Article appearing in the August issue of "Western Player" magazine. (P. O. Box 231; 7101 - 120th St.; Delta, BC Canada V4E 2N9)
Story of an early casino owner in Nevada - starting in the towns of Tonopah and Goldfield, then moving to Reno. Subject name: Nick Abelman
It was oppressively hot, the sun baking long into the afternoon, and a man, naked from the waist up, stood wilting from the endless assault of heat and dust. He was exhausted and hungry. He toiled on. It had never been this hot along the Duck River in Tennessee where the family had come from.
A few minutes later there was the customary cry of “fire in the hole” as he set a charge between two mated boulders. There was not, however, the customary 10-seconds between the shout and the blast. This time, there was a shout, an immediate blast, and then another shout. Birch MacQuiddy had blown the rocks apart. The rocks had blown his right hand apart, and the noise was deafening, literally.
Hard-rock mining in early Nevada was a tough job, whether you were 150-feet down the Ophir mine at Virginia City (site of the richest silver strike ever), or working the grounds around a possible gold mine and dry panning. In Goldfield, the men out-numbered the women nearly 100 to 1, and that was about the same odds of making even a little scratch in the desert around the new town.
Birch MacQuiddy would continue to do a little prospecting, often nodding his head in agreement even when he couldn’t hear the conversation, but headed to Tonopah soon after his accident. About the same time, Nick Abelman had made the decision many others had; he would go to Nevada to seek a great fortune.
Abelman was in his late twenties when he headed to a “new” Nevada boomtown called Goldfield, coming all the way from Detroit in his own vehicle. He had been saving his nickelodeon profits for two years, and the time was right to enter the mining craze. As always, Nick jumped-in with both feet.
Over the next twenty-years, he would own a piece of some 800 mining claims. He would also become a benefactor to many down on their luck miners. He was the owner of the first stage (auto) line in the mining camps of Goldfield and Tonopah. The mines provided some income, but the Bon-Ton Club, opened in 1907, provided a more steady source of income.
The gold flowed easier at the casino than it did at the mine sites, and within a few years Nick owned a half-dozen bars, each offering games of chance. One of his employees was Birch MacQuiddy, who he would occasionally grub-steak on a mining claim; always on a hand-shake. Later, Birch found the poker tables more to his liking. He became known as “Three-Fingered” Mac, and while the mines didn’t produce much gold, the tables certainly produced enough silver to keep him in whiskey and steaks.
Before moving to Reno in 1927, the list of clubs Nick owned would grow to more than a dozen at such towns as Weepah, Gilbert, Manhatten, Round Mountain and Rhyolite to mention just a few.
Gambling was illegal, but tolerated in all but a few towns. Reno allowed gambling and prostitution with-in 300-feet of each other, and then allowed tables to be placed right inside the old “red-light” district; but the men who frequented the area were more interested in a tumble with a woman for $3 a throw.
As the years passed, Abelman would own such well-know casinos as the Riverside, where he opened a large casino. Most of the casino’s Nick took an interest in were run as partnerships. Steve Pavlovich and Bert Riddick were his main partners, owning many other casinos together, such as the State Line Country Club at South Shore Lake Tahoe (which is now Harrah’s).
Nick was an integral part of the small group of men who decided the fate of those who would come to Reno to open casios. Along with Jim McKay, Bill Graham and George Wingfield, many a long night at the Spanish Springs Ranch would leave a potential new businessman out in the cold, or accepted into the gaming fraternity.
While driving home to Reno from his club at Lake Tahoe one evening, Nick stopped at the Christmas Tree Lodge along the Mt. Rose Highway. He often dropped by for a mahogany-broiled steak, and tonight along with his $7 meal came a $10,000 deal. The owners wanted to expand their small gaming area, and as always, Nick offered the money (which he had on his person, in cash) for nothing more than a hand-shake.
Over the years, Nick would do hundreds of deals based on the hand-shake with another businessman. Nick’s nephew, William Pettite, spent his childhood in Reno and vividly recalls walking with his uncle from his home off California Ave. to the Riverside on Virginia Street. Pettite, who later became an Idaho County Judge believes he was sent along by his Aunt June to keep Nick from making anymore deals.
Nick never had a casino named after him, and his impact on Northern Nevada gambling has been greatly overlooked by those who can only see the “Bill Harrah’s” and “Harvey Gross’s ” around them. However, he did kept dozens of clubs running when they needed cash or his management help, and he kept people like “Three-Fingered” Mac in poker and whiskey money. And for that my great-uncle Birch thanks him.