Thursday, April 26, 2007

Learning About Wendover



On the surface, the town of Wendover doesn’t appear to be a place with much of a past. The reality, however, is that the community has a rich history, which is revealed in a recent book by Ronald R. Bateman.

Called “Wendover: Winds of Change,” the book is a comprehensive study of the people and events that helped to build Wendover into a successful resort community on the Nevada –Utah border.

Bateman, who grew up in Western Utah, begins the book with a complete timeline of significant historical events involving the region. In pre-historic times, the area was actually beneath Lake Bonneville, a large inland sea that covered western Utah and Eastern Nevada.

The first non-Indian visitor was most likely frontiersman Jedediah Smith, who, in 1827, is believed to have crossed the nearby salt flats while returning from an expedition to California.

A few years later, in 1833, fur trapper Zenas Leonard journeyed through the area and wrote that he had seen a tall mountain (10,715-feet) covered with snow (now known as Pilot Peak Mountain), which he said was striking because it appeared to be unconnected to any other mountain range.

Later, many emigrant wagon parties camped in the area during their journey to Oregon and California. Pilot Peak, which has natural springs at its base, served as a guide for those traveling across the barren salt flats.

Bateman traces the beginnings of Wendover to a later time, the early 20th century, when the Western Pacific Railroad was constructed through the West. Starting in about 1907, the railroad established the town, complete with a roundhouse, depot, water tower and other services. The first train to reach Wendover arrived in 1909.

Wendover puttered along for the next few decades, mostly catering to railroad traffic and, after completion of the Victory/Lincoln Highway, motorists. In 1914, a man named Teddy Tezlaff drove a Blitzen Benz automobile as fast as he could on the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats, becoming the first person to attempt to establish a land-speed record (his unofficial time was 141.73 miles per hour).

The town’s first travel-related business was established in 1926, when Bill Smith and Herman Eckstein opened the Cobblestone Service Station and put a light bulb on a pole in front that was never turned off. They called it “the light in the desert.”

In 1932, Smith and Eckstein added a roulette table, becoming the first gaming establishment in Wendover.

Bateman notes that the Second World War was the next significant event in the town’s history. In 1940-41, the Wendover Bombing and Gunnery range was opened and over the next few years grew substantially larger as additional companies of troops were sent to the region for training.

In 1944, Wendover was selected to be the training ground for the 509th Composite Group, a top-secret contingent of troops that prepared for an atomic bomb mission to Japan. On August 6, 1945, the group’s commander, Colonel Paul Tibbets Jr. piloted the Enola Gay, which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, which effectively ended the war.

An impressive stone and bronze monument has been erected adjacent to the Wendover Visitors Center to commemorate the men who worked on this project and as a monument to world peace.

Additionally, the hills around Wendover have been painted with graphitti, much of which was painted during World War II by airmen and soldiers. In some cases, you can still read the numerical insignias of the various troop companies.

More recently, Bateman points out, Wendover has grown as a result of thrill-seekers and tourists. The Bonneville Salt Flats, located a few miles from Wendover, has hosted a number of land speed record attempts over the years.

The book includes an extensive section on the various speed record efforts including those by driver Mickey Thompson (in the "Challenger I") and Craig Breedlove (in "The Spirit of America").

Bateman also writes about the development of Wendover’s resort industry, which began in the 1980s with the construction of several hotel-casinos. Within a few years, a half-dozen large resorts had been built and the town had evolved from sleepy last-stop-before-you-leave-Nevada into a popular gaming destination for travelers on Interstate 80.

One of Wendover’s most recognizable landmarks is Wendover Will, a 64-foot-tall, neon cowboy sign erected adjacent to the Stateline Casino in 1952. In 2005, the big buckaroo was renovated and moved to a new location near the Wendover Visitors Center to serve as the community’s official goodwill ambassador.

In addition to the hotels, Wendover still has a handful of landmarks that recall its time as an important airbase during World War II. Southeast of the main section of the town is the Wendover airbase. You can still find some of the old hangers that housed the airplanes of the 509th Composite Group during the war.

In recent years, the buildings have appeared in several motion pictures including the 1996 science fiction thriller “Independence Day."

“Wendover Winds of Change: A Story,” is self-published by Ronald R. Bateman and available through various gift shops in Wendover and from the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, P.O. Box 27365, Salt Lake City, UT, 84127-0365, e-mail: sales@saltflats.com, 801-485-2662.

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