If walls could talk: Reno’s William J. Graham House
April 5, 2018
Few people driving on California Avenue through the historic Newland Heights neighborhood of Old Southwest Reno give a second glance to the tidy Tudor Revival house sitting on the corner of California and Gordon avenues.
But the house, now a lawyer's office, was the longtime home of William J. Graham, a once prominent Reno casino owner who, along with his partner, James McKay, were influential power brokers/gamblers/gangsters in the city during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.
During their heyday, Graham and McKay were often referred to as "sportsmen" in the local media, a term often used to politely describe professional gamblers. Veteran Reno journalist and historical writer Dennis Myers has written that the two had "their fingers in many financial pots and were as dangerous as cobras."
Graham, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1891, first partnered with McKay, who was born in Virginia City in 1888, in the mining boomtowns of Tonopah and Goldfield. The two worked in a variety of enterprises, including running the Big Casino Club in Tonopah, before relocating to Reno in about 1920.
In 1922, Graham and McKay bought and operated "The Willows," an elegant nightclub (on Mayberry Road west of the city) that became known as the primary gathering place for those seeking a Reno divorce. Additionally, they established the Bank Club in downtown Reno, which quickly became the largest casino in the world (at a time when gambling was illegal in the city).
While in central Nevada, Graham and McKay also befriended the powerful George Wingfield, a mining and banking operator who for a time was considered the richest man in the state. Wingfield, in fact, persuaded the two to move to Reno when he shifted his operations from the two mining towns to the Biggest Little City in the World.
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In addition to their gambling operations in Reno, Graham and McKay, through their real estate holding company known as Riverside Securities, owned the land under the city's notorious "red light" district, the Stockade.
It's also been reported that Graham and McKay had many underworld friends who occasionally would hide out in Reno while the FBI or other law enforcement officials were looking for them in other parts of the country.
Among their guests in the late '20s and early '30s were well-known criminals like John Dillinger, Lester "Baby Face" Nelson, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, and Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd. These "friends" found that for the right price the gambling clubs of Graham and McKay were useful for laundering money that law enforcement officials might otherwise be able to trace.
While apparently no evidence ever directly linked Wingfield's banks to Graham and McKay's activities, it has been pointed out that those banks often served as willing partners in their legal and illegal enterprises, including loaning money to Graham and McKay.
Graham and McKay's empire began to crumble in the mid-1930s. At a time when Wingfield was fighting for his own financial life as a result of bank failures caused by bad loans, exacerbated by the national financial crisis of the Great Depression, Graham and McKay found themselves fighting to stay out of jail.
On Jan. 31, 1934, the two were indicted on federal charges of mail fraud for their part in an elaborate "bunco" scam that swindling gullible investors out of an estimated $2.5 million.
In the end, following three trials (the first two ended with a hung jury), Graham and McKay were convicted of four counts of mail fraud and conspiracy. The pair was fined $11,000 each and sentenced to nine years in federal prison (they would serve just under six years each).
In 1950, at the request of Nevada's U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, Graham and McKay received full presidential pardons from President Harry Truman.
After returning to Reno from prison, the two resumed operating the Bank Club. In 1952, however, they dissolved their long partnership in the operation and McKay effectively retired (he died in 1962 following a lengthy illness).
Graham continued his involvement in several Reno casinos and hotels until the mid-1950s, when he, too, sold his interests and quietly dropped out of the limelight. He and his wife, Bertha, continued to live in the house until his death, in 1965, and her death, in 1968.
The 548 California Ave., house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983, was designed by prominent California architect George A Shastey for the Grahams. Completed in 1928, the structure was built of brick with half-timbered stucco gables.
When the home was sold by the Graham estate in 1969, the new owner discovered escape routes installed by Graham from different parts of the house and that the original tile-faced lobby fireplace had never been used and was stuffed with 1929 newspapers.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada unique.