The Making of Modern Nevada
Hal K. Rothman, University of Nevada Press
I owe Hal K. Rothman a debt of gratitude. I’m never going to be able to repay him because the distinguished professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas died in 2007.
I’ve lived in Nevada since 1984. I took a Nevada history course at the University of Nevada, Reno. I’ve been doing journalism professionally since 1993. I’m kind of a news junkie, but I’ve never really had Nevada’s historic dots connected for me in a way that led me to a clear understanding as to how Nevada came to be in its current financial, educational and political mess. This book did that.
So I owe Rothman a debt. It’s sort of like the debt of gratitude a person would owe his or her physician after a diagnosis of inoperable pancreatic cancer.
The very readable book is essentially a history. It begins slightly before the first white explorers reach Nevada. The book is in eight chapters that advance through time, each of which hit on the primary powerbrokers of the particular period.
Rothman has one premise: Nevada is a colony. It’s run by whomever has the most money—be they foreign or domestic. That’s why, even as the economy booms, Nevada does not move forward. The predominate industry never seeks to tax itself to advance the state’s social needs, like education or infrastructure.
To begin at the beginning, in the early days of exploration, there was little in the area to encourage settlement, which ensured transience, the exportation of what resources were found, and expensive importation of necessities. Utah was the territory’s foreign master but primarily used the geography for political purposes. Then came the discovery of silver and gold in California and then Nevada. California banks took over the ownership of Nevada, dueling for a time with the state’s Mormon masters. After the inevitable bust of the Comstock, the out-of-state-owned railroads took over the reins—they served as the arteries that pumped nutrients into the new mining camps and pulled the ore out, again to California. As mining declined, the state turned to things like boxing and gambling, which were illegal in other states, to eke out enough revenue to keep the government running. And so on.
Nevada management history went something like this: Utah; California bankers; California railroaders; Nevada miners; the federal government (Hoover dam and Nevada Test Site); organized crime; corporate casino owners (Howard Hughes); Steve Wynn and Wall Street.
Rothman has it exactly right—until the last paragraph in the last chapter, when he derails his own keen recognition of the cycles of booms and busts and characterizes the state’s future as bright:
“The twenty-first century is Nevada’s time to shine. Perfectly positioned to take advantage of the social and cultural trends of American society, Nevada has almost unlimited possibilities. Its investment in a tourist economy, born out of necessity, has proven valuable beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It has a clear charter to an exciting future, one that the rest of American society cannot envision and will certainly envy. The future of this Silver State is brighter than it has ever been.”
Unfortunately, I think this is the optimism of a dying man. The book is incomplete. Rothman wanted to add a final chapter about Native Americans but was unable to due to Lou Gehrig ’s disease. It’s the one paragraph in the book where Rothman attempts to foretell the future.
After watching what happened with the 2009 and 2011 Nevada Legislatures, I think the cycle of boom and bust continues. These days, the financiers of the housing bubble (Wall Street) and the foreign-owned mining companies are holding the reins to Nevada’s present and future. As in the past, individuals and small population groups are dictating the quality of life for the vast majority of people in this state.