Bonnie Springs Ranch
Bonnie Springs, seen from the Spring Mountains in 2006
Red Rock Canyon,
Bonnie Springs Ranch is a western-themed amusement park near Blue Diamond, in Clark County, southern Nevada. It is located in the Mojave Desert, below the Spring Mountains in the Red Rock Canyon area, 20 miles west of Las Vegas. The ranch has natural oasis habitat, from the spring water surfacing there.
The ranch was originally created in the 1840s, as a stopover for wagon trains heading to California. Bonnie McGaugh purchased the ranch in 1952, and it was subsequently named Bonnie Springs Ranch after her. Horseback riding, and a restaurant were added by the mid-1960s. Old Nevada, an 1880s western town replica, was opened at the ranch in 1974, followed by a zoo and a motel in the 1980s.
The springs were within the Paiute peoples homeland for centuries. They moved their dwellings into small enclaves in the rocky cliffs to the west after immigrants took their land.
In 1840, a ranch house was built on the site, which included natural springs. The ranch served as a watering stopover for wagon trains going to California on the Old Spanish Trail. In 1846, General John C. Frémont, on his way to Alta California, stopped at the springs to prepare for the trip through Death Valley to the Pueblo de Los Angeles. By 1860, the site consisted of a blacksmith shop and a cabin with one room.
Bonnie Springs Ranch
Bonnie Springs Ranch was named after Bonnie Levinson (née McGaugh; July 30, 1921–January 29, 2016), the daughter of western film actor and assistant director Wilbur McGaugh. In her youth, McGaugh performed as a Las Vegas dancer and showgirl. She also performed as an ice skater, eventually touring with figure skater Sonja Henie. In the 1940s, McGaugh and her mother began a turkey farm in Twentynine Palms, California. Bonnie McGaugh would deliver the live turkeys to restaurants and hotels in Las Vegas.
In 1952, Bonnie McGaugh delivered turkeys to a friend who owned a diner in Las Vegas and a ranch in the nearby Red Rock Canyon. The friend showed the ranch to Bonnie McGaugh, who liked the nearby mountain scenery. McGaugh leased and subsequently purchased the ranch that year. The 115-acre ranch – located 20 miles west of Las Vegas near Blue Diamond, Nevada – consisted of a broken-down bar and a three-room house. McGaugh lived on the ranch from that point on. She re-opened the bar in 1952 and operated it for the next 12 years without electricity. The bar had previously operated as the Red Rock Tavern, which opened in 1939.
Al Levinson (1924–1994) came to Las Vegas from New York in 1949; he and McGaugh met in 1952, after McGaugh opened the bar. According to McGaugh, they met "because someone told him he should meet the dizzy blond running the bar in the desert." The couple married in 1954, and they would stay married for 40 years until his death. Al Levinson operated a car dealership. The bar became popular among the Levinsons' friends, including Las Vegas showgirls and other celebrities who performed in shows on the Las Vegas Strip. The bar also received patronage from residents of nearby Blue Diamond. Prior to the opening of a restaurant at the ranch, Bonnie Levinson served biscuits and coffee as a snack. She also added two horses to the ranch to satisfy customer interest in horseback riding. A man subsequently traded two horses for a car at Al Levinson's dealership, and the couple ultimately had six horses. Bonnie Springs Picnic Ranch received a business license in 1958.
By 1962, the ranch included a swimming pool. A stable, Red Rock Riding Stables, was added to the ranch in 1963. The Levinsons also expanded and refurbished the 1840 ranch house into a restaurant and bar, initially opened as the Bonnie Springs Steak House in 1964. A pond was ultimately built in front of the restaurant/bar. The pond once contained fish, which were allowed to be caught with the use of fishing equipment that the ranch rented out. The pond would later be inhabited with ducks, geese, and turtles. By 1966, Bonnie Springs Recreation Ranch included picnic areas and playgrounds. Bonnie Springs became popular among Las Vegas families while remaining mostly unknown to city tourists. In June 1974, a fire at the ranch destroyed a barn, a trailer, and a corral.
Businessman Howard Hughes owned the adjacent Sandstone Ranch. Before his death in 1976, Hughes made an offer to purchase Bonnie Springs; his offer and others up to that point were rejected by Bonnie Levinson, who did not want to sell it. During the mid-1980s, Al Levinson had a three-year disagreement with county officials over who would pay for 1.3 miles of flood-damaged road leading to the ranch. After Levinson sued county officials to repair the road, the county declined to issue him a building permit for a motel addition to the ranch, due to undecided zoning issues. In August 1986, Levinson received a building permit for a 150-room motel, after a District Judge ordered the county to issue the permit. In 1989, a 50-room motel was added. The two-story motel includes a swimming pool and themed rooms such as Chinese, Spanish, and American Indian.
The bar/restaurant became known for a collection of neckties that hang from the ceiling, with dollar bills pinned to them. Al Levinson had decided on a policy against ties in the restaurant after he had been turned away from a restaurant at the Desert Inn casino for wearing a bolo tie. From that point on, he would take each tie that came into his restaurant and pinned it to the ceiling, a tradition dating to at least 1974. People later started pinning money to the ties. In 2001, the money from the ceiling — a total of $18,744 — was donated to local firefighters. The money had been accumulating since 1991, and the Levinson family had been motivated to donate it following the September 11 attacks. The ties of the bar's ceiling continue to accumulate money bills, which are donated to various nonprofit organizations.
The Levinsons' children, Alan Levinson and April Hopper, took over the ranch's operations after the death of their father Al Levinson, who died in December 1994. As of 2006, Bonnie Springs included the only restaurant and lodging in the Red Rock Canyon area. As of 2007, the ranch received an annual 130,000 visitors. Bonnie Levinson, at 94 years old, died in January 2016 following a brief illness. Alan Levinson and April Hopper continued to operate the ranch following her death.
By 1969, the Levinsons planned to construct a western village at the ranch. In 1972, construction began on Old Nevada, the name given to a series of buildings replicating an 1880s mining town, with an opening planned for early summer 1973. Al Levinson had wanted to construct Old Nevada for years.
Research was done to ensure the buildings' accuracy with old western structures. The buildings are made of old wood, which was sought by Al Levinson to replicate old mine town buildings. The Old Nevada buildings were built based on building plans for early western communities. The Levinsons traveled to various small towns in Nevada to obtain information about the local buildings, as research for Old Nevada.
Al Levinson had acquired thousands of historic drawings and pictures of old buildings on which to base the design of Old Nevada. He also had research help from state agencies. Nevada mining camp ruins were also a model for Old Nevada. Despite the buildings' historic appearance, they were designed according to modern building codes and included air-conditioning. However, plumbing was only included in restaurants and bathrooms, while the front of other buildings included an outdoor water pump for historical accuracy. Antique telephones were repaired and connected to a switchboard as the only form of communication in Old Nevada. Sidewalks were made of wormwood planking that Al Levinson had imported from Oregon.
Built at a cost of $800,000, the Old Nevada western town opened in June 1974 with 45 buildings, located on 5 acres (2.0 ha) of the ranch land. Old Nevada included a casino, restaurants, and a miniature steam train, as well as a shootout show between a law official and a gunman, followed by a hanging. Old Nevada also had shops which sold artifacts and antiques that had been collected by Al Levinson. Old Nevada also includes a wedding chapel, a wax museum, a western-style saloon, and a small schoolhouse. Staged gun fights and souvenir shops remain a part of Old Nevada as well.
In 1974 or 1975, Bonnie Levinson took in two pygmy goats from Wayne Newton. In addition, someone had dropped off a sheep at the ranch; this was accompanied by the arrival of two deer and Levinson's adoption of a wolf. Levinson, an animal lover, also had cats, dogs, chickens and rabbits, many of which were left at the ranch by uninterested pet owners. The multitude of animals inspired Levinson to build a petting zoo at the ranch for children. The petting zoo had opened by 1985. By 1997, the zoo included bobcats, burros, coatimundi and lynx, coyotes, ferrets, hedgehogs, llamas, porcupines, prairie dogs, squirrels, turtles, and a woodchuck. Emus would also be added to the zoo. Peacocks and deer freely roam the fenced zoo area. The ranch also features a large stable of horses. Levinson raised several of the animals.
The ranch has been speculated to be haunted, as claimed by some visitors to the ranch. Tim Harrison, the ranch's marketing director and events manager, said "We were the hub of wagon trains that came through and people camped here and a lot of people died on the way. We believe those spirits still exist and are concentrated in our opera house – that's where they gather and most of the energy is felt."
In October 2008, the ranch was temporarily named "Bonnie Screams" in celebration of Halloween, a tradition which continues each October, and includes haunted houses. As of 2015, a local paranormal society offered a three-hour tour of the ranch's haunted areas during the last Saturday night of most months. The tours included efforts to make contact with the ranch's ghosts. Additional tours were offered during Bonnie Screams. The tours frequently included celebrities such as Susan Slaughter, from Ghost Hunters International.
In popular culture
The motel was briefly featured in the 2005 film Domino. Director Tony Scott had long wanted to include the ranch in one of his films, and also stayed at the ranch's motel. Bonnie Springs is featured as an abandoned town in the 2010 video game Fallout: New Vegas. The ranch was featured in a 2011 episode of Ghost Adventures. The series detected footsteps and sounds, as well as the presence of ghosts in empty rooms. The ranch was subsequently featured in a 2015 episode of Ghost Adventures: Aftershocks. The ranch is also featured in "The Good, the Bad, and the Punished", a 2016 episode of Impractical Jokers.
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