There are many number one, first, and oldest casinos in Las Vegas, so it helps to narrow things down a bit. The Apache Hotel Casino got its gaming license on January 6, 1932, and went through more than a dozen name changes as owners came and went. Currently, the Apache hotel is part of Binion’s, but it’s been open and closed several times.
The El Cortez near the start of the Fremont Street Experience and Las Vegas Boulevard opened on November 7, 1941, and has been in continuous operation, so it’s old and definitely vintage. But still, there's another casino to consider.
Down at One Fremont Street across from the Plaza Casino –which was originally the Union Plaza in reference to the Union Pacific railroad station that used to be there – sits the Golden Gate casino. It too went through some name changes over the years.
The Hotel Nevada
In 1905, the same year Las Vegas became a city, John F. Miller purchased a parcel of land for $1,750 and opened a tent hotel for new residents moving to the area, the Miller Hotel. A year later, January 13, 1906, the Hotel Nevada officially took its place. Miller also received the first telephone in Las Vegas the next year, but who could call him? There were only 600 residents in the city.
The town was hot, dusty, and about the only traffic to the hotel year came from the railroad station. The city allowed gaming back then, but some concerned citizens decided games of chance weren't in the best interests of citizens of the state. Gaming was outlawed in 1909.
The new law didn’t matter much to people in Las Vegas. They kept riding their horses downtown, lighting 5-cent cigars, and playing poker in the hotel’s lobby. And, that’s the way it stayed until the U.S. government decided to build a huge dam just 35 miles away, although most of the horses had been replaced with cars by the 1920s. Not all of them, but you get the drift.
The lead party for the government took most of the fun out of the downtown area, demanding an end to drinking (which was prohibited by the Volstead Act but still happening) gambling, and prostitution. That severely limited the Hotel Nevada’s chances of staying in business, but they managed to squeak by.
Thankfully, the state of Nevada legalized open gaming in 1931, which meant plenty of action downtown with 3,000 dam workers nearby. Hoover Dam, and Las Vegas, both prospered from change. So did the Hotel Nevada, after it got a gaming license.
In truth, the gaming license was under a new name for the hotel, the Sal Sagev, which is Las Vegas backward. The new casino operated for three years, closing in 1934, which proves even casinos aren’t a sure thing for their owners.
The hotel and the Sal Sagev bar stayed open, bar advertising (One Fremont – phone 609) asked “Why drink old Whiskey? Made fresh daily in the Sal Sagev cellar – pure as a running sewer.”
The Golden Gate Casino
In 1955, Abe P. Miller, who took over the hotel from his father, John, was approved with a group of 23 businessmen to own a new casino and lease it to yet another group of nine people to run the Golden Gate.
The property had a partial rebuilding prior to the reopening and workers found whiskey bottles hidden away from Prohibition days. They were placed on display in the lobby. Today, the casino-hotel is the oldest and smallest – with 106 rooms – on the Fremont Street Experience.
The El Cortez Casino
Back down Fremont Street at the El Cortez, gaming has been in continuous operation for nearly 80 years. The property was built by J. C.Grayson, Marion Hicks, and John Kell Houssels as the downtown area’s first major resort and opened November 7, 1941. The cost of the building, at just $245,000 pales in comparison to how much profit it made in the years to come.
In 1945, Gus Greenbaum, Moe Sedway, and Dave Berman approached Houssels about purchasing the El Cortez. They were well-connected to the Mob, but legitimate businessmen, so Houssels asked for $600,000. While waiting for the cash to arrive, Dave Berman took a room at the Sal Sagev hotel with his brother, “Chickie”.
Berman was freshly removed from the gaming scene in Minneapolis, and his share of the purchase price was $200,000. When it arrived, he put “Chickie” in charge of the cash and spent time at the Las Vegas Club, soon to be another Mob joint.
That evening, “Chickie” managed to lose the entire $200,000 shooting craps and left his brother with nothing but an empty satchel. Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel put a contract out on “Chickie’s” life, but his brother squeezed another 200k out of his partners in Minneapolis and when the cash arrived, the contract disappeared. No harm, no foul, as long as the deal got done.
The Mob’s First Resort in Vegas
Although the Mob had a share of several small clubs in LasVegas, the El Cortez was their first full ownership. They bought just in time to enjoy Billy Wilkerson, owner-editor of The Hollywood Reporter, blowing his brains out at the craps table every weekend. Wilkerson was trying to quit gaming and build his own casino, but whenever he got a loan from friends like Howard Hughes, he’d toss away another $100,000 in an evening’s gaming at the El Cortez.
As things worked out, Bugsy Siegel took an interest in Wilkerson's partially completed casino building on what became The Las Vegas Strip and invested his (and his partner’s) money in the project. When costs skyrocketed out of control and there was no more cash to meet the bills, Siegel sold the El Cortez back to Houssels for $766,000 and put the money into what became the Flamingo Casino.
To help make the payment, Houssels sold his interest in land on Highway 91 so Marion Hicks and Clifford A. Jones could build their Thunderbird Hotel, which also became a Mob casino, but that’s another story.
The El Cortez lost its star power as larger properties opened on The Strip but stayed profitable. Las Vegas gaming legend Jackie Gaughan purchased the property and added the Pavilion Rooms. A 15-story tower was built in 1980 and in 2009 the resort added their 64-room Cabana Suites.
Jackie Gaughn lived in the El Cortez’s tower penthouse and walked the casino daily for the rest of his life. His son, Michael Gaughan, managed many of his father’s casinos over the years and owns the South Point Hotel in Las Vegas.