America’s First ‘Sin City’ – Newport, Kentucky
When Las Vegas was merely a widening spot on the highway to Los Angeles, the playground for American gamblers and gangsters was in a small Ohio River town, across from Cincinnati. Considered to be on the outskirts of the Western edge of America, Newport was seen as a raucous frontier town. Its location was ideal to attract traders and trappers, bringing in goods from the frontier lands of what would become Ohio and Indiana. It was also an ideal destination point for immigrants moving inland from the sea ports of New Orleans, Boston and New York. As the country grew, the new nation also saw the area a good place for military outposts. These various groups brought with them unique cultural interests, a love for beer and liquor, gambling and money….all things that created an environment ripe for vice.
A City is Born
Newport was settled in 1795 by General James Taylor on 1,500 acres of land that he inherited from his father, who acquired it in a trade from George Muse. Muse had earned the land rights as part of payment for serving in George Washington’s provincial regiment, the Virginia Blues, during the French and Indian War. Taylor, being cousins with two American presidents, Zachary Taylor and James Madison, brought a certain political clout and power with him as he developed Newport into a bustling center of trade. Taylor named the city Newport after Christopher Newport, commander of the first English ships to settle in Jamestown, VA.
In 1803, the Fort Washington military post moved from Cincinnati to Newport to become the Newport Barracks. It was active until 1893, when it was moved a few miles away to Fort Thomas. The barracks provided soldiers for the War of 1812 and the Civil War. As one of the border states during the Civil War, the Newport Barracks were a recruiting hotspot, where representatives from both the Union and Confederate armies tried to sway soldiers to fight for their side.
The advent of steamboats in the early to mid 1800’s created more traffic on the river and the city of Newport thrived. By the time General Taylor died in 1848, the population of Newport was over 1,000, making it larger than Chicago at the time.
Booze, Women, and Money – The Rise of Sin City
In the early to mid-1900’s, Newport faced two events that would forever change the face of the small river town. In 1919, Congress passed the Voelstead Act, marking the beginning of Prohibition. Newport’s location on the river made it an ideal location for moving the illegal alcohol products from Canada into Kentucky and what would become Ohio and Indiana. The other event was the Ohio Flood of 1937. In January 1937, heavy rains and melting snow upriver caused the river to rise above flood levels. Across the river in Cincinnati, the river peaked at over 79 feet…that’s 25 feet above flood level. Much of Newport was under water. To make matters worse, the flood occurred during the Great Depression. Most of the business owners were unable financially to rebuild following the flood. These two events together opened the door for organized crime to come in and take over operations of the city.
Monmouth Street, which stretched from the riverfront through the center of town, was aglow with neon signs and the sound of jazz music wafted from the storefront lounges, restaurants and casinos. It is often said that so many people were drawn to the city that Monmouth Street was more of a parking lot than a road.
Multiple groups openly fought for control of the city, and the money behind the scenes. The most prominent syndicate was The Cleveland Four. The Cleveland Four consisted of Moe Dalitz (who would go on to be a prominent figure in the development of Las Vegas), ), Morris Kleinman, Louis Rothkopf and Sam Tucker. They developed and ran many of the casinos and gambling joints, as well as distributed liquor to Newport. They also purchased the Coney Island Racetrack (later renaming it River Downs).
Another prominent figure was George Remus, a pharmacist and criminal lawyer who immigrated to Chicago in 1876. Using his role as a pharmacist, which allowed him to buy bonded liquor (liquor that could be used in medicines and hair tonic), Remus built a bootlegging empire. He would buy the bonded liquor from the Treasury Department and divert that liquor to the public, thirsty for the banned contraband. When bonded liquor became scarce, he used the profits from his illegal activities to buy 7 distilleries in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky to brew his own “white” liquor (legally produced liquor) for distribution.
The smell of money attracted other criminal leaders, including Glenn Schmidt, Frank ‘Screw’ Andrews and the Farley Brothers. Schmidt faced The Cleveland Four multiple times, losing each time. He originally opened the Glenn Rendevous. When that was taken over by the syndicate, he opened the Playtorium…until that was raided based on an anonymous tip (believed to come from the Syndicate). He eventually opened the Beverly Hills Country Club that was targeted by the Syndicate and ended with a fire that took the life of a young girl. Frank ‘Screw” Andrews moved to Newport and opened several businesses with ties to gambling, alcohol and prostitution. He took over the Alibi Club when the owner was gunned down (he was suspected of the hit but charges were dropped), admitted to killing a rival club owner and was suspected in the killing of an employee who allegedly stole from him. He met a deadly end when he “fell” from a sixth floor window at St. Luke’s Hospital. Hailing from the eastern hills of Kentucky, the Farley Brothers were drawn to Newport to make money in moonshine. In February 1946, they made a deadly decision to rob a dealer in the Yorkshire Club (run by The Cleveland Four). A few days later, as they were leaving the Flamingo Club, they were shot by several men with shotguns, killing one of them immediately.
Brothels and prostitution had been a staple in Newport as far back as the Civil War, when soldiers stationed across the river in Cincinnati would come over to visit the brothels. But it was after the Mob entered the scene and organized the brothels into successful businesses that featured gambling and alcohol, as well as women. Brothel owners would make deals with taxi drivers to bring clientele to their houses. Among the most famous of the brothels were Galaxie, Ray’s Café, and Stardust. Often included alcohol and gambling. Deals with taxi companies to bring clients to the brothels.
The Fall of Sin City and the Rise of a Family Friendly Town
By the 1960’s, much of the focus on gambling had moved to Florida, the Bahamas, and a little known desert town, Las Vegas. Seeing an opportunity to drive out the crime, residents of Newport began fighting back. Under the guidance of a former NFL player, George Ratterman, and the Committee of 500, new regulations and laws began putting the squeeze on gambling, prostitution and the alcohol blackmartket. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, gambling and nude dancing were banned, leading to the closure of last casinos and strip joints. The 1990’s and 2000’s saw a renaissance in the city. The Newport Aquarium was built and a family-friendly event center, Newport on the Levee was developed.
Newport’s East Row Historical District is the second largest historical district in Kentucky, with the distinction of having most of the buildings listed on the national registry of historical sites.
References and More Information
Alter, M. (2018, June 02). Then and Now interactive: The rise and fall of Newport’s ‘Sin City’. Retrieved August 16, 2018, from https://www.wcpo.com/news/local-news/campbell-county/newport/interactive-the-rise-and-fall-of-sin-city
Cincy. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2018, from http://cincy.com/home/neighborhoods/parms/1/hood/newport/page/history.html
Our History. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2018, from http://eastrow.org/our-history/
Photo Gallery Links