Posted on: December 17, 2023, 01:56h.
Last updated on: December 17, 2023, 03:41h.
On Friday, the Boulder Dam Hotel celebrated its 90th anniversary with a gala during which attendees wore attire celebrating the historic landmark’s 1930s heyday. The two-story Colonial-style lodging house — which since 2005 has also housed a museum — is located in Boulder City, 30 miles southwest of the Las Vegas Strip by the Hoover Dam.
The storied history of the Boulder Dam Hotel includes hosting heads of state and celebrities, and one of the most enduring alleged murder mysteries in Nevada history.
The most elegant structure in Boulder City when it opened in 1933 — two years before the Hoover Dam was completed — the Boulder Dam Hotel began life as a playground for celebrities.
Bette Davis stayed here in 1934, after filming Of Human Bondage nearby. The next year’s guest register included Will Rogers, while he performed at the Boulder Theatre, as well as a honeymooning Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt IV. In 1938, Shirley Temple stayed overnight while driving from L.A. to New York with her parents. And, in 1943, Howard Hughes recuperated at the hotel from a 1943 plane crash at nearby Lake Mead.
In 1945, however, the Boulder Dam Hotel became associated with a darker story that it’s never quite been able to shake.
When Raymond Spilsbury, the hotel’s owner, drowned in the nearby Colorado River, a coroner’s inquest ruled it a suicide. But most historians who’ve delved into the incident have a severe problem with this finding.
According to Dennis McBride’s 1993 book, Midnight on Arizona Street: The Secret Life of the Boulder Dam Hotel, Spilsbury’s widow, Vona, told the author: “Foul play was uppermost in our minds.”
And she has a solid case.
Paul Webb, a contractor known for building lavish Beverly Hills homes in the 1920s, had sought to do the same in Boulder City, starting with the Boulder Dam Hotel. But he lacked the finances. So he approached Spilsbury, with whom he worked for the Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation during World War I.
They agreed to form a hotel corporation with another colleague from the copper mines, Austin Clark.
In 1943, the effects of living and working high in the Peruvian Andes for three decades had taken its toll on Spilsbury. He suffered a minor stroke and developed angina and leg pain.
The following year, he moved to his Boulder City hotel, with Vona and their son, to retire. Spilsbury had intended to help his brother, Chauncey, who managed the property, revitalize it during his recovery.
On Jan. 19, 1945, Spilsbury, 56, drove out to Emery’s Landing, a small fishing resort on Lake Mead about 20 miles south of Boulder City. His supposed intention was to go fishing with Murl Emery, according to the entrepreneur who founded the fishing resort with money he made by ferrying Hoover Dam workers to the construction site.
But Spilsbury didn’t arrive at Emery’s resort until 1:30 or 2 p.m., unusually late for a fishing trip. And, according to Emery at least, the two never met up. Instead, Emery’s father informed him that Emery wouldn’t be back until that evening. So Spilsbury decided to walk a trail beside the river to kill some time.
At 3 a.m. the next day, according to Emery, he noticed Spilsbury’s blue Pontiac parked in his parking lot and began searching for him. His wife discovered Spilsbury’s hat and coat on the river trail, placed underneath a rock to keep them from blowing away.
The contents of the coat’s pockets included a wallet containing a $12,352.40 check made out to Spilsbury, along with $1,100 in traveler’s checks and $53 in cash.
If foul play was involved, as Vona Spilsbury suspected, robbery wasn’t the motive.
As searchers combed the area, Vona allegedly told McBride, Emery “tried to blackmail me into a sum of money if he found Ray’s body.” If true, this suggests that he may have already known its location before its discovery.
Five weeks later, on Feb. 26, three fishermen from L.A. spotted a human arm jutting out of some bushes growing out from the side of the river, about eight miles downriver from Emery’s Landing.
When Spilsbury’s body was pulled from the river — by sheriff’s officers and Emery — who had rushed to the site — its ankles were shackled together with Spilsbury’s own belt and its pockets were filled with heavy stones.
Not Everybody Loved Raymond
On March 1, an inquest was held in Boulder City, at which several of Spilsbury’s friends testified to a three-member coroner’s jury.
Despite the suspicious manner in which Spilsbury’s body was found, the jury found that Spilsbury had “come to his death by his own hand” and the case was closed.
In 1936, Webb had partnered — apparently without Spilsbury’s knowledge — with a local tourism business called Grand Canyon-Boulder Dam Tours (GCBDT). Webb and its owner, Glover Ruckstell, signed a 20-year agreement with the National Park Service to build, own, and operate all tourism businesses in Lake Mead.
That company also ended up owning the Boulder Dam Hotel and Emery’s boating operation.
GCBDT went belly up in 1942, when Lake Mead didn’t prove to be the recreational goldmine its investors hoped it would be by then. All, including Spilsbury and Emery, suffered huge losses. When Webb and Spilsbury dissolved their partnership, Spilsbury was given majority ownership of the Boulder Dam Hotel.
And here’s where the story takes a turn for the absurd…
The three members of that coroner’s jury included Murl Emery — the man who lost a fortune investing with Spilsbury, the man whom Spilsbury supposedly intended to go fishing with after 2 p.m., and the man who seemed to know where to find Spilsbury’s shackled body before it was discovered.
Emery — who died in March 1981 at his home in Boulder City — was never charged with a crime involving Spilsbury’s death because, to this day, Nevada authorities don’t consider his death to have resulted from a crime.