About 35 miles south of Las Vegas just west of the Gold Strike Casino is an area five miles into the mountains that evokes memories of mining and an airplane crash that took the life of a witty, famous actress more than seven decades ago.
The area is also the site of a proposed residential community that was never built after the Nevada Landing Hotel Casino was leveled following the implosion of the economy in 2007. The housing was supposed to produce shelter for the employees of casino properties in the area.
In Southern Nevada, you can stumble across memories of the past where buildings with deep history have been the victims of wrecking balls. Historians constantly hear that Southern Nevada has no culture because historic buildings are turned into piles of rubble the next day.
However, there is history in Southern Nevada, and one interesting piece of its past lies not far from Goodsprings, a tiny former mining town west of I-15. It was in the mountains on Jan. 16, 1942 that a Hollywood star named Carole Lombard was among the passengers killed in the crash of TWA Flight 3 that was headed from Las Vegas Airport — now Nellis Air Force Base – to Los Angeles.
The plane crashed into Mount Potosi at 7,700 feet some 32 miles after takeoff. The crash could not have taken place at a worse location considering the rugged mountains claiming the lives of all on board including 15 military servicemen.
Mount Potosi will forever be remembered for the tragic event whose mystique continues to attract visitors both young and old.
Many who have tried to reach the site have been forced to have their vehicles towed after incurring broken transmissions, blown tires and damaged suspensions. After the crash, rescue workers on horseback trying to recover the bodies faced even bigger challenges.
While communications were nothing comparable to today’s text messages and cellular phones, word traveled quickly after the crash. Lombard’s husband, acclaimed actor Clark Gable, headed for Goodsprings hoping to discover that his wife had escaped the wrath that claimed the plane full of passengers.
Gable and Lombard were beloved in America. The couple rallied behind the nation after the bombing of Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941 and in fact, Lombard was returning to Los Angeles after leading a war bonds drive in her home state of Indiana.
Gable awaited news at the Pioneer Saloon, only a short distance from the crash site. The memories of Lombard and Gable are captured in an eye-catching Carole Lombard-Clark Gable memorial room that displays everything from newspaper and magazine stories to parts of the plane that have been recovered.
Built in 1913, the bar has rich tradition and the wall attracts visitors from all over the world on a regular basis.
Purchased more than 10 years ago by Oregon transplant Noel Sheckells, now 59, the Pioneer Saloon is a popular attraction because of the Gable-Lombard room. A hefty price tag of $1 million plus and the costs of renovation could not deter the family.
With the help of Sheckells’ sons, Tom, 32, and Chuck, 35, the Pioneer Saloon became the home of the Carole Lombard-Clark Gable Memorial Room when Noel Sheckells started collecting memorabilia. The collection was enhanced by other items that have included crash-related items.
The collection of photos and newspapers has been amassed over the years for placement on the wall. Noel Sheckells started the collection while visitors have also dropped off other items related to both Gable and Lombard.
“I tried to talk my dad out of buying this,” explained Tom Sheckells. “This (the bar) was in such ill-repair at the time. The windows were busted out and most of the floors were plywood. There was a hole behind the bar. There were endless needs and there was no kitchen. It was insane. It was outrageous.”
The story of the crash that took Lombard’s life remains a staple of the bar. Helping keep the memory alive is the fact that there are still parts of the airplane strewn all over the scene of the tragedy and Tom Sheckells has probably lost count how many times he has led visitors to the crash site.
“If the plane had been about 200 yards to the southwest, there never would have been the crash at Mount Potosi,” Tom Sheckells said adding that the family puts every penny it makes back into the business. “The plane crash adds mystique to the area and the Gable-Lombard story is one of the greatest love stories of all time. This is very rustic here with its Western atmosphere which is perfect for Gable and Lombard because they were such outdoorsy people.”
Former Las Vegas Review-Journal editor and writer A.D. Hopkins remembers that Lombard’s name was used many times in stories he oversaw in The Nevadan, a special section in the R-J.
“Men not yet born at the time have fallen in love with Carole Lombard, and once in a while, I will meet somebody who wants me to point out where the crash happened,” Hopkins recalled. “The finest tribute I know, to her memory, was from a scientist who discovered near the crash site a kind of butterfly believed to exist nowhere else in the world. It was a beautiful little thing, so he named it for her.”
Carole’s Fritillary is the name of the butterfly in one of those Southern Nevada stories that will not be forgotten. Ironically, Lombard’s final movie entitled “To Be Or Not To Be” was released a month after her death.
Indeed, the majority of Southern Nevada can be removed from the face of the earth, but the Carole Lombard story will live forever.
Editor’s Note: Mike Henle is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer and long-time former staffer with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. +