Nevada's Richest Man - George Wingfield
The King of Nevada
No man had more sway over the expansion of Nevada business and politics in the early 20th century than George Wingfield. Over the years he was variously considered a brilliant mastermind of business as well as a corrupt, conniving crook.
Still, through a series of misadventures and some good luck and timing, the opportunistic and often ruthless Wingfield came to own land, buildings, even banks, and political influence before he was thirty years old. It was anything but easy.
He was born into a poor family in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on August 16, 1876. The Wingfield family moved to Lakeview, Oregon, after George's fifth sibling was born, and the children lived a tough existence, but George chaffed at a life of ranching. He quit school at 15 and wandered to Reno, Nevada, to work as a jockey. He grew much too big.
To eat, he played poker, and then joined a cattle drive to Winnemucca, Nevada, at 19, where he settled down.
Fortunately, he was a better poker player than a jockey, and in two years, he built his winnings to $40,000. That near-fortune allowed him to open a saloon in Golconda, but the town went bust, and so did George. A year later, he limped back into Winnemucca and borrowed $1,000 from his friend George S. Nixon, a local banker. It was enough to get started again, and Wingfield headed back to Reno and then on to Nevada's latest boomtown, Tonopah, where he again played poker and grubstaked miners.
Rich Tonopah Strikes
The town of Tonopah turned a few men rich, but most scuffled about the streets after spending their meager earnings from mining claims spread across the hills. Ragged tents dotted the landscape. In town, in a fancy house, George Wingfield made money selling questionable mines and bankrolling the good ones.
He and George S. Nixon, a US Senator, were the most successful mine owners. They bought real estate, saloons, and financed businessmen like Jack Carrey and Nick Abelman to open gambling houses in hotels they owned. One of the most successful casinos, the Tonopah Club, ran hot and heavy action day and night. The few miners who struck gold and silver riches usually lost them at the tables of chance. The casino itself was open until the 1960s.
Local business people also profited from mining claims that traded on the Tonopah Stock Exchange. Many of those claims were in Goldfield, a few miles away. Most were worthless.
Although only 36 hearty miners called the snowy mountain plateau home in 1903, the town swelled to 1,000 residents a year later, about the time Wyatt Earp's brother Virgil (and his wife Allie) arrived. Virgil took a job as deputy sheriff of Esmeralda County.
Along with the miners came business people, writers, lawyers, bankers, and labor unions. By 1906, Goldfield was Nevada's largest city, with over 25,000 inhabitants. The largest employer in town was the Goldfield Consolidated Mines Company, owned by Wingfield and Nixon.
Slowly the duo squeezed their workforce to get the local unions to bow to their demands. When that didn't work, they briefly shuttered the mines and fired the workers. Holstered pistols and bodyguards became commonplace, even after the partners convinced President Teddy Roosevelt to send US Army troops to "quell the violence" of the now striking miners.
After a special meeting of the Nevada legislature was called and the Nevada State Police organized, the mine owners were able to rehire workers at reduced wages. By that time, Nixon and Wingfield were worth more than $25 million each. Much of that through interesting manipulation of mostly unregulated mining stock.
With that hefty bankroll and a desire to improve his social standing, Wingfield married San Francisco banker Robert B. Murdoch's daughter, Maude Azile.
Goldfield, Nevada - After the Boom
Off To Reno
Wingfield's new wife was a Bay Area socialite, hardly impressed with Goldfield. Together they agreed on Reno, 90 miles north, as their new home. For George, real estate purchases in Reno followed his previous success in Tonopah. He bought the best locations in town and leased them to saloons owners, and although gaming was illegal in Reno, he leased several buildings to casino managers who kicked back a 15 percent cap.
Back in Tonopah, Nick Abelman had great success with the Tonopah Club, Bon-Ton Club, Cobwebs, and The Big Casino. Wingfield's former bodyguards, Jim McKay and Bill Graham, were brought into Abelman's clubs to learn the gaming industry before heading to Reno to open similar clubs for Wingfield. Together, they ran for decades. Reno as a Mob
Late ‘20s Crash
Nevada's mining industry slowed in the 1920s, but Wingfield's empire grew to include the state's largest banks. He invested money to rebuild the Riverside hotel and opened the Riverside bank before leasing out the casino to Nick Abelman.
Unfortunately, one of Wingfield's bank managers, Henry Clapp, bought risky stocks with money he embezzled from the bank. Over eight years, Clapp lost more than $500,000 before he was caught. The story of the loss made its way to the local newspapers, making Wingfield's banks unstable, but that was nothing compared to the Crash of '29 that sent Wingfield's empire into bankruptcy in 1932.
The banking fiasco and loss of unprotected funds led Reno citizens who had lost their savings to dump garbage on the once stately estate of George Wingfield. Through a bankruptcy plan, Wingfield managed to hold on to his beloved Riverside hotel, his home, and little else. Nick Abelman purchased his 640-acre Spanish Springs Ranch at auction and gifted it back to Wingfield, but the times had changed.
1930s Riverside Hotel
Wingfield had just enough political power left to help Bill Graham push for votes on Nevada's Senate floor to get the 1931 open gambling bill passed, and Reno moved out of the depths of the Great Depression before most cities in the United States. As the 1940s dawned, Reno became the place to gamble in the US, long before Las Vegas and the Mob were famous. After a decade of instability and heartache, Wingfield became solvent and relevant again.
Although his political connections evaporated, he lived out the remaining twenty years of his life once again a successful business owner. He passed away on December 24, 1959.
Wingfield left an indelible, although tarnished, mark on Nevada that lives on today. Wingfield Park rests near the Virginia Street Bridge, a beautiful stretch of flowers and gardens along the Truckee River. It has been enjoyed by locals and visitors alike for decades.