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Wendover


The crew of the Enola Gay trained here to drop the A-Bomb on Japan. The WWII Army Air Corps base is now a warped and tattered remnant, contrasting vividly with the many-splendored present.


The Nevada
Travel Network
Description and History of
Wendover
by David W. Toll

Wendover's luxurious casino resorts huddle at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats.
From The Complete Nevada Traveler, the Affectionate and Intimately Detailed Guidebook to the Most Interesting State in America. Buy the Book Here


ON THE WAY INTO WENDOVER from the west, the freeway tops a rise and then sweeps down toward the Bonneville Salt Flats below. If you pull over to the side of the road at the crest and park for a few minutes, you can study a view unlike anything else in the world. The Salt Flats extend in a broad white plain, the desert's skin stretched tight, as far as the eye can see — and it curves. The horizon line is a clear arc from side to side, and the two stripes of freeway pavement curve away across the alkali toward the vanishing point. Nowhere else on land can you actually see the curvature of the earth.

Columbus was right!

Almost as amazing as its shape is the earth's texture and color here, spread out in horrid immensity: surely the cruelest desert your eyes will ever see. And where the bleached and crusty sea of alkali meets a shoreline of dead brown hills, is Wendover.

Feast your eyes on that scene for a while. You¹ll never forget it.
This remarkable settlement was established in the 1920s when Bill Smith built a gas station beside the road here. The light bulb he erected on a tall pole was only a tiny speck of light in the black desert night, but for years it served westbound motorists as a welcome beacon as they crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats. Thus Wendover developed as an outpost of civilization in the midst of isolation.


Wendover boomed during the war when the Army Air Corps built a bomber training base here. The B-29 crews who dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima trained for their missions here. Some of the base has been converted to civilian use, but most of it has simply been left to warp and tatter in the baking heat and the scouring winds. The roaring engines of the Enola Gay have faded to a distant drone, gone forever from the hot blue sky.

Now a neon cowboy greets the travelers along Interstate 80 and Wendover is booming again. Booming almost beyond description, in fact. Ten years ago Wendover, Utah, looked like a village in Turkey, and Wendover, Nevada, was just the Stateline Club and a lot of substandard employee housing left over from the war. The Rock, they called it.

But the Rock has been upholstered since then. Now Wendover has five large casinos (with two more on the drawing board) and one tiny casino tucked down behind the hill. Bill Smith's old place is a major casino hotel recently renamed the State Line Nugget, and the Montego Bay, across the street — the original Silver Smith — is twice as big. Between them they offer more than 800 rooms and seven ambitious restaurants, ranging from coffee shop through buffet to gourmet restaurant. The Peppermill, Nevada Crossing Rainbow and Red Garter up the street provide customers with more choices, and the Hide-A-Way Casino maintains a popular steak house.

Ten years ago is already "the old days" in Wendover. In those days a sign in the desert grit said, "You missed Las Vegas — Don't Miss Wendover." Now you may have missed Wendover too. The population of Wendover, Utah, has been drifting westward across the border as fast as new housing has been developed in Wendover, Nevada. The elementary school that opened in 1985 was immediately enrolled to capacity with kids whose families moved to town to run businesses in the shopping center overlooking the 18-hole golf course. Wendover's population has moved from 2,500 in 1985 (both states) when development slowed on account of the credit crunch, to 5,500 in 1990. Some of Wendover's newcomers, too, are retired people. They like desert life and that eye-popping view, and the glamor and convenience of the great casinos, with Salt Lake City and all its metropolitan touches just two hours' drive across the curve of the salt flats.

Incorporated as a city (officially West Wendover) in 1991, the little gambling center on the Nevada side is about to expand by 800 acres of residential housing, a large water park and a Factory Outlet mall, and a plan to annex Wendover, Utah, is being debated by voters at press time. There's a two-screen movie house, and as if to validate Wendover's new permanence, a large cemetery has been dedicated on a hill above town. Already it contains a handful of graves, some of them marked.

Wendover resembles an old-time mining town in the way it has sprung vigorously to life in the desert wilderness, progressing from next-to-nothing to rambunctious little city in just a few fast years. Bill Smith's little light bulb would be lost in the glare of Wendover's splashy brilliance now. A few years ago the Stateline Club, its original gaming license issued in 1931, was bankrupted and sold, along with the Silver Smith across the boulevard. They are now the State Line Nugget and Montego Bay respectively.

To stretch your legs, take the short climb to Danger Cave: drive east into Utah on I-80 and take the first offramp to the truckstop. Continue past the truck stop and turn left at the dirt road just beyond. As you drive west, you can see Danger Cave on the hillside off to the left ahead of you. You'll find your way with no trouble. Not far away, but more difficult to reach, is Juke Box Cave, which got its name when it was used for dances by the airmen at the base during WWII. The concrete dance floor still remains, as do petroglyphs near the entrance. This was the venue of choice for dances because it was cool even at the height of summer, and because it could be lighted without breaking the wartime black-out.


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