03/24/2006 1:00AM

The day that started it all


March 19 may be as significant a day for Nevada as July 4 is for the United States. Yet the date passes with hardly a peep.

On March 19, 1931, the Nevada legislature passed a two-pronged bill that included the legalization of "wide open" gambling in the state. That enabled Nevada to have a monopoly on legal gambling in the U.S. until 1978, when Atlantic City opened its first casino.

The law gave Nevada the ability to eventually transform itself from a sparsely populated economic liability into the No. 1 tourism state in the country.

The state historically was in the position of clutching straws to fuel its economy. For decades, mining silver was the driving industry - hence the nickname of "The Silver State."

By the turn of the century, the Comstock Lode silver mines had gone dry. Then, of all things, divorce became Nevada's biggest industry. Reno was the state's largest city and was known nationally as the divorce capital of the U.S.

The key was Nevada had the shortest residency requirements of any state. It first started at a mere six months. Then in 1927, it was reduced to three months. The March 19 bill lowered it further to only six weeks.

More good news in 1931 came with the opening of Boulder Dam as a tourist attraction. Many felt that would help transform the sleepy little town of Las Vegas.

Another issue that aided Nevada was the grumbling over the unpopular Volstead Act, which banned alcohol. For years, Nevadans had openly dismissed Prohibition, whether federal agents were around or not. The Volstead Act was repealed in 1933.

So, in 1931, Nevada became a state where you could gamble, get a drink, and obtain a quickie divorce.

The first gaming license was issued to a woman, Mayme Stocker, who opened the Northern Club on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. The games of chance included different kinds of poker - lowball, seven-card stud, and five-card draw.

At first, Nevada left it up to the counties and local government to oversee and benefit from gambling. But as the industry got bigger and the notoriety of Bugsy Siegel and mob ownership came into national focus, in 1959 the state created a Gaming Commission.

The Gaming Commission was the precursor to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which is the strictest regulatory agency to oversee gambling in the country. The modern era for Nevada casinos opened in 1969, when for the first time public corporations were allowed to own casinos.

It is interesting that since Nevada lost its monopoly on gambling in 1978, the industry has enjoyed its most explosive growth, rather than a downturn in business.

That's why March 19, 1931, when the bill was passed to give Nevada first dibs on legal gambling, deserves a lot more recognition.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of "Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies."