Peter “Cactus Pete” Piersanti was born in 1917 in Superior, Wyoming. The youngest of six kids to Italian parents. The family moved to Ogden, Utah. Growing up poor during the depression, Peter had always dreamed of being rich.
In 1941, Peter purchased a local bar and grill with a card room in the back. Shortly after that, Piersanti set up a pinball machine distribution company with some rather dubious connections.
During World War II, Piersanti enlisted in the U.S. Army and served overseas. Shortly after his return, he resumed his businesses. This would not last long. Piersanti and 16 others were charged with criminal conspiracy in relation to the enforcement of Ogden’s regulation again pinball games.
In March 1944, the mayor of Ogden resigned very suddenly. This raised numerous red flags. After investigation, the group of gamblers, saloon owners and generally shady characters was alleged to have bribed Bramwell to look the other way on gambling regulations.
The case was stalled by lawyers until December of 1946. Judge Charles G. Cowley ultimately decided that was insufficient evidence to charge any of the defendants with conspiracy and the case was dismissed.That was it for Piersanti in Utah.
In 1947, Idaho passed a law allowing slot machines in the eastern and rural parts of the state. Can you guess where he moved next?
As soon as the law passed, several “businessmen,” gamblers and people of ill-repute settled in a remote area of Idaho near the Wyoming and Montana borders later called Island Park. The unincorporated town was established as a resort and lodge town with slot machines and an ability to circumvent the liquor laws at the time that prohibited the sale of liquor outside of city limits.
Piersanti was thriving in this environment. He made enough money to become one of the original lodge owners of Island Park Lodge.
While at Island Park, Piersanti met another gambling entrepreneur named Don French. The two would become fast friends and business partners.
Then it all crashed down. On December 3, 1953, the Idaho state legislature outlawed gambling of all kinds. The ban would begin on January 1, 1954. That was it for Piersanti in Island Park and the start of a minor empire.
Don French had already moved to a remote area on the Nevada-Idaho border and opened the Horse Shu Club with 50 slot-machines and a soon to be opened 30-unit motel.
Piersanti and several ideas saw French’s success and tried to join in. Several applications for Nevada gaming licenses were filed in June of 1954 and denied. Nevada’s tax commissioners established a policy of opposition against granting general gambling licenses to the northeastern Nevada region.
The commission was afraid that granting licenses near the Idaho border, where gambling is illegal, would result in a “bad situation” with a neighboring state. Also, it was believed that such an isolated area could not be properly policed.
Undeterred, Piersanti decided to start small and applied a few weeks later with a plan to only operate slot machines. The commission approved.
In 1956, a small cinderblock building with the name “Cactus Pete’s” opened. There was a gas station, a few slot machines, six rooms and hot-water mineral baths. For a time, there was no electricity or phone service in and Piersanti himself tended bar. Business boomed.
The location was the key to the entire early operation. These businesses lured Idahoans, especially citizens of the Twin Falls area, only 47 miles away, across the border to spend their gambling money. The only issue was the town did not have a name.
The settlement was first recognized in May of 1958 as the unincorporated town of “Horse Shu.” The population was listed as 65. Cactus Pete hated the named. He felt like the named placed more emphasis on the Horse Shu Club than his now thriving business.
Due to the protest, Elko County commissioners urged French and Piersanti to come up with a town name that they both liked. The two were now in heavy competition and couldn’t agree on anything, let alone a town name. The commissioners were frustrated and renamed the town “Unincorporated Town No. 1” as punishment. For the remainder of 1958 the “town” was in flux. Some called it Horse Shu. Others called it Cactus Pete’s, Nevada. The telephone company referred to it as Idavada. After nearly a year of squabbling the two settle on the name of Jackpot.
Town name or not, Piersanti had big plans. He partnered with A.L. “Bud” Gurley and Dale Wildman to develop a new motel and runway, for easier access to the remote town. Twin Falls contractor Ray Neilsen, whose son Craig would later build Ameristar Casinos, constructed the complex.
The 15-room Desert Lodge Motel motel opened in 1958 to great success.
For the next decade or so, business boomed. Piersanti and Gurley bought out Wildman, and eventually took over management of the faltering Horseshu. Gurley died in 1967, and Piersanti became a partner with Neilsen, George Detweiler of Twin Falls and Al Hurley, Pete’s bookkeeper.
In 1969 they built a two-story, 50-room motel that still stands to this day.
Piersanti sold his interest in Cactus Pete’s in 1971. Things would change a lot of next 30 years. Here’s a brief timeline courtesy of the UNLV Center for Gaming Research:
1971: Ray Neilsen died and his wife Gwen took control of his shares. Neilsen’s son, Craig, assumed a leading role in the day-to-day operation of Cactus Pete’s.
1984: Neilsen became president of Cactus Pete’s, Inc.
1987: Craig Neilsen assumed sole ownership of the corporation.
1991: Cactus Petes completed a $22 million hotel and casino expansion and the property became one of the largest gaming facilities in northeast Nevada. Construction work included enlarging the casino, adding a hotel tower, restaurants and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
1993: Ameristar Casinos, Inc. was founded as the parent company of Cactus Petes and Ameristar Casino Vicksburg. Stock began trading on the NASDAQ National Market on November 9.
Cactus Pete’s is still going and is still a nice, out of town trip for Southern Idahoans.
After a brief stay in Las Vegas, Piersanti bought the Senator Club in Carson City, Nevada and renamed it Cactus Jack’s Senator Club. He ran the Senator Club until 1989, then retired to Lake Tahoe.
Peter Piersanti died in 1994, the way he had always wanted, as a rich man.