensed as casino manager. A few months later, in April 1957, the Golden began a major remodeling program, which involved tearing down the brick wall on the west side of the hotel and replacing it with a forty-four-foot fully glassed entrance area topped by a large marquee.

In April 1959 the Tomerlin brothers proudly announced the opening of the Mardi Gras Show Lounge, which included the first sunken bar in Reno. In February 1961 they opened the Gay 90's Saloon and Gambling Hall, located at the corner of Lincoln and Douglas Alleys and featuring gaming as well as a bar.

Tragedy struck the Golden Hotel on April 3, 1962, when a disastrous fire completely destroyed the building. Six people died in the fire.

On May 25, 1962, the Tomerlins announced that construction of a new twenty-four-story hotel would begin the following week. William and James Tomerlin were licensed for 48 percent each, Dom Stillian was licensed for 4 percent, and Charles Welch was licensed as a corporate officer with no investment. The first phase of the new Golden opened on July 3, 1963, with a four-hundred-seat showroom, a two-hundred-seat show lounge, three bars, a casino, and a three-level garage, but no hotel rooms. Opening the Carnival Room was popular singer Buddy Greco. One year later, on July 1, 1964, the Golden opened its new five-hundred-seat Mardi Gras Theater Restaurant with a Barry Ashton production, Playmates in Paris. That opening concluded the first phase of the Golden's reconstruction.

The second phase was to have included a multistory hotel, a swimming pool, a cabana, and a convention hall, but before the second phase was completed, the Tomerlins ran into financial problems and halted construction. Bill Harrah was quick to see the opportunity to purchase the property, and on March 29, 1966, Harrah's Club took possession. The Golden Hotel closed the same day, and three hundred employees were put out of work.

Harrah's reopened the property on June 20, 1966. The former location of the Golden Hotel is now part of Harrah's Hotel-Casino on the west side of Center Street between Second Street and Douglas Alley.

According to Dwayne Kling

Fatal Hotel Fire Threatens Downtown Reno

Explosion and fire took the lives of six people and destroyed the 56-year-old Golden Hotel, in Reno, Nev., on Tuesday morning, April 3. The block in which the hotel is situated had long been considered the greatest fire hazard in the city, and was pointed out as such some years ago by the National Board of Fire Underwriters.

The fire is believed to have started in the basement of the hotel in or near an acetylene torch, with the first alarm transmitted at 6:57 a.m. to the Reno Fire Department. Engines 1 and 3 responded with Battalion Chief Kestell. Upon checking Box 14, and finding that it had not been pulled, Chief Kestell and the companies immediately went to the Golden Hotel which is about a half-block away.

The hotel was equipped with an automatic alarm system, connected to Box 14. Checking the indicator panel boards, Chief Kestell found that the pointers were tipped to the basement and kitchen areas. At this time, a security guard informed him that the fire was in the basement, and led the fire fighters down a corridor to the engineer's section where they found the room entirely involved in flames. The guard also informed the chief that some kind of torch was on fire, and said he believed it to be acetylene. By this time, the captain and crew of Engine 1 had a booster line on the fire, but immediately an explosion occurred, scattering fire in all directions and driving the men from the room.

The chief then sent a second alarm. By this time, Engine 3 had heavy lines stretched and charged, and an attempt was made to enter the room again. But the spread of the fire and the intense heat and smoke made conditions impossible to remain.

By this time, the writer had reached the scene and ordered all possible manpower to search and evacuate the hotel, leaving one crew on the hose lines. Men, with and without breathing apparatus went through the building, sounding the alarm and assisting persons from the building until the heat and smoke became so intense that a human could no longer remain.

During this time, additional personnel and equipment arrived and were placed in various locations surrounding the building and protecting exposures. In a short time the fire had traveled through the structure and was breaking out on the roof. Lines were laid to the standpipes of adjoining buildings and monitors and hand lines operated, pouring water on the roof and through other openings to prevent the fire from spreading. Stead Air Force Base called and offered aid, as did Sparks and Carson City, which was gratefully accepted. Stead sent in manpower and Sparks sent in a pumper and crew who assisted in rescue and fire fighting. Later, Carson City arrived with their new elevating platform to which three hose lines were connected. This apparatus helped the operations greatly.

The fire was under control at approximately 12:30 p.m., but water was poured into the building until 5:00 p.m., at which time all but three nozzles were cut off. The three nozzles were left as a watch line for three days.

During the course of the fire, the upper three floors collapsed, leaving the building a gutted ruin. An inspection of the building remains and rubble disclosed that it was lacking in fire stops and other protection. In its 56 years of existence, the hotel had changed owners many times, all of whom made alterations leading to the creation of blind partitions, dropped ceilings, etc., factors which led to the rapid and unchecked spread of the fire. Except for the outside walls which were brick, construction was wood throughout.

After the fire, a construction firm was hired by insurance adjusters to pull down the dangerously hanging walls. When the walls were pulled down, operations began to recover valuables left by guests in rooms, and in the tables and machines in the casino area. Many items of value were recovered, and construction crews were still working in the debris weeks later. The acetylene equipment in the basement of the hotel, where the fire originated, was partially recovered and placed in lock-up in fire department headquarters pending complete examination, and determination of the fire cause.

During the course of the fire, the Division of Forestry offered to drop water from a Forestry Service tanker-plane, but this was refused when it was learned that all men and equipment would have to be removed from the area surrounding the hotel. The plane did, however, make a practice drop of 150 gallons of water after the fire was under control with the permission of the writer.

Considering the time of occurrence, with an estimated 100 guests asleep in their rooms, it is almost miraculous that only six people succumbed to the fire. Almost miraculous, that is, except for the dedicated fireman who searched through the smoke-filled halls finding and leading people to safety until the heat and smoke became more than man could take.