The Casino That Isn’t and Arizona’s First Motel

Besides the movie “3:10 to Yuma,” I knew nothing about the border city in southwestern Arizona.

I hadn’t even seen the movie, either the original or the remake, so the only thing I really knew was that there was a place called Yuma and there were outlaws and a train.

So how, you ask, did we end up there?

Through the magic of the internet.

This is part of our EPIC Southwest USA road trip from the Chicago-area to San Diego and back!

Roadtrippers is an online planning tool for – you guessed it – road trips. You add your starting point and your destination and it plots them on a map, showing you the route and how much time it will take. If you enter the type of car you’ll be driving it’ll estimate how much gas will cost, too.

That’s cool, but what was invaluable for planning this trip was that I could add destinations and see how it would change our journey. After I entered Cottonwood, Arizona, and Bombay Beach, California, the route shifted through Yuma and I thought “why not?”

That quickly became a “Heck yea!” after I checked the Yuma Visitors Bureau’s website and social media accounts and saw how much civic pride existed. I reached out, and before I knew it we were spending two nights in Yuma with a packed itinerary.

We quickly checked into the Coronado Motor Hotel, the first “modern-style” motel in Arizona, and the first thing we saw when we entered our room was the kissing swans made out of towels on the bed.

That was adorable, but what was even better was the second bedroom with a lighted vanity, which meant that when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. I could go into the other room and wouldn’t disturb Jim with my insanely early scratchings and peckings.

We were tempted to nudge those swans to the side and collapse for the evening, but we had a date with a Lutes Especial, so off to Main Street we went.

Lutes Casino is a legendary place in Yuma’s historic district. Located on a street where Gold Rushers used to tread, Lutes isn’t a gambling house at all. Instead, it’s the state’s oldest pool and dominoes hall, and serves up beer, casual food, and the infamous Lutes Especial.

‘The danged thing is the most consarned concoction you’ve ever had the nerve to throw a lip lock on.”

Sandy Roy “Red” Rivers in the Lutes Casino Gazette.

The concoction is a cheeseburger and a hot dog topped with a special sauce. You read that right. Burger and a hot dog, on one bun. The ends of the dogs stick out, because the bun is round for a burger, which should be enough to tell you this just ain’t meant to be, but somehow, it works.

Our server, Laurie, said it was “oddly good,” and that’s about the best way to describe it. They’ve been offering it since 1951, so oddly good definitely seems to work.

Lutes Especial - hamburger and hot dog in one sandwich
Lutes Especial – hamburger and hot dog in one sandwich

Laurie suggested we get the potato tacos, another specialty, which we did, and liberally douse them with their salsa, which we did. The salsa was light and fresh and oh, so very sneaky.

Jim had an amazing chocolate malt (that’s in my notes – “Amazing chocolate malt!”) to go with his Especial and I had the tri-tip sandwich, because tri-tip is everywhere in Yuma. It’s like steak in Chicago or green chiles in New Mexico.

The people I asked didn’t know why tri-tip is a thing, but it is, and when in Yuma…

The restaurant looks like a flea market exploded. There is stuff everywhere and little of it makes any sense.

A doll’s head sticks out of a fish. A bike hangs from the ceiling near the lower half of a mannequin. There’s a kayak. There are neon signs and pictures and posters and a barbershop light and flags and a player piano, which Billy Lutes played for a bit while we were there.

Lutes Casino in Yuma Arizona
Lutes Casino

Billy and his brother Bobby still run the place that their father reluctantly received in lieu of payment for a debt.

Around 1946 Justice of the Peace R. H. Lutes loaned $10,000 to Clark “Cocky” Powers. Cocky used it to buy the Casino Billiard Parlor, which had been open since 1920, but when he couldn’t pay back the loan, Lutes took ownership and added dominoes and hamburgers. Bobby began running it about fourteen or fifteen years later, started collecting the “wall stuff,” as he calls it, and has been adding to it ever since.

It’s goofy, quirky, kitschy, appeals to a mixed clientele of locals and snowbirds, and we loved it.

The next morning we walked down to Yuma Landing Bar & Grill for our complimentary breakfast, provided with our stay at the Coronado Motor Hotel.

The restaurant was filled to the rafters with airplanes. The decor was not quite as over-the-top as Lutes, but even if it were it would be for a good reason. It’s situated on the site of the first airplane landing in the state of Arizona.

Planes inside Yuma Landing Bar & Grill
Planes inside Yuma Landing Bar & Grill

On October 25, 1911, Robert Fowler touched down on his cross-country flight from Santa Monica to Miami in a “Cole Flyer,” a Wright Model B biplane. There’s a statue of Fowler in front of the restaurant to commemorate the moment, and considering his flight across the entire country was less than eight years after the Wright brothers’ hops at Kitty Hawk, a statue and a restaurant filled with aviation memorabilia is completely in order.

The restaurant and motel are both owned by Johnny and Yvonne Peach, and the Coronado Motor Hotel holds the distinction of being the first accommodations in the state with rooms that were connected instead of individual cabins, ushering in the era of motels to Arizona.

After breakfast we met Yvonne at the Casa de Coronado Museum, located in the former lobby. How many motels, or even hotels, do you know of that have an on-site museum? The Coronado does, and the story behind it was just as unexpected as a place dedicated to transients with a permanent exhibit of its past.

Casa de Coronado Motor Hotel Museum
Casa de Coronado Motor Hotel Museum

In the early 1900s Johnny’s parents, John and Marie Peach, emigrated from Czechoslovakia through Ellis Island. Their first stop was Chicago, where John made a living as a tailor and Marie as a buttonhole maker, and when they moved to Yuma in 1916 he was the only tailor in town and Marie opened her own ladies fashion store. They became involved with hotels and in 1938 opened the Coronado Motor Hotel.

While the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, these immigrants were able to build and open a new accommodations concept. How? Construction of the Imperial Dam on the Colorado River meant there were workers that needed a place to stay, and so they opened the Coronado with rooms for $2 a night.

A few years later the hotel became one of the charter members of the Best Western chain, and they stayed with the chain until 2014, leaving so they could maintain their independence.

All of this, from hats sold in Marie’s shop, to their certificate from Ellis Island, to Best Western signage and magazines spanning decades, is contained in the museum inside the cottage that was the original lobby.

Johnny wanted to get rid of all of the old drek taking up space, but Yvonne had a different idea. He would travel every January, so when he was gone she would sort, and organize, and catalog, and hang. There’s an antique cash register, typewriter, phone, and phonograph. Suitcases that were found tucked away and covered with dust contained hats in pristine condition. There are piles of Best Western signs and a canister of matchbooks and Coronado-style furniture.

For five years, one month each year, she turned Johnny’s childhood home into a museum dedicated to everything his parents and he had created. It was a monumental effort and he had no idea until it was done.

If that’s not a love story, I don’t know what is.

Memorabilia at the Casa de Coronado Museum
Memorabilia at the Casa de Coronado Museum
Memorabilia at the Casa de Coronado Museum
Old Suitcases at the Casa de Coronado Museum

We thanked Yvonne for sharing her time, her story, and her home and headed east into the desert. We had a date with some dates.

Photo of Billy Lutes courtesy of Jim Goodrich

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