On the surface, the town of Wendover doesn’t appear to be a place with much history. But look a little closer and you’ll find there’s far more than meets the eye.
In fact, Wendover, located on the Nevada-Utah state boundary, can trace its roots to Jedediah Smith, the first non-Native American to visit Nevada. In 1827, Smith is believed to have crossed the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats while returning from an expedition to the future state of California.
In pre-historic times, the area around Wendover was actually beneath Lake Bonneville, a large inland sea that covered western Utah and Eastern Nevada, according to historian Ronald R. Bateman, who wrote an area history a few years ago that was entitled, “Wendover: Winds of Change.”
In 1833, fur trapper Zenas Leonard journeyed through the area and wrote that he had seen a tall mountain (10,715-feet) covered with snow (now known as Pilot Peak Mountain), which he said stood out because it appeared to be unconnected to any other mountain range.
Later, many emigrant wagon parties camped in the area during their journey to Oregon and California. Pilot Peak, which has natural springs at its base, served as a guide for those traveling across the barren salt flats.
The community of Wendover finds its roots much later, in the early 20th century, when the Western Pacific Railroad established the town, complete with a roundhouse, depot, water tower and other services in 1907. The first train to reach Wendover arrived two years later.
For several decades, Wendover was a sleepy hamlet that mostly catered to rail traffic and, starting in the 1920s, to automobile travelers on the Lincoln and Victory highways, which passed through the community.
In 1914, a man named Teddy Tezlaff drove a Blitzen Benz automobile as fast as he could on the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats, becoming the first person to attempt to establish a land-speed record (his unofficial time was 141.73 miles per hour) on the flats.
The town’s first travel-related business was established in 1926, when Bill Smith and Herman Eckstein opened the Cobblestone Service Station and put a light bulb on a pole in front that was never turned off. They called it “the light in the desert.”
In 1932, Smith and Eckstein added a roulette table, becoming the first gaming establishment in Wendover.
According to Ronald Bateman, the Second World War was a very significant event in the town’s history because in 1940-41, the Wendover Bombing and Gunnery range was opened and over the next few years it grew substantially larger as additional companies of troops were sent to the region for training.
In 1944, Wendover was selected to be the training ground for the 509th Composite Group, a top-secret contingent of troops that prepared for an atomic bomb mission to Japan. On August 6, 1945, the group’s commander, Colonel Paul Tibbets Jr. piloted the Enola Gay, which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, which effectively ended the war.
An impressive stone and bronze monument has been erected adjacent to the Wendover Visitors Center to commemorate the men who worked on this project and as a monument to peace.
Additionally, the hills around Wendover have been painted with graphitti, much of which was painted during World War II by airmen and soldiers. In some cases, you can still read the numerical insignias of the various troop companies.
More recently, Wendover has grown as a result of thrill-seekers and tourists. The Bonneville Salt Flats, located a few miles from Wendover, has hosted a number of land speed record attempts over the years.
Additionally, several large resort-casinos were constructed in West Wendover (the Nevada side of the settlement) in the 1980s, which helped transform the town from sleepy last-stop-before-you-leave-Nevada into a popular gaming destination for travelers on Interstate 80.
One of Wendover’s most recognizable landmarks is Wendover Will, a 64-foot-tall, neon cowboy sign erected adjacent to the Stateline Casino in 1952. In 2005, the big buckaroo was renovated and moved to a new location near the Wendover Visitors Center to serve as the community’s official goodwill ambassador.
In addition to the hotels, Wendover still has a handful of landmarks that recall its time as an important airbase during World War II. Southeast of the main section of the town is the Wendover airbase. You can still find some of the old hangers that housed the airplanes of the 509th Composite Group during the war.
In recent years, the buildings have appeared in several motion pictures including the 1996 science fiction thriller “Independence Day.”
For more information about Wendover, contact the West Wendover Tourism and Convention Bureau, 735 Wendover Boulevard, West Wendover, NV 89883, 1-866-299-2489, http://www.westwendovercity.com/visguide/tourism.php.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.