More than a few times, I’ve captured the clever ways that the free market intersects with government regulations at key political boundaries, usually those with powerful differences (something more than just a township or municipality) but not so carefully monitored that it stops the flow of traffic, as would be the case through customs at an international crossing. In other words, state lines routinely offer interesting opportunities for one state to offer an abundance of a certain a good or service that the other state either prohibits or taxes to death. It might be fireworks, or cigarettes, or adult movies.
In the case of the Nevada border with California, it’s probably all of the above. In the first few decades after admittance to the Union (in 1864), the Silver State was the most sparsely populated and gained a reputation for permissiveness that it retains to the present. Nevada is where people go for easy gambling, impulsive marriages, no-fault divorces, and largely unregulated prostitution. Folks from the West Coast, therefore, won’t be particularly jolted by the emergence of Primm, Nevada, but it’s shock to those of us who don’t know the lay of the land. There, amidst the sun-baked monotony of the High Sierra and Mojave Desert, a microtropolis emerges. Most recent Census estimates place the unincorporated community of Primm at barely above 1,000 inhabitants, but within the context of its surroundings, it feels like a mercurial settlement—a caravan that decided to park itself between two mountains. A Burning Man Festival for the mass-market crowd.
And it looks enormous. Perhaps it requires a photo at greater distance than I can provide—an image courtesy of Google Street View—to fully capture the stark contrast between the California desert and this goofy commercial assembly sprung out of nothing. It’s far more distinct than the discount cigarettes one encounters after crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania or the Potomac River into West Virginia. After all, in both of those instances, one witnesses light rural development on both sides of boundary line. But here, the California side is completely uninhabited, while on the Nevada side, Primm is a jumble of infrastructure at an otherwise equally austere Interstate 15 exit ramp. A closer look helps reveal this: amidst the artillery of highway-scaled signs and non-native palm trees is a lower-lying “Welcome to Nevada” placard. It almost gets buried, but it doesn’t matter: of course this is the entrance to Nevada.
Primm previously used the name “State Line”, but that undoubtedly proved confusing with another unincorporated Nevada community “Stateline”, up near Reno and Lake Tahoe. In the mid-1990s, authorities in the state worked with the Secretary of the Interior and the United States Board of Geographic Names to change the community to “Primm”, after Ernest Primm, one of the earliest developers—a man who purchased 400 acres of land at the boundary back in the early 1950s, using the strategic location before and during the development of Interstate 15 to offer a much-needed oasis featuring a two-pump gas station, a bar, and a snack counter which he called Bordertown. Apocryphal sources indicate that the conversion of I-15 into a limited access highway forced Primm to make several, initially unsuccessful appeals to get an exit ramp constructed at Bordertown/State Line; he eventually persuaded Nevada DOT and US Highway Administration to relent. By the 1960s, the federal government deeded Ernest Primm an additional 400 acres, and, in the 1970’s he built a tiny casino/motel that eventually became Whiskey Pete’s, named after the 1920s-eta entrepreneur Pete MacIntyre, who legend indicates supplemented his borderland gas station’s profits with bootlegged whiskey, always readily available in notoriously libertine Nevada.
Ernest Primm died in 1981, but his children carried on the tradition by expanding the gaming capacity in the area, starting with Primadonna in 1990 (now called the Primm Valley Resort and Casino), followed by Buffalo Bill’s a few years later, the latter of which includes a kid-friendly element in the form of a log flume and roller coaster, barely visible in the photo below.
Today, with three casinos, numerous convenience-style restaurants, and the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas, Primm has attracted enough service workers to justify the construction of multifamily housing (the Desert Oasis apartments), despite the fact that it lacks a post office, a school, or any discrete government. After all, it remains an unincorporated town, capitalizing on Nevada’s relaxed gaming laws, and providing a quick recreational getaway for people who can’t manage the remaining 40-minute drive to Vegas (or for people who want another stab at the poker tables on their way back to metro Los Angeles).Like other border communities Laughlin, Jackpot, and Stateline, Primm is a contrivance borne exclusively out of demand for services that the laws prohibit in the nation’s most populous state. If California ever were to legalize commercial gambling outside of its Indian Reservations, it’s hard to imagine what might happen to the dusty exit ramp everyone calls Primm. Then again, one could ask the same question about Las Vegas. And the talents that perpetuate the mystique of Sin City—always reinventing itself in response the shifting tastes for entertainment—would be ready with an answer.
9 thoughts on “Primm, Nevada: an oasis where the only green comes from the color of money.”
Fascinating! Have to admit I despise the casino culture. One of my (relatively) few prudishnesses!
While I’m no fan of gambling and used to feel the same way, I’ve started diving into it a bit more deeply and find the subcultures (the niche clientele that certain casinos clearly strive to attract) is just as fascinating as anything. I’d probably feature more articles on the subject…except most casinos aren’t too keen on people taking expansive numbers of interior photos!
Looking forward to your (surreptitious?) explorations!
It is amazing the investment in such an industry. There is a very large “Indian” casino complex in a very rural valley north of me, Cache Creek Casino. It has a mid-rise (10? 15? story) hotel, a golf course, an organic farm, a native-run boutique winery, restaurants, etc. etc. Pretty amazing how these California Indian Casinos with their massive buildings just pop up in the middle of rural areas. Thunder Valley in the middle of the Northern Sacramento Valley grasslands is another example! As we enter the era of Chinese cultural and economic dominance, I see even more investment given the propensity for gambling in Chinese culture????
The tribes are the nominal sponsors, and beneficiaries, of tribal gambling. But make no mistake…the people running the show are not necessarily native people from the reservations. And the money behind each tribe’s first casino isn’t necessarily their own unless they already had a lucrative source of tax-free gasoline or tobacco sales.
I wasn’t aware of that, Chris. Thanks for that information. Though I had always heard that the financial benefits of Reservation gaming rarely trickle down to the community all that much. More often than not, the overwhelming majority gets hoarded by the owner/operator, leaving a socioeconomic condition akin to a squire and the peasantry, which is pretty much in sync with the appearance of a reservation with gaming nearby.
Interesting and relevant observations. With no disrespect intended toward the Chinese people as a whole (every culture has its moral faults), the unusually high tendency toward gambling addiction among Chinese is likely to further awaken the only partially somnambulating gaming giant. And yes, the reservations have chosen remarkably rural locations for their gaming facilities, but then, Native American Reservations among among the most rural places in the country. Yet many of these casinos succeed–certainly they have a better track record than the ones in Atlantic City these last few years. (Then again, I believe another major gaming center, Tunica MS, peaked in the mid 2000s and has been in sharp decline since then. The only major metro close by is Memphis.)
My understanding is “outside” investors help the tribes build and manage said casinos, he heard this from a high school friend that works in a state office that oversees one of the nation wide lotteries.
One part of Primm is in California – the “Lotto Store”, a store that sells California lottery tickets. Nevada doesn’t have a state lottery since private gambling interests were so firmly entrenched as a linchpin of the state’s economy by the time they became a thing. The Primm Lotto Store, barely in California but reachable by road from the rest of the state only by crossing into Nevada, is the closest place to Vegas where you can buy lottery tickets.
Have you had a look at Wendover/West Wendover on the Utah/Nevada line? The casinos – one on each side of the east-west main drag that intersects the north-south state line – are built right up to the very edge of Nevada with their parking lots in Utah!
Thanks for that detail; I didn’t notice it during my brief time passing through Primm, but I’ll have to take a closer look sometime. I’ve never been to the Wendovers, but I was aware of their existence, and how radically the character changes when crossing the line (somewhat captured by this Street View: https://goo.gl/maps/AKUMGcxcTfb97pzo8). It’s basically exactly how you describe it!
At first blush, when traveling along the highway, it probably appears that the Nevada side is much more prosperous than the Utah version of Wendover. But that’s probably not really the case. I know that, when Tunica MS was replete with Casinos, it still didn’t seem much less impoverished than the rest of the Mississippi Delta…except for the fact that it had a phenomenally plush city hall, library, community center, and schools.