A Philly icon and the slot machine: Together again?

Long before Las Vegas was even a dusty airstrip, there was the Liberty Bell.

Later came the Liberty Belle. Both are identified not with Pennsylvania, but with another swing state: Nevada.

Slots parlors in the City of Brotherly Love are controversial in 2008, so it’s a bit of a coincidence, if not ironic, that the first modern slot machine was called The Liberty Bell.

A Bavarian immigrant, machinist and inventor named Charles Fey, living amid the Wild West atmosphere of Northern California in the 1890s, came up with the first coin-operated gambling machine in 1894, called The Horseshoe.


Four years later, after a couple of successful reincarnations, “Fey built a machine that forever changed the face of slot machines,” according to a Web site called the Casino City Times. Its original name was The Card Bell, with “a three-reel, staggered stop, with an automatic payout design,” and so named because of the card symbols on its reels. Before mass rollout, though, the symbols were changed to stars and bells and re-christened The Liberty Bell. The design lasted well into the electronic age and Fey is generally considered the inventor of the slot machine.

It just so happens that PlanPhilly has laid eyes on the original Liberty Bell – the slot machine, that is. (We’ve seen original Liberty Bell – the bell – a number of times as well.)

Fey also opened a successful beer hall in San Francisco while raising three sons. Much later, in 1958, two of his boys moved to Reno, Nev., just across the Sierra-Nevada range from Sacramento, and opened a new restaurant called The Liberty Belle Saloon on the south end of the city’s main drag, Virginia Street. The place featured primo prime rib and was a local institution until 2006, when it closed to make way for the expanding Reno-Tahoe Convention Center.

It just so happens that PlanPhilly has had a couple of steaks at The Liberty Belle several years before it closed up, tossed back a moderate amount of local spirits, and got to meet one of Fey’s sons and two of his grandsons, who ran the place until the end. Think of the clubby atmosphere of Bookbinders – heavy chairs, dark paneling, career waiters and waitresses, longtime regulars at the bar and friendly owners. Substitute the lobster tail for a T-bone and you get the general idea.

The Liberty Belle also was the home of The Liberty Bell – the slot machine, that is – along with more than 200 old slots from the decades of the early 20th Century (it’s Reno, some nine hours north of Las Vegas by car, that is the birthplace of the gaming industry in the United States, not Sin City). Two of the original seven Liberty Bell were on the premises. The restaurant featured 28 antique wagons, a few antique cash registers, historical advertising posters and chandeliers. The place maintained some semblance of its original wooden sidewalks until the end, too, and if you wore cowboy boots, you could emulate movie westerns with the sound of footfalls just as you pushed open the doors.

The pressure put on the Feys to sell their property met with resistance from the family and years of local outcry, with each side winning battles. The war was eventually won by convention center-driven development, when the Liberty Belle owners hoisted a white flag, albeit one tinged with green.

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Posted by Thomas Walsh.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com

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