Sunday, December 9, 2007

cal neva

by Guy McCarthy

One of the oldest operating casinos in the western United States stands on the California-Nevada border above the northeast shores of Lake Tahoe.

First built in 1927, the original Cal Neva Lodge burned to the ground a decade later, on May 17, 1937. Local historians note that with another busy summer season coming, owner Norman Blitz had 500 men work around the clock to rebuild in 30 days.

Business had boomed during Prohibition. The remote Cal Neva was already popular with regulars that included an Irish-American inside stock trader, liquor supplier, and Hollywood investor from Boston named Joseph Patrick Kennedy.

Cal Neva's owners over the years included some of Kennedy's liquor customers, who enjoyed entertaining a leader of such far-reaching business ventures. Kennedy and his sons, including the charismatic and photogenic John Fitzgerald, were frequent guests at the Cal Neva.

Framed photos of the 1937 blaze still adorn the 70-year-old walls of what used to be the Cal Neva's main gaming room. The space is divided by a gold-and-silver line painted on the floor, through a fireplace, and up the stone chimney to show where California ends and Nevada begins.

I was there one morning in late May 2007, before a visit to Tahoe's south shore. I don't bet on cards or craps or slots. I just wanted to see this place where gamblers used to push their tables back and forth across the state line, depending on which cops came calling, and where the leader of one of the most powerful families in U.S. history liked to unwind with organized crime bosses, movie stars and prostitutes.

Frank Sinatra owned the place for a time in the early 1960s. The rest of the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe partied here too. I came for a whiff of the Kennedys.

A man and his wife were taking turns posing for photos by the fireplace, so I offered to take their picture together. We chatted a bit and it turned out they were Irish, from Dublin, staying at the Cal Neva for their son's wedding that very day at the resort.

The old casino still has games of chance, but it also does a tidy business hosting weddings above the steel-blue lake. I mentioned my dad's side of the family is Irish-American. Next thing you know we're talking about Donegal and Galway and what a coincidence it is to meet here where the Kennedys came to relax.

The groom's mom pointed into another room and told me in hushed tones she'd been told there was a secret chamber or passageway that gamblers of yore could use for escape if necessary. In the next breath she invited me to the wedding reception. "Sure, you'd be welcome you would. Be here at 7. It'll be grand."

I thanked her profusely. But I had things to care of, and I was exhausted. I'd just finished driving overnight from San Bernardino.

The main reason I'd come was to check with the Forest Service at the Tahoe Basin Management Unit. I wanted to ask about the light snowpack this year, and to see whether they had any heightened concerns about fire season.

I'd visited the management unit three years earlier, to report on controlled burning near Baldwin Beach on Tahoe's southwest shores. The same drought and infestation that's killed millions of trees in the San Bernardino National Forest has wrought similar damage in Tahoe forests over the past decade.

This past winter had been one of the driest on record in Southern California, and the thin Sierra snowpack had already raised concerns among state water officials as far away as Los Angeles. It seemed fair and prudent to ask for a fire season update in a mountain community similar in so many ways to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear.

Later that day -- about seven weeks ago -- a Forest Service spokesman agreed the dry winter and light snowpack to date were factors in ongoing concern for fire danger. But he stressed that portraying the threat in strong terms can be counter-productive, leading to hand-wringing that could paralyze fuel reduction efforts. It sounded like he didn't want to scare people.

In a sense, he was right. Residents had been warned for years. Why start a panic? The spokesman gave me a copy of a document titled "Stewardship Fireshed Assessment."

I didn't have time to stay. I had people to see in Las Vegas. My last glimpse of the lake was before sundown, in my rearview mirror.

A month later, a wind-driven blaze destroyed more than 250 homes and businesses near the south shore. Officials called it the worst disaster in the Tahoe basin since whites first settled there in the mid-19th century.


Originally posted July 18 2007.

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