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Turning Back the Clock: The Thunderbird

April 11, 2012 at 12:16 PM | by | ()

We love Las Vegas and part of that is loving Las Vegas’ history. So while we enjoy telling you what we love about Vegas and keeping you up-to-date on what's going on, we would like to take some time to look back at Vegas past. Today, we continue a monthly series on shuttered (but not forgotten) Las Vegas hotels and casinos. We hope you enjoy the stroll down memory lane.

The Thunderbird Hotel and Casino was the brainchild of attorney Cliff Jones and contractor Marion Hicks. After striking out on buying a hotel in Reno, they set their sights on Las Vegas. With two hotels open on Highway 91 (now Las Vegas Blvd), they bought the land across from the El Rancho Vegas to build their dream casino.

The Thunderbird was named after a Navajo legend meaning the sacred bearer of unlimited happiness. The casino itself was designed to be cozy and homelike to make patrons feel comfortable. The Thunderbird opened on September 2, 1948 and patrons won so much money on opening night that Hicks and Marion almost lost their hotel.

The property was an immediate success, gaining notoriety for some of the best service in Las Vegas. In 1952, the owners built a sister property for the Thunderbird, called the Algiers, which was a small motel right next door. Patrons were given all the same perks as staying that the Thunderbird.

In 1955, the owners expanded the casino and moved it closer to Las Vegas Boulevard. Later that year, they had their casino license briefly revoked as the FBI believed that they had ties to mobster Meyer Lansky. In 1963, they built the Thunderbird Downs racetrack behind the hotel. It was only open for three years before being shut down. In 1964, the owners sold the Thunderbird to Del Webb for $9.5 million.

Del Webb remodeled the Thunderbird in 1965. Along with this expansion came a complete rework of the Strip frontage creating a neon billboard with the name Thunderbird large and prominent. The neon Thunderbird itself was moved to a new pilar out in front of the casino, almost watching over Las Vegas Boulevard.

The owner of the Dunes, Major Riddle, purchased the Thunderbird in 1977 and completely remodeled the front facade of the building. Along with the remodel came a new name, The Silverbird.

In 1981, the casino again changed hands as Ed Torres bought the property. He completed another remodel to the casino’s exterior and renamed it El Rancho after the original Las Vegas property that burnt down across the street in 1960. The El Rancho was never much of a success and in July 1992 it shut its door permanently.

The owners had originally planned to build El Rancho’s Countryland USA on the lot, complete with two giant boot shaped towers. These plans never materialized and the property changed hands several times until Turnberry Associates bought the land in 2000. They imploded the El Rancho and planned to build their Turnberry Condominiums on the back half of the property and seek out a partner for a hotel and casino on the front half.

They eventually partnered to build the Fontainebleau Resort and Casino on the front half of the property. Groudbreaking began on the property in August 2007 but stopped in February 2009 after the banks began to refuse financing to finish the resort. The unfinished resort was bought out of bankruptcy by Carl Icahn for $150 million. The building is still standing there, 70 percent complete. Its future is uncertain.

(PHOTOS: Vintage Vegas on flickr, thechipboard.com)

Archived Comments:


I love these features... I'll be very interested to see what will ever become of the fontainebleau. I have a sneaking suspicion it will be dismantled and the steel sold for scrap.


Thanks for the kind words!  I completely agree it will be scrapped.  Las Vegas won't be able to support an influx of rooms like that and the location is terrible.  Developers of the North strip (think Stardust, Frontier, Fontainebleau, Sahara sites) need to get creative with that land if they want to develop something sometime soon.

Great Series

Wonderfully informative.  Please don't stop this series.


We have no plans to stop! We enjoy it greatly, too.